The first thing that stands out in Bong Jong-Ho’s American debut Snowpiercer is the lack of colour. That may come across as an oxymoron as not having colour isn’t a trait usually meant to be noticed, but the colour sets the tone of the film, and the characters that inhabit this piece of work are a larger representation of what this standout film means.
After a man-made Ice Age polarizes the entire world and kills off any semblance of life, the remaining survivors from all parts of the world live aboard Snowpiercer, a massive train that travels around the world on a perpetual motion engine.
In the back of the train are the “have nots,” which include passengers played by Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and frequent Jon-Ho collaborator Song Kang-Ho. They ‘ve had enough of the squalor and protein blocks they’re forced to eat for sustenance and are planning a revolt. The “haves,” who live in the front of the train, are led by the elite Minister Mason, played by the not-too-hammy and not-too-passive Tilda Swinton.
Swinton is decked out in prosthetic teeth and a garish wig, but then, none of Snowpiercer is subtle in its portrayals of the caste system. Mason countlessly harps about “knowing your place” and while the characters on the train know theirs, both physically and ideologically, there is a simmering hatred you can see in the characters – especially Evans’ Curtis, who gives a really fantastic performance that is equal parts subdued and seething.
Another highlight of the film is discovering the world of the titular train. The back of Snowpiercer is filled with the poor and lower class, but as the revolt party moves closer to the first class at the front of the train, you get a glimpse of the beauty, atmosphere, and colours that are the exact opposite of the back of the train and another showcase of comparing the poor to the rich.
Jong-Ho, the Korean auteur behind films such as The Host and Memories of Murder, is firing on all cylinders here. With the source material packed with allegorical themes, over-the-top characters, and tense action scenes, Jong-Ho could have just settled for a wild B-movie, but he instead steps back and controls everything with a steady hand.
He finds a great pace that presents a character-rich film and a study about the divisions of class while also bringing a fantastic, “blockbuster” attitude to a plot that’s encased in a giant metal tube. In a movie that’s packed with them, the first scenes of the Snowpiercer are a perfect allegory for the movie: subtle but enclosed, with beauty underneath.