SNOWPIERCER **** South Korea / Czech Republic 2013 Dir: Bong Joon Ho. 126 mins
A typically spry multi-layered social satire from one of the world’s most consistent genre filmmakers, this fell victim to Weinstein tampering and, after a spotty release around the world, only arrived on disc in the UK following Bong Joon Ho’s deserved crossover success with the thematically similar PARASITE and Netflix’s TV remake. It posits a grim, credible near-future: the world’s powers released a substance named CW-7 to control climate change, effectively freezing the world and ending humanity. In the year 2031, survivors board a luxury, self-sustaining “rattling ark” locomotive that traverses rail lines around the frozen world. A millionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris) occupies his self-created “sacred engine” room while the rest of the train is divided into classes, with the lower echelons living in squalor at the back on a diet of dubious “protein” bars, under the iron rule of Thatcher-substitute Tilda Swinton. Lower class leaders Chris Evans, John Hurt and Jamie Bell know their only chance for survival is to make their way to the front of the train, hijack the engine and control the precious water a few carriages up.
Constantly reiterating the need for everyone to know their place and using a familiar range of condescending slurs (“scum”, “freeloaders”, “filthy inbreds”) for those beneath her, Swinton sports an Iron Lady temperament and Janet Street Porter teeth in a magnificent portrait of an all too credible leader. The great international cast also affords Evans the chance to portray a compelling, flawed hero, conveying a simmering toughness alongside reflections on the grimmest point of his last 17 years on the train: “I know babies taste best…” If the movie is guilty at times of spelling out everything in case we miss the point, it superbly balances spectacle with the kind of dystopian, ideas-driven sci-fi narrative Hollywood used to make in the 1970’s. The attention to detail crafts a vivid future existence: glimpses of fallen, frozen cities from the window, protein blocks made from insects, a character addicted to industrial waste. Like all of Joon Ho’s films, it masterfully juggles a tone veering from violent clashes with ski-masked guards to fish based slapstick, jarring cruelty and genuine pathos. There’s an astonishing sequence in a marvellously hideous schoolroom of brainwashed kids, and a chilling climactic confrontation with Harris’ engine room puppet master. Calmly tucking into his luxury steak, he calmly offers a reminder that humanity is merely the perfect number of people taking their rightful place in the pecking order.
Review by Steven West