The year is 2031. In a colossally failed attempt to combat global warming, scientists have accidentally launched the world into an inhospitable ice age. All forms of life freeze solid after just minutes of exposure to the murderously bitter cold. Humanity has narrowly escaped total extinction by clambering aboard a glorified choo-choo train. First class passengers who paid the exorbitant ticket prices live in luxury, but those who boarded the train on the conductor’s charity are sentenced to a life of greasy squalor in the tail. Of course, you can’t have a heavy-handed chrome allegory for the horrors of capitalism without revolution brewing in the caboose. Snowpiercer follows the inevitable uprising of the train’s tail passengers as they battle through a predictable and underwhelming thicket of dystopian tropes that writer and director Bong Joon-ho has Scotch-taped together.
Snowpiercer’s impressive cast is wasted on unoriginal imaginings of archetypal characters; there’s the wise but wizened leader of the revolution who supports the downtrodden outcasts as their calm but determined moral compass (John Hurt); his brooding and self-doubting superhunk of a successor who never asked for this responsibility but will no doubt rise to the occasion when the dramatic music calls for it (Chris Evans); a mysteriously absent evil dictator whose very existence is constantly in question (Ed Harris). Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, and Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer also join the gang as poorly-balanced sources of comic relief and gut-wrenching gravitas. These incredible actors may have poor choice in projects, but they deserve the utmost respect for giving Snowpiercer their all.
Every member of the cast throws themselves into making the most of Bong’s miserable script. The dialogue tries so hard to be profound that it becomes farcical. Chris Evans shows astonishing commitment to his ultimate dramatic monologue, a piece which requires him to gruffly choke out, “How can I lead if I have two good arms?” (Admirable John Hurt is missing an arm and a leg, so naturally Chris Evans is insecure about his bodily symmetry interfering with his leadership abilities.) The pacing of the script as a whole lulls the audience to sleep with car after car of isolated apocalyptic melodrama. Repetitive, excessive action sequences are poorly punctuated by waffling speeches made up of grandiose Orwellian metaphors. Tilda Swinton, for example, enthusiastically wades through a three-minute mire of unintelligible clothing, clock, and train metaphors just to drive home High School Musical’s classic message, “Stick to the status quo!”
Unfortunately, Bong sabotages the actors’ valiant go at his script with his confused direction. His actors exist in two different cinematic worlds that clash rather than coexist productively. The passengers in the train’s tail suffer in a filthy gray world of oppressive poverty, where actors are gruff and restrained and Bong films with stark handycam realism. The first class passengers exist in a flamboyant and garishly colored kingdom of exaggerated caricatures and Wes Anderson-inspired cartoonish cuts and frames. While tailoring cinematographic styles to further illustrate an irreparable dissonance between two societies is an intriguing concept, the two worlds in Snowpiercer confront each other far too early to establish and maintain differentiated artistic universes. When the two worlds collide, Bong arbitrarily and inconsistently chooses which cinematographic style will dominate each particular scene.
Individual scenes somewhat redeem Snowpiercer. Bong’s fight scenes are self-indulgent in their length and abuse of slow-motion, but generally entertaining and visually stunning. Before a battle between the first-class soldiers and rebellious tail passengers breaks out, the armored warriors ritualistically coat their blades in the blood of a fresh fish, laughing in the face of the starving men before them. The audience discovers the true horror of the conductor’s brainwashing dictatorship when a classroom full of sunny students chants their worship of the train that makes sure they don’t “all freeze and die!” Unfortunately, little outside of the remaining living protagonists ties these genuinely trilling clips together. Bong floods his audience with intriguing dystopian snapshots, but forgets that a two-hour epic should probably have some semblance of a through-line.
In order to maximize its cynical dystopian street cred, Snowpiercer condemns all avenues available to humanity. It offers no alternatives. Global warming is destroying our environment, but trying to combat the ecological disaster plunges the world into a frigid apocalypse. Capitalists build evil trains of oppression, but Marxists eat each other. The result is an unproductive narrative with no apparent objective other than reminding people of their ability to screw up. Bong haphazardly interrupts the incessant bleakness of Snowpiercer with the occasional sensationalized, sentimental Band-Aid of iconic imagery: a child running a blazing torch to the hopeless rebels lost in darkness; a teenager valiantly sacrificing himself for the cause in slow motion; a dying parent finding final solace in a crumpled picture of their lost child. In short, Snowpiercer is a masturbatory exercise in dystopia. Bong sacrifices storytelling and character development in favor of contrived apocalyptic imagery that spells out doom for humanity in giant crayon letters.
However, if you can somehow ignore the nihilist didacticism that’s thrown at you like an especially cynical rotten tomato, Snowpiercer can be hilarious. Its ludicrous excess of doom and gloom is too reductive and cheesy to successfully bum anyone out about the future of mankind. But if you stop listening and just admire the sheer effort it took to indiscriminately critique every facet of humanity on a train, Snowpiercer can be to dystopia as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is to drama: an undeniably entertaining train wreck. Snowpiercer has the potential to be a titan of unintentional comedy with its Swiss cheese plot and locomotive setting. If we ignore its petulant and childish demands to be taken seriously, Snowpiercer becomes an absolutely artful spoof of every dystopian trope in film and television history.
A movie to laugh at rather than listen to