Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’

An allegory with ax fights

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, Snowpiercer, is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world where the only survivors live on a train that is hundreds of cars long. Most of the passengers are stuffed into the cramped and squalid rear of the train, a large contingent of security officers keeping them in check, while the elites enjoy food, fun, and a variety of pleasures in the front of the train. The movie works as both a gripping summer action movie and an Animal Farm-esque allegory for both the capitalist world order and the failed 20th-century revolutionary attempts to co-opt it.

Not an impenetrable art house flick: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Octavia Spencer in "Snowpiercer." (Photo © 2013 - RADiUS/TWC )

Presumably it’s the latter bit that made distributor Harvey Weinstein demand Bong cut the 126-minute film by 20 minutes; according to the film website Twitch, Weinstein wanted “to make sure the film will be understood by audiences in Iowa . . . and Oklahoma." The director refused to accept the edits, and Weinstein passed Snowpiercer to his company’s boutique arm. It is currently running only in very select theaters, although Businessweek reports that this is due to an idiosyncratic release strategy, not a grudge between Weinstein and Bong. Those outside of New York and Los Angeles will presumably only have a few opportunities to see it, despite the film’s stacked cast and a starring role for Captain America himself (Chris Evans is quite good as the grubby revolutionary leader Curtis). As far as I can tell, the only place it is being shown in Philly is the Roxy, a miniscule theater with tiny screens wedged into one of the narrow blocks of Sansom Street. Its run there ends next week, so see this savagely utopian movie while you can.

Snowpiercer really should be seen widely and enjoyed on the big screen, even though the special effects aren’t comparable to, say, the X-Men franchise. This isn’t an impenetrable art house flick. (There are ax fights!) It’s a fairly simple story about a brutally unjust system and an attempt by the oppressed to take power, all set on a train. It functions as obvious political allegory, but that doesn’t entail difficult material. Children have been assigned Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm for decades and seem to have little difficulty taking them in.

The premise is that humanity pumped a bunch of crap into the atmosphere to counteract global warming. The attempt backfired and brought on an ice age. The only survivors are those who made it onto the train, which now circles the globe endlessly. The population of the tail section is basically used as chattel. Whenever the front-enders need someone, usually a child, they take one from the rear. Unrest is put down with brute force covered with ideological varnish by Mason (the superb Tilda Swinton), who plays a slimy, speechifying, mid-level bureaucrat.

Curtis and his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt), plot a revolution to take control of first the water supply and then the engine itself. Their goal is to upend the social order and replace the enigmatic Wilfred (Ed Harris) who built the train and now operates it unseen. Snowpiercer does a lot with this fairly straightforward concept, presenting us with increasingly grotesque and surreal images as the film unfolds and the revolutionary vanguard make it further into the upper echelons of the rail-bound elites. Alison Pill is especially good as a chirpy teacher indoctrinating the elite youth in the worship of Wilfred and the iron laws of the train’s social hierarchies.

It’s hard to say too much more without spoiling any of the plot twists. Leave it at this: Snowpiercer is worth seeing not just because of its indictment of widening global inequality (this is very much a critique of global capitalism, not any one national variant), but because it seriously interrogates the alternatives.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.