“Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position”.
“A blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot”, says character Wilford in Snowpiercer. That is what this film, directed by Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, also is. In this story, there is one post-apocalyptic world and one “self-sustaining” train makes it rounds around the world. On board are human survivors who are divided into strict social groups with one unfair regime governing them all. At the bottom of the social ladder (and the train), one can find the poor masses who are dressed in rags and survive on protein bars, and, at the top, there is the elite, consisting of a few individuals who ruthlessly preside over the masses, while enjoying the luxuries of life. When one man from the bottom of the train sparks the rebellious spirit in the masses, he does not even begin to imagine the complicated way to the top of the train nor what awaits him as he nears the real power propelling the train forward. Snowpiercer is not one’s ordinary action or sci-fi film; wrapped in philosophical reflections and delicately balancing humour and horror, and realistic action and allegory, the film defies expectations, requiring both a leap of faith and open-mindedness from the audience.
The situation on the train in Snowpiercer has been linked to the journey of Odysseus or to Noah’s Ark, and it is fair to say that it is a not-so-thinly disguised satire on the society and social classes. Bong Joon-ho, a sociologist first, knows only too well how to present a class-based society in such a way that demonstrates its paradoxes to the fullest. On the train in Snowpiercer, we find the leader Wilford (Ed Harris) at the very front of the train, the elite headed by Mason (Tilda Swinton) in the executive position, and the rest at the very bottom of the train, barely surviving in terrible conditions. There are punishments devised for those at the bottom who are dissatisfied with their place, and, from time to time, a child is chosen from the masses (“sacrificed”) to perform a ritual in order that the population can continue their train journey (a hint on the philosophy of utilitarianism).
Bong Joon-ho knows the power of contrasts in a film, and to say that his film changes directions is not to say anything. As the rebellion intensifies on the train and a few passengers at the back start making their way to the front, we are forced to reverse our expectations what this film would be all about – what starts as some Con Air -type claustrophobia on the train ends up to be something unfathomably dystopian and unexpected, and one train compartment after another dazzles with the unexpected. The preoccupation of the upper classes with dancing, beautiful dresses and other frivolousness is contrasted with the masses’ painful existence, addiction and hunger (there is even a hint of Tarkovsky’s Stalker  in the image of two drug addicts fighting with each other to death right at the door of “heaven”). Much like a rollercoaster also, we just do not know what to expect next and should be prepared for horror, gore, beauty, comedy, all in equal measure. It is surprising that something as bizarre as this would work in any film, but it does here, and, what is more, the film then starts to satirise the war, history itself, as well as the human strive for societal leadership.
However, not everything hits right spots in Snowpiercer: not all humour sits well with other elements in the film, including moments of distress and gore. Some action sequences are also edited too fast to be enjoyable, and I have an unpopular opinion that Chris Evans in the lead is a poor choice (since he appears so weak, pathetic and almost unsympathetic). On the other hand, the film has a strange pathos to it – that kind that I have only seen in one other sci-fi film before – Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element . The minor characters also shine: wonderful Tilda Swinton steals the show as the domineering Mason, and John Hurt and Octavia Spencer are also very good.
Similar to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Snowpiercer is a mix of something unfathomable, subversive, thought-provoking and thrilling. The genius of Bong Joon-ho is on full display in this film as only he can present such deep sociological themes in an entertaining format with such ease, fusing humour and horror to a delightful result and making something subtle and meaningful feel all-encompassing and even realistic. Snowpiercer is a well-designed ride into the unknown, even if the reward at the end is not really the one we have been expecting. 8/10