Snowpiercer: Next Stop, Class Warfare

The film now arriving on Blu-ray this week is Snowpiercer. UK Home media apologise for the delay, which was due to a taste failure from Harvey Weinstein.

I mean, there’s late and there’s very late. I actually think I’ve spent a similar amount of time waiting for Snowpiercer as I have waiting for the kind of class war it depicts. Filming wrapped on Bong Joon-ho’s loose adaptation of the dystopian French graphic novel series Le Transperceneige in July 2012 and it received its premiere in Joon-ho’s native South Korea a year later, on 29th July 2013. From there, Snowpiercer toured the film festival circuit in the US and Europe, catching the eye of the now-disgraced Weinstein, who acquired the rights for a North America and UK release providing significant cuts of around twenty minutes and the inclusion of top and tail monologues were made. Joon-ho baulked at the suggestion, and the film has chugged its way onto home media since 2014 where word of mouth secured a devoted cult following. It’s first real release to these shores however came in November 2018 – five years after its initial release – via Amazon Prime. It was subsequently (and all too briefly) available on UK Netflix in the spring/summer of 2019, but amazingly this is the first official UK Region 2 release to DVD/Blu-ray.

I suppose in some ways, the timing for this release now could not be better. Snowpiercer, with its single locked-down location and its post-apocalyptic vision, depicts a society in tumult where the lower classes are instructed that they must do as they’re told whilst the privileged elite flout those very rules which they personally impose to go on living more or less as before. Given that I watched this on the day the news broke that Boris Johnson’s special advisor, the odious Dominic Cummings repeatedly broke the government’s lockdown rules las month, it’s easy to view Snowpiercer as essentially being ‘The Tories View of Coronavirus: The Movie!’ Joon-ho’s film depicts a future which has seen an attempt to halt global warming via climate engineering end in catastrophe. As the world enters a new ice age, the last vestiges of humanity, the ‘lucky’ survivors, are herded onto the titular train, Snowpiercer, and forced to simply go round and round forevermore. Ostensibly an allegory, the film depicts how, even in the midst of the most extreme crisis imaginable, the strict laws of societal segregation must still be imposed and adhered to. Reclusive transport magnate Wilford (Ed Harris – Richard Branson must have been busy eh?) and his fellow elites reside at the front of the train in plush luxury, whilst the greater numbers – the poor – are living in squalid and oppressive conditions in the tail compartments, repeatedly cowed by armed guards and sustained by unappetising tar-black protein blocks whose origins are, as we eventually see, best not to consider. Weary of this tyranny and injustice, the perpetual passengers in the tail section plan a revolt led by hard-bitten Curtis (Chris Evans), his mischievous Irish sidekick, Edgar (Jamie Bell – good accent by the way) and John Hurt as their mentor, the wise old sage Gilliam – a name that surely owes a debt to the former Python Terry Gilliam whose film Brazil tipped its hat to George Orwell’s 1984, an adaptation by Michael Radford which Hurt himself, of course, had starred in. Taking on each carriage one by one, the ragtag revolutionaries must face a series of perilous challenges – including the duplicitous Minister Mason, Wilford’s spokesperson, wickedly played by Tilda Swinton with a comically thick Yorkshire accent and an Ayn Rand aesthetic as a kind of condescending promoted-behind-her-talents MP with a thick Yorkshire accent – and go on to form an uneasy alliance with the now jaded and drug-addicted designer of train’s security features, Namgoong Minsoo (the cool as f*ck Song Kang-ho) and his wide-eyed, clairvoyant teenage daughter Yona, played by Go Ah-sung. The impressive ensemble cast is rounded out by performances from Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner as parents whose respective children have been taken to work in the elite front section of the train by Wilford’s assistant, played by Emma Levie, Vlad Ivanov as a seemingly indestructible chief of security and, in a truly remarkable cameo, Alison Pill as a schoolteacher whose All American, Doris Day demeanour is comically peeled back to depict something far darker and more dangerous.

I had heard that one of the reasons that Wankstain, sorry Weinstein, had reservations over Snowpiercer was his belief that Korean directors had often struggled in making the move into English language movies. Now admittedly – and hold on to your tits here – this is my first experience with Director Bong, but I think he makes the transition with absolute ease. Assembling such an eclectic cast of actors, each from different backgrounds and traditions, and attempting to make them a believable and cohesive unit would be a daunting task for even a native English speaker, so it’s remarkable that he succeeds with seemingly little effort or struggle. He realises the surreal world of the eponymous train perfectly –  abetted by some incredible talents in the shape of costume designer Catherine George, production designer Ondřej Nekvasil, visual effects designer Eric Durst and Scanline VFX and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo – to deliver a truly striking and original piece of cinema that ultimately succeeds far more than it fails.

At its best, Snowpiercer reminds you of how important science fiction can be. The genre continues to serve as a warning that, if we were to step just a few inches in the wrong direction, our future as a civilisation may be put at great risk. The narrative may hang on a climate disaster, but the real nitty-gritty of Snowpiercer lies not in the threat our environment faces but in its parable on the class system. Owing a debt to JG Ballard and High-Rise, the film explores a similar metaphorical set-up that sees the lower reaches of its society in microcosm begin to rise up and demand a stake in the system as a whole. What Joon-ho ultimately presents us with is a darkly pessimistic conclusion that suggests the system can never be beaten, and that complicity between the classes based on the sanctity of ‘knowing your place’ must always exist. As a result, it’s a critical condemnation of supposed democracy and, whilst it is not subtle or indeed revelatory, it is oddly moving and is definitely thought-provoking; any film that may make previously apolitical audiences consider the world in a different light is commendable in my book. However, for me, the real enjoyment of the piece actually arises from the momentum and strength of purpose that the story displays in getting us to this moral. Ironically for a film about the progress of the tail section to the front of the train, I actually found that Snowpiercer‘s gifts are all more or less at the front end of the film, where the remarkable world is laid out with wickedly eccentric humour and spectacular visuals, including a particularly strong series of violent confrontations as the train relentlessly makes its way through the icebound frozen wastes and ominous tunnels. The more the film actually strove to reach its climax, the less engaged I became. That said, it’s a journey well worth taking and I am glad a wider UK audience can now climb aboard.

Extras include a look at the unique challenges faced in bringing the source material, Le Transperceneige, to the big screen, an animated prologue, a look at the characters and interviews with Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton.

Click on image to Buy Snowpiercer from Amazon (UK)



Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

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