Snowpiercer (2013) review

Snowpiercer posterDirector: Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swanton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner

“Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.

“Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.” (Mason, Snowpiercer)

If I had a penny for every ‘the end of the world has come and only a small number of survivors remain’ film I’d seen, I’d have about 16p to my name.

Snowpiercer takes that tired plot device, makes things interesting by sticking everyone on a train, then asks “how much would you fucking have now, Chris?”

The answer, of course, is 17p. Regardless, my point is that Snowpiercer puts a new twist on an overused idea and succeeds for the most part.

Took me a while to realise this was Chris Evans. But it is, honest
Took me a while to realise this was Chris Evans. But it is, honest

It’s set in the year 2031, seventeen years after an attempt to stop global warming went horribly wrong (yes, that would have been in 2014, alternative history fans).

You see, worried that the world would be destroyed by a rise in temperature, a climate engineer decided it would be a good idea to release a chemical into the atmosphere that would chill the air, dropping the overall temperature by a few degrees and restoring order.

The problem was, it worked too well: the chemical plunged the Earth into another ice age, killing everyone in the world except for one group of people: those on board the Snowpiercer.

The Snowpiercer is something of a technical marvel: using a perpetual motion engine to ensure it doesn’t run out of fuel, it continues endlessly along a massive track that spans the globe, running the same line over and over again while its passengers live a new life on board.

It's also made out of ever-so-slightly shonky CGI, seemingly
It’s also made out of ever-so-slightly shonky CGI, seemingly

The problem is, as is the case in most societies, there’s a class system in place. Those at the front of the train are the elite, living the high life and enjoying what luxuries remain.

Meanwhile, those at the tail end of the train are essentially considered the scum, living in dark and dirty conditions, being fed horrible slabs of protein jelly every day and constantly plotting their next (doomed) revolution.

Curtis Everett (Chris Evans: the Captain America one, not the ginger twat one) has had enough, however. He’s got a plan for a revolt, and this time it’s going to work.

He and a group of others – including Jamie Bell and John Hurt – will storm through the guards and make their way through the train until they reach the prison carriage, at which point they’ll free Namgoong Minsu, the man who built the train’s security system.

Oddly, he's in this storage locker. They keep all their prisoners in there, you see
Oddly, he’s in this storage locker. They keep all their prisoners in there, you see

Together with his clairvoyant daughter Yona, Namgoong agrees to open each of the train’s doors in exchange for Kronole, a drug they’re both addicted to.

Can Curtis lead the group to the front carriage and overthrow Wilford, the fabled creator and leader of the train? Not telling.

Snowpiercer is very much a film of two halves. I managed to watch it without having much of it spoiled for me and so didn’t really know what to expect (other than the fact it was critically acclaimed). But throughout the first hour or so I was wondering what all the fuss was about.

This all changes when the group makes its way to a certain point in the train and things suddenly get very interesting. What was once a constantly moody, grimy film with plenty of blues and dark colours suddenly turns into what I can only describe as Willy Wonka’s dream train.

I'm not going to show you it here though, because I don't want to spoil anything. Instead, here's Ewen Bremner about to have his arm smashed off
I’m not going to show you it here though, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Instead, here’s Ewen Bremner about to have his arm smashed off

Suddenly you find yourself in a position where you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to see next, and just the inventive set design alone will have you grinning like a goon.

The occasional action sequences are also impressive stuff, with liberal use of slow-mo and some beautiful lighting, a good example being a battle partly illuminated by flaming torches.

There are some cracking performances in there too. Chris Evans is almost unrecognisable as the bearded Curtis (I didn’t even realise it was him until the end credits), Jamie Bell busts a surprisingly authentic Irish accent and John Hurt is John Hurt.

Top marks, however, must go to Tilda Swinton as the evil Minister Mason, the nasty cow in charge of the train’s army of guards and the one tasked with ensuring the lower tail-end class doesn’t get out of line.

Some say Swinton ruins the film because her performance verges on ridiculous. I say those people are petty criminals. I have no way of proving this, mind
Some say Swinton ruins the film because her performance verges on ridiculous. I say those people are petty criminals. I have no way of proving this, mind

A lot has been said about Snowpiercer‘s ending (don’t worry, I’ll dance Strictly-style around it). For some reason a lot of people were upset by it but I had no problem with it whatsoever.

Too many movies these days end exactly how you expect they will after the first five minutes, so I like when a film has a little shock at the end, complete with an open-ended “wait a fucking minute” moment. Fair play.

My only issue with the film is that it’s a little long for what it offers. A well-documented fight between director Bong Joon-Ho and US distributor Harvey Weinstein led to the latter initially only giving the film a limited American release in arthouse cinemas because the former refused to cut the film by 20 minutes.

Sadly, in this case I would have to agree with Weinstein: the film does start to drag a little during the first hour and could have done with a little trimming here and there to ensure the pace runs as speedily as the train the film’s set on.

Don’t let that put you off, however. Snowpiercer is still a remarkable film, packed with surprises and offering more than enough visual splendour in its second half to make up for the lack of it in the first.


Snowpiercer‘s rating earns it a place in the hallowed That Was A Bit Mental Hall Of Fame. Click here to see which other films have made the grade.

Snowpiercer has yet to see a UK release but those interested can import the Spanish DVD, which still features the original English language track. In the US it can be bought on both DVD and Blu-ray. Alternatively,  if you have access to US Netflix, it can be streamed there too.


One thought on “Snowpiercer (2013) review

  1. Really interesting review and so glad I read it – I could not be as patient as the first hour required, and ended up tuning out for what ended up being the best part of the movie (and fundamentally what tied it all together and, as you say, made committing to the beginning scenes worthwhile).

    Your words have made me tempted to re-watch the second half; I’m a huge disaster-movie fan and finding films with decent plot lines and interesting character development in this genre is (I’ve found) quite challenging. Hence if you reckon it’s worth me giving it another go I’m inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt!

    Awesome post, thanks!

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