Snowpiercer is an interesting story in a somewhat stale post-apocalyptic genre. Basically humanity tried to fix the devastating effects of global warming by putting a “cooling chemical” in the atmosphere. It solved the global warming problem just fine, but in doing so it froze the planet, killing off every living thing except for the last remaining humans, who have since been stuck on an endless train ride around the globe.
The movie doesn’t waste time in getting the plot moving. Little time is wasted on setting up characters through back story. Rather, the characters are introduced as they live their lives, and plot the overthrow of the 1st-class ticket holders who rule the train.
Divided into classes based on their original ticket prices when they boarded the train seventeen years ago, life isn’t so good for those stuck in steerage. While subsisting on black gelatinous protein bars and living lives of complete poverty crammed in bunks, planning a revolution is pretty much all there is to pass the time.
With a solid cast, including the War Doctor himself, John Hurt, and the incomparable Ed Harris, Snowpiercer does an excellent job bringing to life a rather straightforward plot. You get a real sense of the poverty-stricken lives of the people suffering in the back of the train, and their disdain for those who live a privileged life up front. In many ways the story is exactly the same as Land of the Dead, where the wealthy live in luxury, isolated from the dead world around them, while the majority of survivors live in squalor and fear. Snowpiercer hones that idea and gives us an exciting, emotion-driven post-apocalyptic story that is gripping from the very start.
The way the revolutionaries take the train is pretty clever, and their whole journey to the front is filled with great scenes, such as finding out where the protein for those gross protein bars come from. The variety of car designs not only shows how the people of first class live, but also prevents the movie’s “moving from one car to the next” formula from getting stale. There’s no shortage of action and serious tension though. The big battle between the revolutionaries and the train’s “security force” is a gritty, brutal, claustrophobic affair. Throughout it all, occasional moments of quirky humor serve as a strange counterpoint to an otherwise fatalistic mood.
There’s a great mythology built up during the course of the film. You get a real sense of the world these survivors, no matter which class they reside in, have developed for themselves, both physically, and psychologically. It’s an interesting look at how a microcosm of humanity might develop in a small, limited space. By the time you find out the truth about the train and its passengers you feel fully immersed in these people’s lives, having ridden the emotional roller coaster along with them. The grand revelation is satisfying, yet heartbreaking, tempered only by a fleeting moment of optimism right at the end.
A great job was done in bringing this world to life, through meticulous art direction, emotionally-driven, occasionally witty writing, and an exceptional cast. Snowpiercer is a wonderfully crafted tale of what lengths humanity will go to in order to survive, and how the basic need for freedom may actually be our downfall.