If this were a mere review, I would not bother to go through the pains and suspense of giving you my final verdict. “Go and watch Snowpiercer” would be my inevitable conclusion. Seriously, go watch it. It’s on Netflix so you have no excuse.
Instead, I will attempt to explain exactly why so many people seem to be going gaga over this film. Sure, there have been some dissenting opinions, but for the vast majority of movie goers who love a good popcorn flick, Snowpiercer has hit a certain sweet spot. Here is why…
Right off the bat, the first thing I would compliment about this film is its visuals. Korean director Bong Joon-Ho already proved his chops with the excellent horror movie The Host. In that particular film, he was adept at framing his subjects perfectly within the rectangular screen format, creating interesting compositions with his actors and scenery.
While Snowpiercer loses some of this compositional sensibility, it retains The Host’s gorgeous use of color. Just like in that film, Snowpiercer manages to make the most out of a carefully-selected color pallette.
The result is a scene that is supposed to be filled with muted, dirty browns and blacks still manages to feel awash in color. Yellows, greens, purples — Bong extracts as much beauty out of mundane subjects as possible. Yes, much of this prismatic effect is owed to digital color correction, but even without post-processing you can tell that Bong is very selective about his scenery, costumes, and lighting when it comes to color.
Bong also knows how to stage an interesting scene. High points of the film are all memorable because of Bong’s careful attention to detail. Each train car represents a different facet of our technological society, and each one is awash in radically different tones and textures.
A Great Genre Piece
So, some of you may be wondering, “What is the movie about?” This reaction is similar to how my friend felt when I was trying to explain The Host to him. I was so busy gushing about Bong’s creativity and talent that I was disinterested in describing the plot.
Well, here goes: after an experimental chemical for combatting global warming goes haywire, everyone on Earth dies from the cold except for a few people who live on a train. The train uses kinetic energy to keep its occupants warm, and self-sustaining systems to keep everyone alive.
This simple, two-sentence plot is what hooked me into the movie. It is simultaneously awe-inspiring and goofy. Unsurprisingly, these two contrasting words can sum up the experience of watching the film.
Snowpiercer is best described as an action film in a sci-fi/fantasy post-apocalyptic setting. It jumps around between these modes rather flippantly, even throwing small doses of dark humor into the mix.
If you have watched The Host, this approach to the material should be unsurprising. That movie avoided a lot of horror movie cliches and managed to make a monster movie feel fresh and unpredictable.
However, Snowpiercer plays the action genre a bit more straight. We get heroes and villains, and people are going to have to punch and stab each other in order to resolve the plot. Bong manages to hit all of the necessary high points without the film feeling too wrote or played out. He also makes his calculated use of violence feel visceral and gruesome rather than mere flavoring for an action scene.
In fact, he sets a rather breakneck pace for the film, which echoes the rules and patterns of its setting wonderfully.
The world of Snowpiercer is utterly unique. It contains trappings of genre mainstays — such as an unhappy underclass being oppressed by an Orwellian social structure — but like The Host we separate ourselves from other genre stories to the point that we become completely invested in the world we are provided.
Since the entirety of Snowpiercer is set on one train, you may wonder how an audience would not become fatigued. This problem never happens because Bong’s stellar direction places us inside the shoes of his characters, so that when we journey with them from one train car to another, everything feels surprising.
We start in the rear of the train, with the “Tail-Enders,” the lower class citizens of the titular train’s microcosmic society. They get generally shat upon by the upper class, who only venture to the rear of the train to get a head count, remind the Tail-Enders who is in charge, and occasionally kidnap one of their children for unknown purposes.
When Captain America, I mean Curtis Everett decides he’s had enough, we finally escape the tail end and go on a journey further along the train. The goal is the engine room, which Everett believes will help his revolution succeed where others have failed.
As Everett gets closer to the front of the train, he begins to experience things he has not seen in years. Since you, the audience, have been limited to viewing the back of the train, these are also things you have not seen for a solid twenty minutes.
For instance, when Everett reaches a train car with operable windows, he and the audience gets their first taste of sunlight in quite some time. Thanks to Bong’s impeccable use of color, the light floods the frame and along with the characters we as viewers feel mutually blinded.
Similar events occur as Everett moves forward, discovering animals, plants, and other such things that were long thought extinct. Because Bong has us so invested in the setting, these new introductions elicit a genuine sense of wonder and surprise.
Other moments have everyone halt their bloody fracas to brace for the train’s impact, or to celebrate the New Year. Little moments like these help sell the world and convince us that the characters have maybe spent a bit too much time indoors.
World-Building and Allegory
Also owing to the setting, the stakes are obvious and infinitely high in Snowpiercer. Every death feels reluctant because there are so few humans left. Making it a few feet closer to the front cabins likewise feels like a million miles.
Bong’s excellent use of the graphic novel Le Transperceneige effectively communicates both the importance and futility of each character’s actions. We want them to succeed, but in the back of our minds we also know that humanity is pretty screwed no matter what.
Snowpiercer’s microcosm has caused many to point out the obvious allegorical potential for the film. I would personally not suggest reading too deeply into every facet of the story, but nevertheless the main components are there.
We have people with a lot of resources and comfort who generally mistreat those who have nothing. The obvious nature of the disparity is hammered home when something like a hard-boiled egg feels remarkable to Everett, yet commonplace to the upper-class residents of the front end.
Furthermore, while I won’t spoil the ending the conductor’s wanton disregard for human life and painfully-obvious God complex also serves as a great lampooning of those who control our economic capital.
Of course, since the movie can dip from gut-wrenching violence to outright silliness, looking too closely could cause the whole conceptual metaphor to unravel.
Despite this effect, the film still leaves you with a lot to ponder. Movies where not everything works out for every character just beg to be played over and over again in your head, wondering how scenarios could have been different.
Snowpiercer’s tendency towards nihilism even leaves you feeling a bit down-trodden after finishing it. Yet, I would say films that require you to mull them over instead of merely forgetting them after a happy ending are the ones more worth watching. It also doesn’t hurt when they’re entertaining as hell.
Bottom line: Go watch Snowpiercer. The director may think that all Americans talk like cowboys and he may go a little over-the-top, but the film will linger with you much more so than most other action flicks. A haunting setting, and excellent visuals — particularly during two of the most exciting and memorable reveals I’ve recently seen — make Snowpiercer one of a kind. It will go off the rails a bit, but in a way that is pure, dark fun.
Jarrod Lipshy is a UGA English alumnus and freelance content writer. He collects old video games and is a fanboy of post-apocalyptic settings.