Modern Times: Snowpiercer (2013)
Snowpiercer is now playing at the Bell TIFF Lightbox and available for rent through iTunes.
On the surface, Snowpiercer doesn’t sound all that different from the pack of post-apocalyptic dystopian features that are so en vogue right now: some time has passed since an apocalyptic event that destroyed life as we know it on earth, but a number of survivors have re-established some form of society, complete with twisted and usually dark and violent class structure.
In Snowpiercer, that apocalyptic event is a man-made ice age caused by a chemical intended to reverse global warming, and that society rebuilt on violence and exaggerated inequality lives aboard a train in perpetual motion around the world. The train is run by its designer and engineer, Wilford, who lives alone in the engine and is worshipped as a benevolent leader by the first-class passengers, who live in luxury in the cars immediately behind the engine. Back in the tail section, though, the third-class passengers live in absolute desolation: cold, hungry, and overcrowded.
It’s dark, both in tone and its excellent use of color. The bleak color palette of the tail-section world contrasts with the brightly-colored front section, and it’s all reminiscent of their graphic novel source material. Bright swaths of red in the blood on an axe or the contents of a protein block (the sole food source doled out to tail-sectioners) are an odd source of relief: the film is so beautifully-shot and color so richly used that it provides a momentary respite from the horrors on-screen.
Every shot, and every line in Snowpiercer is important. Sure, that’s the way a solid movie should be made, but how often is that true? It is here though, from Mason’s (Tilda Swinton) monologue about the on-board aquarium being a closed ecosystem they have to keep in balance (that one is a bit on the nose; it’s obvious the train is also its own ecosystem) to the way Curtis (Chris Evans) shrugs off Edgar’s (Jamie Bell) idolization. It’s played then as Curtis’s reluctance to be a hero, but there’s a reason he doesn’t think he’s worthy of Edgar’s admiration in particular.
Snowpiercer features an impressive cast for a film that fought tooth and nail for wide release in North America: in addition to Evans, Bell and Swinton, it stars Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and Ed Harris, as well as South Korean actors Park Gang-doo and Ah-sung Ko, both of whom have starred in Korean-language films by director Joon-ho Bong. It’s the director’s first mostly-English-language film, and even though it still isn’t in wide-release in Canada, it’s absolutely worth the extra effort to seek it out. It is brutal and uncomfortable, but it will demand a second viewing.