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Entry updated 25 May 2020. Tagged: Film.

Film (2013). Snowpiercer, Moho Film, Opus Pictures. Directed by Joon-ho Bong. Written by Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson, from the Graphic Novel Le Transperceneige (graph 1982; trans as The Explorers 2014) by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. Cast includes Jamie Bell, Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Vlad Ivanov, Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton. 126 minutes. Colour.

It is a film which bears signs of travel. Though 80% of Snowpiercer's dialogue is in English, the remaining 20%, in only partially subtitled Korean, may suggest an explanation for some seemingly peculiar failures to coordinate the gaps between mythopoeisis (in which the film is rich) and the SF Megatext (which tends to be honoured in the breach). All the same, though Snowpiercer's South Korean co-writer and director Joon-ho Bong may come from afar, he is clearly familiar with the topoi he massages in this, his first English-language film, and shows himself perfectly able to replicate some of the CGI moments that supersaturate (and dumb down) contemporary international-market sf cinema. The estrangements that occasionally seem to derail Snowpiercer are clearly deliberate. Snowpiercer's central venue – a globe-girdling super-train snowpiercing its solitary way through deserted, ice-glazed cities and glaciers on implausibly stable rails – was clearly not adapted by Bong from the original Graphic Novel (or from G-J Arnaud's vast Ice Company sequence [1980-2006], the original inspiration for Le Transperceneige) for its cognitive verisimilitude, for it has none, but for its mythic resonance. The great train, whose name is Snowpiercer (it could be the name of an icebreaker), has close affinities with the Generation Starship or Ship of Fools tale (see SF Megatext); but once the fact that an actual ship might have been a more plausible location is forgiven, the gain in iconic power of the chosen setting seems worth the price. The one-track linear plot, which only turns to bite its tail in the final minutes, is very fittingly told almost entirely inside the corridors of the great train.

Snowpiercer is a Satirical anatomy of a rigidly hierarchical society on traditional lines, though in this case laid out lengthwise rather than vertically [for Estates Satire see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; it is a cartoonish but telling denunciation of inequities of class and income "on this train of life", as one character puts it; and a portrait (also couched on traditional lines or rails) of the command structure of a world whose ultimate head is the greatest fool of all. The glaring ahistorical artefactuality of the train itself might seem catnip for academic discourses on the denial structure of late neoliberal capitalism as it plunges blindly into disaster, but it seems clear the makers of Snowpiercer intended to convey, however simplistically, not a synecdoche of history commandeered by the greatest fools of all, but a prelusory snapshot of planetary necrosis in its dead pomp. The ultimate point of the film does not reside in the piercing but in the snow.

In the immediate Near Future, Climate Change has become so severe that desperate action seems necessary. But a technological fix known as CW-7, which is supposed to cure global warming, instead plunges the planet abruptly into a new ice age fatal to almost all life. The only human survivors are the passengers of Snowpiercer, a phantasmagorical train with 1001 coaches (at least in the original tale), designed and built before the Disaster by the immensely wealthy train-lover Wilford (Harris), who remains in control up front in the engine room. The actual action begins in the year 2031, by which point – as the protagonists gradually discover – a rigid class system is rigidly in place, with the privileged esconced in luxury near the engine and the proletariat, whose food seems to consist solely of large power bars made from crushed cockroaches, huddled in ghastly windowless congestion at the rear. A revolutionary cadre, mentored by the sage-like Gilliam (Hurt), moves into action after Wilford's consigliera, the histrionically repulsive Mason (Swinton), abducts a small child by force from his mother because he is needed at the front of the train (the viewer's apprehension that Wilford plans to eat the child are unfounded). Under Gilliam's sway, the combat-ready Curtis (Evans) is unleashed to attack Mason's armed squad of guardians, and to lead his band of fighters up-train, ostensibly to rescue the child.

The mise en scene of Snowpiercer is conveyed through entangling visuals, almost tropical in their entrapping profusion and knobbiness, like a Steampunk exfoliation of the world of Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), also a film in which to be a member of the underclass is to be caught into a hostile world like Laocoon caught in snakes (it seems very likely that John Hurt's character was named Gilliam to homage the links). One of the oppressed creates a visual commentary on the scene through a series of dramatic drawings, heavy in chiaroscuro (the drawings are by the book's original illustrator Jean-Marc Rochette,). As Curtis and his band fight their way up the long line of coaches, numerous combat sequences being conveyed with found-footage roughness, the tincture of the film slowly lightens; windows are opened on Post-Holocaust vistas; and Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the South Korean deuteragonist, is awoken from something like Suspended Animation to supply the band with an array of large, Steampunk-compliant keys to open the doors barring off the front end of the train. In one coach, they discover a group of privileged children being taught to revere Wilford; another coach is full of dressed meat; further coaches contain tableaux vivants meant to illuminate the Ship-of-Fools under-narrative; and some coaches are booby-trapped. A surprisingly high proportion of the cast is in fact eliminated – including Mason, after another virtuoso display of pantomime awfulness – many of the deaths caused by Franco the Elder (Ivanov), Wilford's chief henchman, an impassively deadly killing machine whose appearance and tactics echo Huntsman (Rutger Hauer) in the Television mini-series The Tenth Kingdom (2000). The acting throughout is humourlessly intense, and at points deeply convinced; there is a sense throughout that Bong envisions his large cast not as puppets of allegory but as humans in their suffering.

Eventually Curtis reaches the engine, where Wilford greets him with casual superbia. He reveals that Gilliam had been his long-term partner (head tied to tail) in a mutual attempt to maintain a viable society in the train, which given finite resources was a balancing act only possible if "revolts" like Curtis's generated enough dead bodies to keep the population down (see Overpopulation). Snowpiercer is a Ship of Fools gripped in the arms of Entropy. Wilford then shows Curtis a tape of the execution of Gilliam, who had failed properly to control the insurgents' assault on the privileged. The abducted boy – almost but not quite a McGuffin – is now discovered in the Steampunk entrails of the engine, where he duplicates the function of a failed part.

It is now too late for Snowpiercer. An explosion engineered by Namgoong Minsoo causes an avalanche outdoors, the train crashes with many deaths (including Curtis's), and a young woman and the freed lad stumble into the snow, under the cold sky. In the near distance a fully-grown polar bear is visible. It is watching them. That another mammal has survived on the planet may be a sign of hope; that it has its eye on food may, however, signal the end of the line.

The Television series, Snowpiercer (2020-current), demurely abandons the film's close-to-agitprop Satire on the death-throes of capitalism, replacing this vision with a modestly noir story-arc on police-procedural lines. [JC]


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