For a publication that specializes in horror, reviewing a film that falls strictly outside the genre seems like a stretch.Korean director Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer may lack a supernatural monstrosity—or a faceless killer lurking in the shadows—, but sometimes the greatest horror is the horror of discrimination.
Based off the French graphic novel, by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, the story of Snowpiercer is set in the near future, with Earth having succumbed to a second ice age. As a result, the human race has dwindled down to a population of a mere one thousand. In the face of such extreme temperatures, these survivors take refuge aboard the Snowpiercer, a high-speed locomotive with a self-sustaining engine. Fast-forward seventeen years and the passengers are divided upon placement and privilege, with the upper-class occupying the train’s front and everyone else relegated to the to the last few cars. Abused, dirty and starved, the lower class instigates an uprising, led by Gilliam (John Hurt) and Curtis (Chris Evans). Met with fierce opposition, Curtis and the others give everything they’ve got in the attempt to reach the front car in order to destroy the train’s established hierarchy.
The post-apocalyptic dystopia is a common setting and theme for serious science fiction, so much so that it’s become something of a cliché for the genre. Snowpiercer may not defy this convention, but the film definitely puts a unique spin on it. Subjected to the tight interior of the train, there’s an unmistakable claustrophobia that results in a sense of discomfort and irritation for both the characters and the audience. Accompanying this sense of confinement is the unrelenting brutality that permeates the world—one where even the smallest of resistances is met with the cruelest of punishments. Early on in the film, one lower-class passenger has his arm forced through an opening to the frigid environment outside. After seven minutes of endurance, the man’s arm is frozen solid and promptly shattered to pieces—all in the name of further discouraging future assaults on the upper class. It is this brutal and claustrophobic nature of the world that aids in giving the film its own sense of identity amongst the plethora of other dystopian stories.
Film has often been compared to literature: with every shot analogous to a sentence and every period a cut. Snowpiercer exemplifies this concept rather beautifully, as every shot is thoughtfully composed and organized in a way that aids in eliciting maximum emotional output and tension. The intelligence of Bong’s shot choices and arrangements carries over to the film’s fight scenes, where the use of slow-motion amplifies every bludgeon cast and quick edits provide a sense of enclosing danger. In regards to action, Snowpiercer occasionally dabbles with on-screen violence and blood, but rarely is it overly explicit. Some of the more disturbing moments of violence occur off-screen or in short bursts, proving that implied violence can be just as effective. From an aesthetics standpoint, the film is a marvel, every shot showcasing the excellent set and costume designs that reflect a world drastically divided between the gritty and clean. If film is to be compared to literature, Snowpiercer is pure poetry.
As visual as the film is, Snowpiercer’s soundtrack is just as impressive, with a score that accentuates all the emotional highs and lows in the story. This includes the opening sequence that features—alongside a mix of radio chatter—dark and oppressive music that perfectly establishes the film’s hopeless and depressing future. Likewise, the lack of music during some of the film’s later fight scenes proves to be just as effective a technique. With or without music, these scene feature an appropriate cacophony of sound effects, which accompany and heighten the acts of on-screen brutality. These sounds turn every axe swing into a bone-shattering pummel, every stab into a muscle-serving puncture.
While no one actor or character outright steals the show, if any performances were to stand out they would be those belonging to the film’s antagonists, Mason and Franco the Elder. Played by Tilda Swinton and Vlad Ivanov respectively, Mason and Franco are two very different, yet very effective villains. On the one hand, upper-class authority figure Mason is an arrogant and self-righteous radical who feels little remorse for her lower-class neighbors; and opposite Mason’s cruel superiority is Franco’s unnatural hunger for spilling blood. With a silent and haunting gaze that could evenly match Michael Myers in a staring contest, Franco is indeed one frightening character.
Regardless of one’s preference in genre, experiencing a great story is largely comparable to experiencing great sex for the first time. There’s a certain passion and intimacy, a sudden emotional intensity and coordination that drowns out the surrounding world. Topped off with an amazing finish, and the experience becomes a memorable one that demands a lingering reflection. It short, Snowpiercer is a viewing experience that perfectly embodies this comparison. The film is engaging, exciting, thought-provoking, and ultimately stays with the audience long after the end credits have rolled. Anyone looking for the next great contemporary sci-fi masterpiece should board this high-speed train immediately.