Directed and co-written by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, and loosely inspired by a French comic, the film is a beautiful piece of cinema with a rich sci-fi aesthetic. Set on a train carrying the remnants of humanity on an endless tour of a post-apocalyptic frozen globe, Bong delivers a relentless, claustrophobic thriller as characters are propelled from the squalid back of the train to its ultra-luxe front. He offers an outstanding example of how to depict on-screen brutality and horror without resorting to an exploitative pornography of violence. Less enthralling are occurrences ripped from horror movie tropes, like the killer who is stabbed and strangled to death, but conveniently revived in time to walk a long distance and still have enough stamina for a climatic fight. Also convenient, but random: the spontaneous transformation, also in time for the film’s denouement, of idle drug-addicted youth into an escaped gang from A Clockwork Orange.
Much ado has been made of the cast’s excellence, ably centered on Chris Evans who gets to be pleasingly grubby in contrast to his squeaking Captain America, along with Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung in the film’s most interesting roles of a seemingly drug-addicted security specialist and his inexplicably clairvoyant daughter. But it would take a singularly incompetent director, which Bong most certainly isn’t, to extract a bad performance from a cast that includes titans Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris. The trouble is that they aren’t given characters to inhabit; only cartoons or, more accurately, stereotypes: Swinton as the evil bureaucrat, Hurt as the wise old man, and Harris as the amoral visionary entrepreneur.
Whatever its technical merits, the film is ridiculous the moment it articulates its premise: after the world unleashes a chemical in the atmosphere to counteract global warming and accidentally freezes life to extinction, a small sample of humanity survives in a train intended to work as a perpetual motion machine. The logistics of keeping a train in running condition in the absence of raw materials and sustainable manufacturing facilities are dubious at best, a thorny problem compounded by the logistics of keeping the tracks, bridges, and tunnels in serviceable condition when it’s too cold to venture outside. But really: what kind of solution is a train to the problem of a deep freeze? This isn’t science-fiction: it’s whimsy, and it isn’t helped by a poorly thought-out extrapolation. Also lacking is a credible presentation of how the train functions. As we follow Chris Evan’s rebel leader from the back of the train to the engine, where the Snowpiercer’s creator and supreme leader resides, Bong gives us a sequence of set pieces in service of video game leveling-up, some of which are dazzling indeed. We have to assume that there are cars we don’t see serving necessary functions, but the film’s illusion is on shaky grounds when we have to stop and wonder about pedestrian details like where the food cattle is kept, where crops would be grown to feed the cattle, and so on.
Bad science-fiction could be convincingly passed off as charming fantasy if it served a greater purpose, such as Snowpiercer’s political allegory of class warfare. Unfortunately, the allegory is not only a heavy blunt instrument; it fails to grasp even the basics except for a palpable anger directed towards elites. Classically, the scenario would be that the rich exploit the poor’s labour to support their own political power and luxury lifestyle. In Snowpiercer, the tail section’s violently oppressed peasantry don’t even serve as labour, merely as breeding stock. Children are occasionally taken from their parents; figuring out their fates isn’t difficult when we reach the end of train without having seen any sign of them.
Even naïve allegory layered on a silly, implausible premise could be overlooked if the film positioned itself as an air-popped blockbuster that gleefully marches to the predictable beats of the action movie rhythm. It might make for dumb fun, but at least it would be fun. The film’s ending, however, derails even that simple pleasure. The first problem involves Song Kang-ho’ security specialist who, after years of watching an outside plane’s wreckage become increasingly exposed, believes it’s safe for humanity to venture outside the train and begin living in the world again. But either he is an idiot, or the filmmakers have yet again failed to think their ideas through, as the obvious plan – stopping the train in a safe place, and then opening a door – is replaced by the decision to blow a hole in the side of the train. The next problem involves Chris Evan’s character, a rebel leader with an outrageously po-faced tragic backstory, whose biggest contribution to the climax is being subjected to a monologue by Ed Harris’ villain that would make The Incredibles’ Syndrome proud. Spouting nonsense about the order of things and eternal engines, Harris’ Wilford makes a compelling case that the train’s elites are just as insane in their power as the tail enders are mad with inhuman poverty. Wilford retroactive explanation for the film’s events, echoing the Architect’s speech from The Matrix Reloaded, could certainly support this perspective. His view of the film’s events, lacking corroborating evidence, inspires just the sort of true-or-false ambiguity a thoughtful rather than arbitrary script would have exploited to present a serious, universal case of cabin fever.
This all culminates in a train wreck that essentially kills everyone aboard, except for two survivors, whom Bong films venturing out of the wreckage into an idyllic snowy scene punctuated by the appearing of a polar bear. That’s right: the deep freeze didn’t kill all planetary life. What the survivors can do, however, without resources and without any hope for the future is left unexplained, marking the ending as deceitful storytelling. Had the film any semblance of courage in its convictions, the cynical ending could have capped off a moral that even after a global disaster, humanity would still be too selfish and stupid to pull itself together for a progressive purpose. But the sunshine and faux-hopefulness is dishonest and deflating, begging the question as to why it was necessary to watch the film in the place.
Cabin in the Woods, by comparison, ends the world honestly. Unlike the usual horror movie trope that simply denies heroes their triumphs, Whedon and Goddard’s ending is the result of a deliberate choice by traumatized characters that have lost faith in humanity. There’s an emotional resonance to the character’s choice. Snowpiercer is ultimately too glib, saying one thing while doing another, a disconnect between script and direction.