Western society be damned if Bong Joon-Ho’s originally unblemished, un-Weinsteined version of his apocalyptic sci-fi opus Snowpiercer doesn’t make it to cinemas. Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein, as we now brand him, may have trimmed a reported 20-minute cut and an additional expository narration at the film’s prologue, but the South Korean director’s official cut as he initially envisioned it to be has been unveiled in Berlin Film Festival to exceptional reception. The wild chatter, the unyielding talk about a purported ‘masterpiece’ is no empty hype – and it won’t show any sign of abatement soon. For Snowpiercer is, pound-by-pound and scene-by-scene, an enthralling, brilliantly executed piece of allegorical sci-fi cinema with a hard-hitting muscle and a brain to match. Whatever part Harvey’s been tinkering with, it’s unjustified. His reason being is that the film is ‘too intelligent’ for the general American audience. Seriously, Harvs – the world is a far better place without people like you dumbing it down.
Free from an opening exposition except a few succinct lines about mankind’s cause of extinction, we’re plunged straight away into the tail compartment of the titular hulking mass of a train. The film doesn’t bother to elucidate how the world’s last remaining survivors ended up in this highly advanced ‘Rattling Ark’ before the entire Earth froze solid – it’s left to our imaginations. Bong is not a novelist, and we are not idiots who need all the explaining for everything we see on screen. In brief, mankind has launched a chemical substance CW7 into the atmosphere to alleviate global warming only to inflict a reverse reaction, turning us all into icy popsicles, except for a precious few.
There’s a structural gambit at the core of Bong’s vision – how does one create an entirely convincing scenario of the last remaining humanity stuck in a perpetually running train? The answer is to replicate the world as we know it. Every strata of our society is reflected in the way the train is constructed, commencing with the oppressed cattle class and each carriage ahead becoming increasingly equipped and more opulent than the last – as though Fritz Lang’s tower in Metropolis has been laid out horizontally on the ground, the penthouse for the ruling class being the front end. Aside from a direct adaptation of the French graphic novel La Transperceneige, this lifts inspirations from sources as diverse as the French Revolution, George Orwell, the German master Lang and sci-fi luminary works of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (John Hurt’s character here is named Gilliam, natch). Snowpiercer is a classic tale of class uprising, metaphorically squeezing man’s struggle in a claustrophobic setting. The train itself is a microcosm of the world.
Bong executes this proletariat revolt with clever progression and grand design, with an element of surprise. The camera forbids going beyond what our ragtag group of insurrectionists (Chris Evans leading an international posse comprising of Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Luke Pasqualino, and Kang Ho-song and Ah-sung Ko, who both collaborated with Bong’s previous monster mash The Host) encounters with each carriage. You’ll never know what lies ahead, adding more riveting anticipation to the film’s pace. Bong uses this narrative design to strategically deliver set-pieces of escalating danger and pulse-pounding action, without muting down the socio-political metaphors – from Tilda Swinton’s mediator-cum-ultra-reactionary-politician Minister Monroe (the film’s most spectacularly scene-chewing performer) to Alison Pill’s propaganda-spinning schoolteacher and ultimately the mythical industrialist Wilford, the corporate overlord who runs the entire train show.
Most characters are very well fleshed out, but its really Evans who surprises here. An actor of hitherto mediocre talents, his protagonist is an everyman in an extraordinary situation, rising to the occasion of humanity’s fight for equality and survival, and Evans play revolutionary leader Curtis with ordinary functionality – holding the character’s arc right until a specific revealing moment which will make you rethink of Evans as an actor. It’s his best work so far, providing so much ethical weight to the character’s cause. This is why Snowpiercer excels so much as a Grade A blockbuster because it never treats its characters secondary to plot. It dazzles us ceaselessly with the dynamics of action, but also makes us truly care for the humans involved and the philosophical and ontological reasons for their rebellion. Because there is something always worth fighting for – it’s both as simple and complex as that.