I get elated whenever I see true science-fiction films being made. It’s tough to the find them, when Hollywood puts out a lot of “science-fiction” films, which mostly are just action or thrillers that involve robots or aliens. True science-fiction uses technological advancements to reflect on the human condition — often sounding the alarm for a particular problem that humankind could plausibly fall into. Snowpiercer (2013) does just that. It sounds the alarm for global warming and the fallout that could befall when trying to fix the symptoms and not the causes. In the film, many countries of the world come together to release a chemical into the atmosphere that will lower temperatures to a more manageable range — except that the chemicals work so well or too much of the chemical was used and the world is plunged into an extreme Ice Age. All humanity is lost — except for the men and women who boarded Snowpiercer, a revolutionary train that is self-contained, whose shell protects against both intense heat and extreme coldness, with trains devoted to sustaining plant life, marine life, and cultural life: especially the nuances of class politics.
Its aboard the train where the social reflection occurs in this science-fiction film. How would a confined ecosystem of human beings aboard a train that cycles the earth over and over again act? My naive hopefulness thinks that if one train contains the last remnants of humankind, there would be friendship and companionship and a kinship, a shared experience of surviving aboard an everlasting train. But no, no, no. I’m much to naive to for human nature. Director Joon-ho Bong, delves into social politics to show a gripping and bleak social construct about Snowpiercer. It seems that even until the end of humanity, class will be ever present. Aboard the train, the wealthy relax and enjoy the front cars of the train, and the scum and unfortunates slum and scrounge in the back of the train. Curtis (Chris Evans) is one of the poor desolates in the back of the train. He’s taking the time to plan a rebellion, to get his people food and showers and clothes. What’s the point of surviving the end of days when you’re filthy and starving? His trek through the film — and through the train — is a efficient yet poignant way for director Bong to unveil what exactly is on the train. Just as Curtis and his gang finds out as they trudge from car to car, so does the audience, giving us a shared experience with the characters on the screen.
Chris Evans gives a sensitive performance, a refreshing change of pace from his usual super hero or action roles. He particularly shines in a scene in the third act where he describes life at the back of the train when first boarded. He delivers a raw and guilty monologue that’s quite stirring. Tilda Swinton plays Mason, the right-hand spokesperson to Wilford (Ed Harris) who maintains the idolized engine. She creates a hodgepodge of monstrous historical figures with her character, a dogmatic and obstinate woman who sits unflinchingly as a rebellious man’s frozen arm is smashed to pieces in front of his peers. She establishes a look of a frumpy middle-aged woman, almost like an evil school teacher — which, in my mind, linked to another monstrous figure: Dolores Umbridge. Octavia Spencer plays vengeful mother Tanya, whose child was mysteriously taken away from the back of the train. She becomes a voice for the poor and suffering of the back of the train, and she joins Curtis in his mission. An interesting observation to make aware is that the people of the back of the train are very diverse ethnically, while the majority of the people seen in the better compartments of the train are white. Spencer described the people in the back of the train as: “We are all covered in smoke and dirt from years and years of not washing and particles in the air, and we are all the same color if you look at it.” That brings the people together in a common cause, which I feel is pretty effective in the film.
The first two acts play out to leave you with a certain expectation for the third act, which then takes a step in a different direction. It’s quite similar to what happens in the third act of Cabin in the Woods, where expectations are defied and an actual plan and system is revealed that explains what was originally considered chaos. Curtis has a choice to make, to either continue life as usual or to take the helm of the very thing he wanted to destroy. What struck me most about this film is Curtis’ decision. What’s the use of sustaining human life if it comes at this cost?