The Misplaced Optimism of the Doomed

I’ve watched Snowpiercer twice now, and both times after it was over I was so in awe of it that I could barely get my thoughts together. It’s an awesome, awesome movie, one of my favorite films of the last few years. Any sci-fi fan would be insane not to check it out.

But, as I tend to do, I’m getting ahead of myself. Snowpiercer is a film by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, which was made in 2013 and released in 2014 (I think). It’s based on a French graphic novel wonderfully titled Le Transperceneige (I guess it’s true that everything really does sound better in French).

snowpiercer poster

It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but it is a post-apocalyptic story that is completely unlike any other post-apocalyptic story you have ever seen or heard of. In the future, an attempt to halt global warming goes catastrophically wrong and the entire planet becomes a frozen wasteland, killing nearly all life on Earth. The only survivors live on a massive train called the Snowpiercer, which travels the world on a track which spans the globe and is powered by a perpetual-motion engine. The inhabitants in the front of the train are the elites who live a life of luxury, while the inhabitants of the train’s tail section live in squalor.

In 2031, seventeen years after the world froze, the inhabitants of the tail section have had enough. They are sick of eating slimy, disgusting-looking protein blocks and of having some of their children taken away. They are sick of living in squalor and the strong-arm tactics of the guards. They are planning something. The breaking point comes when one man’s son is taken and he snaps and attacks the guards. As punishment, they stick his arm out of an opening in the train, and after a few minutes his arm is frozen solid, and is then struck with a hammer and shattered into pieces.

The leader of the tail section, Curtis Everett (played fantastically by Chris Evans) has theorized that the guards’ guns have no bullets, because they used them all in subduing a previous uprising by the tail sectioners some years ago. In the heat of the moment, he decides to test this theory: he strides forward, grabs the barrel of one guard’s rifle, puts it to his own temple, and squeezes the trigger: the gun clicks. It is empty. The revolution is on.

snowpiercer no bullets

From there, the film follows Curtis and his followers as they battle their way through the train. Their objective is to reach the front of the train and confront the mysterious Wilford, the man who built the train and is the caretaker of the Sacred Engine. I’m not going to give away too many more details about the plot, since this is a film that really needs to be experienced by everyone, and the experience is so much better if you don’t know what’s coming.

And chances are good that you will have no idea what is coming next. I certainly didn’t, the first time I experienced this film. And that aspect is one of the things that make it such a great movie: its unpredictability and its originality go hand-in-hand. Its setting is completely unlike any other movie I have ever seen, which lends itself to a brilliantly unpredictable story. This is a movie that is so different from any other movie out there. There is something new in every scene of this film, it is chock-full of surprises. Every time Curtis and his followers open a door into a new area of the train, the suspense is palpable as the viewer has no more idea what will be on the other side of the massive door than the characters do.

And how would you feel if the door opened, and these guys were on the other side?

snowpiercer mask dudes

Yeah. Me too.

And that brings me to another point: the violence. Snowpiercer is a brutal movie, and will not be to every viewer’s taste. The fight between those guys and Curtis and his followers is incredibly brutal, but also beautiful in an odd way. The way it is filmed makes it easy to follow what is happening, and the vicious crunchy sound effects of the axes hitting flesh are cringe-inducing. But despite that, the most violent parts are largely unseen. Blood splatters against the windows, but there are no shots of axes graphically entering bodies or anything like that. What I’m trying to say is that it’s brutal but also restrained, which if anything enhances the brutality, since, as we all know, the images we conjure in our own minds are far worse than anything the film can actually show us.

I would hesitate to call Snowpiercer an action film. I think of the fight scenes as fight scenes and not action scenes, since to me action scenes are meant to be entertaining. The bloody battles in Snowpiercer are not exactly fun to watch, and they’re not meant to be. This is violence, not action violence. The combatants in Snowpiercer’s brawls aren’t trained fighters, they’re normal people fighting for their very survival, and nobody pulls any punches.

snowpiercer fight

And even though I wouldn’t call Snowpiercer an action movie, I would definitely call it a thriller, for one very simple reason: it is absolutely thrilling throughout. The movie is heart-pounding throughout. The train the film takes place on is always in motion, so too is the film’s momentum. It just never lets up. Even in its quieter moments, everything feels important and the film always feels like it’s building towards something. The pacing is flawless.

And despite the film’s bleak, brutal nature, it is also full of strikingly beautiful imagery: the glimpses the film gives of the frozen, ruined world beyond the train are haunting and evocative.

snowpiercer world

This is a concept that easily could have been completely botched. In the wrong hands, this film could have been a melodramatic, far-fetched, cheesy disaster, but it isn’t. It’s none of those things. Director Bong Joon-Ho nails the film’s tone, he keeps it serious and never veers into camp. I never had the slightest problem suspending my disbelief at any point in this film, I was completely immersed the entire time. Watch this film and the outside world will disappear. You will live in the train with the characters, the train is their entire world and it will be yours as well the entire time you are watching it.

The performances are another huge part of what makes the film work so well. The cast includes well-known actors such as Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, and Jamie Bell, all of whom lose themselves completely in their roles and are 100% believable. Swinton in particular is just awesome (has she ever given a bad performance? I can’t think of one). “My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed,” she tells Curtis before the epic brawl with the masked, axe-wielding warriors pictured above, and if chills don’t run down your spine at that moment, then you’re probably a robot incapable of feeling emotion. Another memorable supporting turn comes from Korean actor Song Kang-Ho, who makes a big impression with his quiet, steely resolve and sarcastic sense of humor, despite all of his dialogue being in Korean.

And I saved the best performance for last: Chris Evans. Man oh man, Chris Evans. I think Snowpiercer will go down as his finest moment. He is just awesome. He is of course best known for playing Captain America (which he also does extremely well) but his character in Snowpiercer is a far cry from the All-American heroism of Steve Rogers. Curtis is a heroic but tortured soul, and you can feel his pain as he loses more and more friends along his journey.

And he gets one scene near the end of the film where we find out his backstory that is completely heartbreaking. Curtis tells his story and the camera stays on him the entire time, there are no flashbacks. It stays completely in the moment as Curtis spills his guts, and Evans’ performance in that moment is just phenomenal, some of the most intimate, soul-baring, just completely devastating acting I have ever seen. Evans may be best known as a superhero, but he has so much range. I really hope he gets a chance to flex his acting muscles again in the future, because he knocks this one right out of the park.

Alright, I’m done now. I hope it wasn’t too tiring to listen to me gush about a movie for 1,400 words, but it’s been a while since I responded to a film so strongly. I really can’t recommend Snowpiercer highly enough, every moment of it for me is unforgettable. It’s dark and violent and I’m sure you could poke holes in the story if you really wanted to, but it is completely unique, brilliantly acted, has some beautiful visuals, and is utterly thrilling throughout. There are many more things I could say about this film (I haven’t even mentioned the scene in the school car, which is jaw-dropping), but for now I’ve said enough.

Go watch Snowpiercer. You’ll never forget it.