World building is hard. Crafting a fully functioning cinematic universe complete with a visually unique setting and multi-dimensional characters is without a doubt one of the most difficult tasks to ask of a filmmaker. Just ask Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho. With Snowpiercer, his adaptation of French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, he attempted to do just that. He got half of it right.
The film gets its title from the impossibly long transcontinental train that encloses the few remaining members of humanity in the wake of global warming fix gone wrong, a misguided plan explained in detail through needlessly expository voice overs and title cards. The tail section of the Snowpiercer is comprised of a few hundred impoverished, downtrodden individuals, most of whom haven’t seen daylight in the 17 years since the planet was blanketed in ice. Chris Evans is Curtis, the de facto leader of the tail, who, after half a lifetime of starvation-fueled misery, rallies support to take over the train and confront the Snowpiercer‘s engineer, Wilford.
Snowpiercer is really two movies in one, only one of which truly works. Viewed strictly on the surface level, Bong Joon-Ho has constructed a downright thrilling action movie in the vein of The Raid. The linear train setting allows for maximum anticipatory tension as the protagonists and the audience waits with bated breath for whatever lies in wait in each new compartment. Joon-Ho keeps Curtis and his compatriots moving through the train at a crisp pace, never lingering unnecessarily on any one compartment. Also, like fellow Korean filmmaker Chan Wook-Park, Joon-Ho is an action set piece master. The tail inhabitants’ clash with a group of blade-wielding masked men harkens back to the legendary tracking shot in Oldboy. It’s a skillfully choreographed battle with a Tilda Swinton-orchestrated twist that amps the tension up to 11. Quick Swinton aside – We all know how vast her range is, but to go from such a subdued and nuanced performance in Only Lovers Left Alive to such a bombastic and downright funny turn here as Wilford’s go-between is highly impressive. Her goofy glasses and false teeth shrieking cowardice is a welcome injection of humor in a movie largely devoid of it. Other exhilarating sequences include an impromptu classroom gunfight and a stand off with an enormous, iron block swinging guard. What could be standard action scenes are permeated with an air of unpredictability, and Joon-Ho is not afraid to do away with seemingly key characters at any given time.
If Joon-Ho had stuck with that formula and allowed Snowpiercer to be a straight action thriller, it would have been a satisfying, albeit unambitious, experience. Unfortunately, Joon-Ho’s ambition got the better of him in this case. Looking to duplicate the social class warfare commentary of the source material, Joon-Ho dedicates significant portions of the script to a vague population control plot carried out by Wilford and his minions in order to maintain a sort of precise ecosystem aboard the train. This line of thinking is never truly fleshed out in any meaningful way throughout the film, and by the time our hero reaches the mysterious Wilford at the front of the train, the audience just doesn’t care about any of their underlying motivations. Social commentary in an action thriller is fine, but when it’s simply tacked on like this, what’s the point?
The same can be said for the vast majority of the characters, and this goes back to the complete world-building that Joon-Ho ultimately falls short at. Even the characters with ample screentime (Chris Evans, John Hurt’s Gilliam and Jamie Bell’s Edgar) don’t develop into anything more than composite characters whose motivations don’t expand far beyond “Well, our life is pretty crappy in the tail of this train, so I guess we should do something about that.” Is it enough for the audience to get behind? Sure. Especially considering the talent level and screen presence of those involved (Octavia Spencer is excellent, as well), but it would have been nice if every character, or at least Chris Evans’, who we only really learn about through clumsy monologue in the third act, was as full-formed as that of Tilda Swinton.
On its face, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer is a fulfilling action experience driven by creative fight sequences set in a variety of visually exciting locations. Joon-Ho is a master of tension and the uneasy path he leads his characters and his audience down never fails to surprise and entertain. If one can get past the clunky characterization and ham-fisted social metaphors that have, unfortunately, become far too common in the genre, Snowpiercer can be a more than satisfying journey.