"I take orders from the Octoboss."


tn_snowpiercerSNOWPIERCER, the Hollywood-stars/English words debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, is the second best train movie I saw on the big screen in June. While UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY is DIE HARD on a boat on a train, SNOWPIERCER is  the post-apocalypse on a train. The whole world has been frozen over, eradicating all life except for the lucky bastards that got onto a giant train that has been traveling a globe-spanning track for 17 years.

It has similar themes of class inequality to ELYSIUM and the HUNGER GAMESes, but I liked it quite a bit more than those. The concept is that the poor people live in squalor at the back and the rich people in luxury at the front. It’s a brutal dictatorship; the tail dwellers get threatened and beaten, limbs severed as punishment for defiance, fed nothing but green jelly protein bars. Every once in a while a lady in a pretty yellow dress comes back with a tape measure to size up which of their children to steal. You can just feel the anger and humiliation of the people when this shit happens. It’s easy to hate those motherfuckers.
So this dude Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a revolt. They’re gonna fight their way all the way to the front and kill the engineer, so the whole movie is this linear journey from car to car. They keep coming across new threats and new worlds, like video game levels. The rich people cars get more and more impressive. You wouldn’t believe some of the shit you can fit onto a train. A pool, an aquarium, a dance club, a dentist’s office, a room full of guys wearing ski masks and holding axes. WAY better than Amtrak.

The promo stills you’ll see online tend to have a monochromatic, icy look to them. Lots of dirty people in greyish wool clothes, huddled in dank cars. But don’t worry, this is not one of those movies that looks the same all throughout. Those pictures made me think THE MATRIX but only the parts where they’re in the space ship wearing rags. No, this is a journey from a place like that to somewhere else. And there are weird tonal shifts. Some cars are goofier than others.

mp_snowpiercerThis movie hits a sweet spot for me, because it would be cool enough just as an action premise: rebels fighting their way from one end of the train to the other, like THE RAID on rails. But it’s even better as commentary, a heightened way to visualize the divisions in our society.

Of course there’s alot of philosophy and ethics and shit going on under the surface. Near the beginning Curtis and his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) need a little boy named Timmy to give them his protein bar as part of their scheme. They try to offer him various trades that he does not accept. Edgar wants to just snatch it from the kid, but Curtis won’t let him. They go through alot of trouble to make sure Timmy is giving it up willingly, not through force. They’re not gonna be like those assholes.

Evans has really done that thing they call “come into his own as a leading man.” It’s funny to remember that I used to just think of him as a sort of likable douche in those terrible FANTASTIC FOUR movies. Now that he’s done two good CAPTAIN AMERICAs and an AVENGERS those don’t count toward his overall comic book hero status and he’s a full fledged movie star. And to his credit he didn’t wait to get the interesting smaller projects in there. He was already in SUNSHINE, another smart sci-fi movie about the end of the world, kind of a companion piece because that one was about heat and this one is about cold. That one had only a few people peppering a giant, lonely space ship, this one has all of the human race crammed onto a train. That one had one last mission to try to save the world, this one the world is already lost and they’re just trying to hang on and maybe have a dip in the pool and some sushi at some point.

I didn’t even know that Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II) was gonna be in this, or Jamie Bell, and I didn’t even recognize Ewen Bremner (AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR). The real heart of the supporting cast are Song Kang-ho (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, MEMORIES OF MURDER, THE HOST, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE WEIRD, THIRST) as the cube-sniffing security system designer Namgoong and Ko Ah-sung (THE HOST) as Yona. They’re both characters who know more about the train than the revolutionaries, but communication is cumbersome (they use a translating machine, kinda like Barbarella’s tongue-box) and they don’t seem to have the same agenda. So you could say they’re foreign visitors like Bong is in Hollywood, or they’re our guide into his cinematic world. I guess both.

Tilda Swinton steals the movie though. She’s really funny and weird as the Minister who comes to the back to oversee the capital punishment and make condescending speeches. Alot of sci-fi dystopias have the elites look like models, or at least like plastic surgery disasters. This lady has horrible teeth, ugly glasses and many awkward tics. She’s not one of The Beautiful People, she’s just old money, I figured.

(Later I read some backstory about how she worked further back on the train and the boss liked her work and promoted her. That’s kinda cool too because that means she knows what it’s like to be far down on the totem pole but still has more entitlement in her than empathy. She’s an asshole.)

Her character looks almost as cartoony as one she’d play in a Wes Anderson movie, but it really works. She has so many funny little tics and shit. A great performance. I like a movie like this that really works in a traditional entertainment way, but also has lots of odd little things it leaves me wondering about. For example the scene where some thugs all dip their ax blades into a fish and get them covered in blood before they fight. I took it to mean that the world is so polluted that any fish that can survive in it are completely toxic and their blood can be used as poison. But later there’s a scene that seems to contradict this theory. So instead of a cool moment I get a mystery. Sometimes that’s better.

I would not consider this a straight up action movie, I’m never waiting for the violence to happen. Action isn’t the point, it’s just something that happens sometimes as a natural progression. Therefore it’s merely disappointing and not a dealbreaker that the first couple action scenes are shot in jigglyvision. But then they get better, and one particularly long and brutal fight was exhausting enough that it even reminded me a little bit about how hard it was to kill Mad Dog in THE RAID. And there are some very clever action concepts, like the idea that the train is so long that when it goes around a bend the two sides can exchange gunfire.

I believe that the most formidable villain, Vlad Ivanov (THE MARKSMAN, SECOND IN COMMAND) as a henchman apparently called “Franco the Elder,” is a gay man, and that’s kinda novel. In one scene he and his fellow security thug lean on each other in a slightly cuddly way; when the other one dies he goes way out of control in a single-minded quest for vengeance. Maybe I’m reading this wrong (it’s possible they’re just supposed to have a brotherly bond) but I like my interpretation. Let me have this one.

I know alot of people love Bong Joon-Ho. I’ve only seen THE HOST (I know, MEMORIES OF MURDER should be next, right?), and that was pretty good. This has the feel of a master playing on a new playground, not the disheartening collection of compromises and mistranslations you fear in an overseas auteur’s first contact with Hollywood and filming in English. It feels very international, not alienating as an American film, though some of the brutality and shifts from utter bleakness to weird comedy are more characteristic of Korean movies.

It’s really well written by Bong with Kelly Masterson (BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD), based on an early ’80s French comic book, and it’s got a fistful of great payoffs. Not just surprise reveals, but also heartwrenching speeches that change our understanding of what’s going on. Those are great scenes, or as Harvey Weinstein calls them, “things I was gonna cut out.” Not surprisingly he wanted to cut 25 minutes out of it. After a long fight Bong somehow convinced him to leave it as a good movie but release it on less screens. I wish Wong Kar Wai woulda thought of that. It actually would’ve made more sense with THE GRANDMASTER, since that’s clearly an art movie despite the great fight scenes. This one I think will be enjoyable even for some normal people if it ever makes its way in front of them.

Right now I think I read it’s only in 8 American cities, but it has long since played in many other countries, and there’s even a Chinese blu ray and dvd out there. I hope some of you have seen it because I think we gotta have a brief END SPOILER discussion from here on out. Warning warning warning turn back. I love what transpires between Curtis and Wilford at the end. It’s a real powerful twist not because I didn’t expect it (although I didn’t), but because it threatens my world view. You can’t side with Wilford, he’s done horrible things and he doesn’t seem trustworthy either. I’m not being charmed by him like, say, Bill at the end of KILL BILL. But then, he is the genius who saved the human race, I can’t argue with that. And maybe his way really is the only way to keep it alive. I was scared that was what the movie was gonna tell us. The scariest idea is Curtis taking over the train, trying to be more benevolent about it, and finding out that won’t work. What would be worse than having to accept that Wilford is right, that we were naive all along, that we had to be treated that way?

I also love the twist with Namgoong, because Curtis can’t wrap his head around the idea that his pet junkie is actually more radical than he is. Namgoong gave up on fixing the system a long time ago. He just wants to escape it.

A favorite detail: the survivors wear fur coats they stole earlier at the club. A status symbol for the ridiculously opulent repurposed as an essential tool of survival. It’s beautiful.

I don’t know, part of me thinks people are giving this a little too much credit in the deepness department, because it’s all sentiment. If we’re gonna take this symbolism and apply it to our world for real then what does it really mean? That we should dismantle our entire system, possibly killing almost everybody, and the few survivors should go off into the danger of the unknown to try something else?

I don’t even know what that looks like, or how to do it, even with guns and bombs. Which I’m against. But still, the story speaks to me. A little bit of that “it figures it would be something like this.” Good movie. Better than DARJEELING LIMITED (I liked that though), better than THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE (actually I can’t prove that, I haven’t seen it). Even compared against non-train movies it’s top notch stuff.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014 at 8:00 am and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

52 Responses to “Snowpiercer”

  1. Knox Harrington

    July 2nd, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Not gonna read this review, because I haven’t seen the film yet, but I just wanted to say that Bong Joon-Ho is a friggin’ master.

    You need to watch MOTHER, Vern. You need to watch MOTHER.

  2. I knew I wouldn’t be the only critic to compare it to UNDER SIEGE 2 but only Vern would agree it’s second best!

  3. Glad to hear this isn’t another gray movie. The trend seems to be dying out, but man, for a while there you’d swear the cinematographers union was run by the villain from Rainbow Brite who had a vendetta against colors. If you’re gonna make a black and white movie, make a fuckin’ black and white movie. Don’t make a color movie with no color in it.

    I’m also glad to see Evans coming into his own, as they and Vern say. I’ve liked him ever since CELLULAR. He was a little raw and unpolished, but he had the charisma and presence to make you want to follow him through a truly ridiculous (in a good way) plot where he was the only person onscreen for a good chunk of it. Most young actors as handsome and new at the job as him would have been totally lost at sea, but he pulled it off. I foresaw big things and I hate being wrong, so thanks for that, Chris Evans.

    I’m out of town for the next week but hopefully SNOWPIERCER will still be playing by the time I get back to New York. I’m starting to feel a little guilty about choosing MARK WAHLBERG’S TRANSFORMERS 4: THE FUCK YOU LOOKIN’ AT, TOUGH GUY? YOU WANNA GO? instead.

  4. That’s funny, I loved this movie but I took away a different ending. As far as I can tell, only the polar bear wins.

  5. I looked for this to go to last weekend and couldn’t find it, so I assumed it wasn’t playing in Seattle. What I really did was look in the theaters I usually go to and couldn’t find it, rather than search for the movie. Now I’m going out of town this weekend and won’t be able to see it until a couple of weeks. If it’s still playing. I’m very disappointed in myself. At least I didn’t choose to go see MARK WAHLBERG’S CONTINUING CAREER SLIDE INTO DISAPPOINTING MAGGIE instead.

  6. In the poster, Tilda Swinton looks kind of like Ayn Rand in this. Is that how she looks in the movie, too? Is that an accident do you think?

  7. They may very well have been going for an Ayn Rand thing with Tilda Swinton’s look. I think that may also be the inspiration for setting this story on a train. And I think the filmmakers must be big fans of BioShock because this film shares a lot of similarities.

  8. “If we’re gonna take this symbolism and apply it to our world for real then what does it really mean? That we should dismantle our entire system, possibly killing almost everybody, and the few survivors should go off into the danger of the unknown to try something else?”

    I was ultimately kind of disappointed with the movie for this reason. I appreciate the radical viewpoint, and within the context of the film’s world it made sense (assuming, given the polar bear, that existence outside the train is indeed possible). But if you apply it to real life, it’s overwhelmingly pessimistic. The movie is directly arguing that any form of organized government (even, presumably, a consensus-based one like contemporary anarchists would endorse) will be hopelessly oppressive. I was kind of mortified when I realized that the movie wanted me to accept Wilford’s cynical worldview without question. There’s really no reason, especially within a relatively small, closed system like that train, that consensus-based self-government by the population wouldn’t be sustainable, effective, and equitable.

  9. Really liked this movie, and fully agree with Knox: Mother should be seen. Bong’s getting better and better.


    Crediting Wilford with saving humanity raises questions (someone please correct me if I’m spacing on dialogue that derails the train of thought. Yuk yuk.) Wilford’s initial saving of humanity is largely happenstance; the supertrain tracking around the globe must have been underway long before the cooling chemical was released. Once everyone’s aboard, he does impose a system that is horribly inhumane yet apparently sustainable. He presumably doesn’t trust (or care) that a more equitable system could keep the species going. But why does Wilford choose to keep the tail passengers alive in the first place? All I can figure is that having a subgroup breed enough kids for Wilford’s needs prevents a trainwide rebellion that would likely occur if all riders were subject to surrendering their offspring, and that rebellion would bring us closer to (or just plain to) the end of the species. (Plus, having an underclass gives those in higher stations clear motivation to not risk their own position.)

    Wilford saved humanity, but it seems like a fortunate by-product of his lifelong rail obsession – not something he set out to do – and in doing so he preserves his own cushy existence. So I have no qualms about saying Fuck Wilford. He’s got sweeping, virtually unopposed control; settling on an indefinite hellish existence for others that just so happens to keep you alive and thriving is a dick move. If aiding humanity had been a priority, he might have noticed things like the body of the fallen plane appearing. Instead he wouldn’t see beyond his long beloved choo-choo dreams. Though in fairness, neither could Curtis. And in more fairness, the story’s conclusion – which I read as optimistic – couldn’t be arrived at without Wilford’s previous actions, however much they may have been less than noble.


  10. Not going to read the review because I haven’t seen it yet, but is this the Harvey Scissorhands’ version that was threatened upon us about a year ago? Or did us Americans get lucky and somehow wind up with a foreign director’s original intent under his watch?

  11. Richard – no, there is no Weinstein cut, this is the same cut as everywhere else. Victory!

  12. Talking of Chris Evans, he was also quite good in PUSH, the little-seen X-Men-alike that I liked way more than any actual X-Men film. It’s no masterpiece or anything, but it’s nicely shot (on location in Hong Kong) and the performances are solid, especially those by Dakota Fanning and Evans. Nice mood, too. Pity it’ll never get a sequel.

  13. This just opened in Houston yesterday and I caught it after work. It’s expanding to a larger number of theaters so take heart but it took a bit of work last week to find out when and where it would be playing. It’s almost as if the Weinsteins are trying to keep it a secret.

    Anyway, it’s an incredible film, a visual delight absolutely worth seeing on the big screen. What’s funny is seeing Steve Park among the very eclectic cast. I know he’s done a ton of work but I still remember him as a cast member of the sketch comedy show IN LOVING COLOR. Or Mike Yanagita from FARGO. Then of course there’s Alison Pill as the school teacher. This movie is just full of little surprises.

  14. The Original... Paul

    July 3rd, 2014 at 4:50 am

    Yeah, this is another “Man of Tai Chi” for me. If I search it on any UK-based sites, it’s as though it officially does not exist. It’s not in any cinemas and it’s not on Netflix (seriously, at this point I’m thinking of terminating my subscription with them. They have literally nothing of interest that I haven’t already been able to see via other means. Why the heck do I need to be paying them?) A pity, because it sounds pretty damn interesting.

  15. It just came out in theaters, Paul. Why would Netflix have it?

  16. I had the same exact reaction regarding the possible nature of scary Vlad Ivanov’s relationship with his partner, and I really like how it’s communicated in such an underplayed, intriguing way.

    I’m curious how everyone reacted to a particular line from Chris Evans near the end.


    I’ve read that a number of people found the “babies taste best” line to be unintentionally hilarious. I didn’t, but I can see how it could elicit that reaction. Actually, the more I think about it, I’m not so sure there isn’t supposed to be some twisted humor there.

  17. You know Joe, some snarky Youtube a-hole is going to rip that monologue out of its context so people can have a laugh at it. I think it worked though and Chris Evans hit it just right. Cannibalism is still so way beyond the norm of human behavior that I think we can only treat it with a certain glibness, like maybe the Fat Bastard character in the Austin Powers movies. That’s not to say everyone who saw it and reacted with laughter are being glib or snarky, but it’s a disturbing and frank admission that could provoke some nervous laughter. I thought the monologue worked and Chris Evans did as well as anyone could with it. The film has a vein of dark humor running through it but not so much that it undermines the emotional heft of the story, of which I think that monologue is an example of.

  18. Monigneur Majestik, the movie is a year old. Why wouldn’t it be on Netflix out here in the real world?

  19. Seen it twice now. First time I was like, “Best movie I’ve seen so far this year, doubt anything will top it.” This time around I enjoyed it even more. Some thoughts:


    – On second viewing I appreciated that the tail-enders had a sense of community that seemed lacking in the forward compartments. Sure, we didn’t see enough of the front sections to know for sure, but I thought it was a nice detail that the tail-enders were all on a first-name basis with each other. They don’t live as well as people towards the front, and that forces them to work together, which makes them collectively stronger than the people up front.

    – Another nice detail: Gilliam advising Curtis to cut Wilford’s tongue out. “Don’t let him speak.” Does he think that he can protect Curtis from the truth? I don’t think so; the hard realities of being the train’s leader will assert themselves with or without Wilford there to explain them. Is he just trying to protect himself — to prevent Wilford from tattling on him? Seems more likely. But maybe it’s actually both — he knows Curtis will eventually learn what he needs to do to keep the train running, and Gilliam’s complicity in the horrors, but by discovering it for himself, maybe it will make it more palatable.

    (Also, I don’t know about you guys, but if I were Terry Gilliam I’m not sure I would be flattered that Bong Joon Ho named a character after me that seemed like an inspiration but then turned out to be a sellout.)

    – Wilford’s worldview: the first time around, like Vern, I was scared — “What if he’s right?” — and the second time, being prepared for it, I had no doubt: he IS right. Everything he says is 100% accurate: you can’t leave people to their own devices or you get folks eating babies. And you can’t create a perfect utopia where we can all reproduce as much as we want or the ecosystem will fall apart and everyone dies. Someone had to do something, and he did the best he could, and of course his situation is fucking terrible because the situation itself is fucking terrible. The real problem is that we’re all stuck on the fucking train.

    I think Bong Joon Ho & Kelly Masterson do a pretty masterful job in this scene of proving their point. And then, just when you can basically accept that this is what Curtis has to do to take over the train — yeah, it’s awful, it’s brutal, but it’s the only hope humanity has — they take it one step further and reveal the kid under the floor, and once again you’re like “No, this is too fucked.” The reality of this existence is so insane that the only rational response is to reject it completely.

    – About the ending: I don’t think the movie is saying we should dismantle our entire system, etc. I think it’s saying: there’s an avalanche coming, because this shit is unsustainable. Maybe that avalanche will be complete economic collapse, maybe it will be revolution, maybe it will be war, I dunno, but basically if we keep going the way we’re going, a shit-ton of people are gonna die, and whoever survives is gonna have to take a shot at starting over.

    – Ultimately I think Bong Joon Ho is trying to end on a note of hope, however tiny it may be, but I also think he was fully aware that the ending could be read as “Polar bear eats well tonight.” And I appreciate that.

    Great film.

  20. Pegs: I had no idea it had been out that long. But Netflix is an American company so I doubt it cares much about international release dates.

  21. Great analysis, Daniel Strange, I agree with pretty much everything you said. You are a great antidote to the literalist assholes I’ve seen cropping up on Twitter who think the movie doesn’t understand how class systems work or secretly has a far-right message seemingly because they have no idea how to read a film, or can’t understand an allegory unless all its metaphors are literal one to one translations of capitalism.

    There are two little ideas you propose that Bong has somewhat refuted, though, and take this with a grain of salt, because authorial intent only goes so far. Anyway, he claims he chose the name Gilliam simply because he had never named characters in English before and was having trouble thinking of enough good names, so he started naming them after directors whose names he liked. (Jamie Bell’s Edgar comes from Edgar Wright, btw). Of course, this doesn’t totally refute your thought, since he did decide to give the name Gilliam to that specific character. He’s also said Gilliam (the director) wasn’t an overt influence in his mind when writing this — he thought more of train movies like THE TRAIN and RUNAWAY TRAIN, along with SPARTACUS, THE THING, THEY LIVE, and WALL-E (speaking of, I wish more people would mention Carpenter when discussing this film… the scene where the two guys sit down and share the world’s last cigarette felt like something that could have been a straight lift form any number of his films).

    Also — at the screening I was at he did a Q&A and someone asked him if his work had ever been misinterpreted — he said that a lot of people told him they thought the bear was gonna eat the kids, but his intention was always that it was only a symbol of hope, renewal, and nature returning. He jokingly said he now wished he’d have made it a deer or a bunny rabbit instead so people wouldn’t come away with that impression.

  22. This movie just came out where I”m at, and I mostly enjoyed it. I don’t think everything in the film worked, but it was absolutely a unique and interesting experience. SPOILERS. I was also wondering if we were supposed to treat what Wilford said about Gilliam at face value. If Gilliam has sacrificed his limbs for other people, then it’s a little hard to believe that he was also in cahoots with Wilford. It’s hard to reconcile what we know about the character with the claims of Wilford. END SPOILERS.

    The movie did have one of the best casts I’ve seen in a while, even if almost every main character dies in the end.

  23. Also, I should probably say that the SPOILERS extend beyond the END SPOILER comment. Sorry about that.


    Daniel Strange — I gotta disagree with you on one point: I don’t think Wilford is right at all, and I don’t think the movie does either. Oh, he talks a good game, is very convincing, it all makes so much sense with his prattle about balance. But to me, the most important line is what Curtis says to HIM: “That’s what people in the best places say to people in the worst places.”

    See, the train is NOT in balance. Not in the slightest. The people in the back are essentially being used as breeding stock for the opulent front. If it was truly BALANCED, it would mean that the rich were a little less rich so that the poor could be a little less poor and everyone would have a much better life. There’s enough for everyone on the train, but the rich guys decided it was more important they eat steak (how, by the way? I didn’t see any cattle) that it was to give everyone a decent life, and then they made up a convenient lie for themselves about how it was actually for the greater good, and they told that lie until they believed it and made sure they never had to meet anyone poor who might convince them otherwise. Wilford is long on speeches, but he’s just a whiny rich guy who’s completely full of shit. Even his partner-in-crime Gilliam finally decided everyone was better off without him (I don’t think this was his original plan, but I think he changed his mind once it suddenly started looking possible that the plan might actually succeed — he wouldn’t tell Curtis to cut out Wilford’s tongue unless he thought there was a legitimate chance he might meet him). I also am kinda in agreement with RBatty– I think Gilliam was in cahoots with Wilford, but I think Wilford assumed they were better friends than they really were. I think Gilliam played along with Wilford because there was no other way to help his people survive, not because he really believed Wilford’s bullshit about balance.

    That makes Curtis’s decision at the end a lot more interesting, because its not like he’d have to just run things exactly like Wilford did; he could create a more equitable society, do things better, not be so evil. He COULD, but he’s not sure he WOULD. He’s always been afraid of being a leader because he knows deep down what he’s capable of, and knows he’s just a selfish coward when the chips are down. Can he trust himself to take this authority and not become an alienated, inhuman monster like Wilford was? I think in the end, he joins team let’s-blow-up-civilization to escape from having to make that choice. Even if that, ah, in retrospect doesn’t appear to have been the most practical choice for mankind. Anyway, symbolically it’s good.


  25. Mr. Subtlety – that’s interesting, I agree that your reading does make more of a moral quandry for Curtis. I’m not totally convinced that Wilford isn’t right, though, given the specific circumstances they’re in. We don’t know that there really is enough for everyone on the train — the movie tells us that there isn’t enough sushi, for instance, which makes me think there are probably other cases where either a few people get some or all people get none. Version one is capitalism, version two is communism. We’ve seen from the real world that neither version is perfect, and if Wilford’s biggest sin in creating this scenario is that he let too many people on the train (instead of having a more balanced distribution of wealth between the people who had bought tickets), that’s understandable too: is it better to have let those stowaways die, or make them live in squalor? Any way you slice it, it’s a hard decision, and ultimately I think Wilford was trying to do the right thing, or at least do the best he could in a bad situation. The thing that makes it seem like he’s a bad guy — the reason it’s easy to question the choices he made — is that NONE of the choices are good ones.

    Then again, the movie might change my mind again the third time I see it.

    Bonzob – thanks, cool to know!

  26. Also – I just thought of something else about the ending, going along with my reading that there are no good choices. Whether you read it as going full anarchist or just ‘opting out of the system’, blowing up the door is as shitty of an idea as anything Wilford proposed, because of the unforeseen consequences for the rest of the train. In that last moment, our characters realize this too (or at least realize that they’re fucked because the gate won’t close) and making an effort to protect the younger/more innocent ones from their own fuckup is finally the one thing they can do that is inarguably, unambiguously morally correct. (Even Wilford thinks so!) So if there is a positive message or a note of hope, I think it’s there: just protect the kids, guys. Can we at least do that much?

  27. Thank you, Mr. Subtlety, for expressing exactly what I thought about Wilford’s, Gilliam’s, and Curtis’ motivations better than I ever could.

  28. I had very mixed feelings about this movie. It was very well-made and often exciting, but I wanted to like it more than I did. Maybe a second viewing would change my opinion.

    I’m afraid I always tune out when presented with a sci-fi society where there is only a ruling class and a slave class (with not a single abolitionist among the former) and absolutely no middle class or merchant class. It is a type of society that does not exist anywhere except in cheesy sci-fi – and was criticized as stale nine decades ago when Fritz Lang did it – yet people always see it as a bold political statement on the real world. It’s weird how people still accept, as a critique of capitalism, dystopias in which no actual buying or selling takes place.

    It’s also hard to buy that a mere 17 years in the future, any memory of any form of democracy, civil rights or human decency will be completely forgotten. Most of the villains had no shades of gray to make them believable or interesting, but instead were just E-V-I-L with a capital Fuck You. OK, we all hate rich people and people in authority, but does that mean villains in a movie don’t have to be plausible in their motives or actions?

    If the villains were more persuasive, if they used propaganda or something to convince the lower class (not just the middle-class schoolkids) that they were actually better off where they were, I might have found that more deep and satirical. Instead, Tilda Swinton’s gloating, condescending character (admittedly an amazing performance) couldn’t have goaded the underclass into revolt any harder if she tried.

    The main villain’s closing pitch to the hero (SPOILER) was basically “Look at me! I’m callous and evil, bwahaha! Now take my place. Wait, waddya mean no?” If he made a more heartfelt and persuasive case that this was the best that society could do now, that might have been more thought-provoking and troubling, but I guess it was easier to have him be just a one-dimensional gloating villain so that we could more easily reject him.

    This is the type of allegory where they show you a one-dimensional straw-man society that would never exist, and you’re supposed to find it deep merely because it’s vaguely inspired by stuff in the news. I thought Star Trek squeezed every remaining drop of blood from that stone back in the 90s and yet it keeps coming back.

    Maybe I shouldn’t be so nitpicky about the premise of a bold, surreal fantasy story like this one that seems to have a lot of genuine excitement and buzz surrounding it. But it bums me out that the only non-superhero sci-fi movies that seem to get made anymore are ruined-earth stories and/or class-warfare stories. I get that they reflect contemporary concerns, but they also seem to reflect an inability of current storytellers to imagine any other kind of future to strive for.

    I recently read Vern’s review of JENNIFER’S BODY, of which he half-jokingly said “It’s not about something easy to sell like isn’t it fucked up how there is no hope at all” and I guess that sums up my feeling about these dystopian stories. They’re maybe not that edgy. They perhaps kind of pander to the cynicism of their intended audience. If we think the villains represent stuff in the real world we hate, then we suspend our usual expectations that villains have some interesting quality to make them compelling or likable or at least three-dimensional.

    I feel like I’m being a hipster dick for writing all this because here’s a foreign movie that has only been shown in a handful of US cities so far and I’m faulting it for being knee-jerk and predictable. (I’ve become the type of person I hated in college.) But the fact that I’m taking it this seriously instead of just going “yeah, it was OK” seems like a vote in its favor. I wouldn’t have written all this if the movie didn’t stick with me and make me think.

    It’s also funny to see Tilda Swinton and John Hurt together again so soon after ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE.

  29. (and I called the schoolkids “middle-class” after suggesting there was no middle class in this movie, which just shows why I’m not the one writing movie reviews)

  30. Dikembe Mutombo

    July 6th, 2014 at 12:07 am

    I wanna say something smart about this movie but all I can think of is “wow that was good” and “man when can I watch it again.” It’s pretty clever and satisfying in a way that I find allegorical sci-fi movies about class uprisings almost never are for me. The big thing it doesn’t do is pretend that taking down The Man is the only thing standing between late capitalist dystopia and a hunky dory classless paradise. I think it helps a lot that Bong had his boots on the ground on one point, seeing as he was a student protester during South Korea’s military dictatorship 80s – perhaps he’s seen firsthand how struggles are co-opted by the status quo, or how revolutionary ideology crumbles away as participants embrace and validate the methods of the system they oppose.

    I get the sense that all the grey and brown dystopian stuff early on was the bait, and the bloody Alice in Wonderland style journey of disenchantment it turns into is the switch. I think the audience I saw it with was quite dissatisfied with that, but it’s what made the film special & interesting for me.

    Also, I gotta say I think the movie deserves an ACR. There’s a buttload of action in it, and the sauna car sequence (great mix of suspense, brutal and cleanly shot action and a legitimate scary, dangerous bad guy) would be in my top 5 action scenes of the year if I had such a list. The stuff early on is a little too hectic with the camera jiggling, though the editing is reasonable. It made me think about the line between handheld and shaky – I believe THE RAID 2’s camerawork is merely handheld, and doesn’t make a big show of trying to trick you into thinking the cameraman is struggling to keep the frame or follow the action. SNOWPIERCER often crosses the line into shaky but I’d still give it like a 3.75.

  31. Curt, you make some great points for sure, but I think there’s a little more in the movie than you’re giving it credit for.

    1) There plainly is another class beyond slave class and rich people — a service class. Bong said he designed the train to feel like a luxury hotel, and everything from the greenhouse car back is the “behind the scenes” service part of the hotel… the design here is more industrial with lots of signs, whereas the front half of the front half of the train is more like a fancy resort or cruise ship. You’ll remember the first car they come across after they break Nam out of prison is empty, but filled with plain beds, dining tables, and a sink. This is presumably the barracks for the train’s service class, who would include the people working in the greenhouse, the sushi chef, the bartender, and probably also the military/armed security people (it’s either empty because they’re all at work, or because they all were assembling for their big axe battle, or both). We don’t know how they are paid since the only commerce we see is in the tail section, where a prison-esque barter system exists (we witness protein blocks exchanged for Kronole, for instance).

    2) Evil villains. I sort of agree with you here, that the villains were mostly cartoonishly evil, which perhaps divorces the film from reality somewhat. However, I will say I am glad they didn’t go with the overused trope of the one nice guard, who either shockingly later betrays out heroes, or doesn’t betray them but becomes an audience surrogate so we can feel safe, knowing that even if a Snowpiercer-esque dystopia sprung up, we wouldn’t be Tilda Swinton, we’d be that one guard who showed some compassion.

    Also, I think part of why the people at the back are treated so awfully is that Wilford and/or the system have managed to dehumanize them so thoroughly, a device that is brilliantly betrayed through the motif of limbs. In the eyes of the elites, the tail-dwellers aren’t people, but freeloaders “suckling at the titty of Wilford” (a direct analogy here to critique of the “Welfare state”), reduced literally to their sheer functionality… they don’t have brains, emotions, or anything like that, they are simply a pair of hands or a pair of feet — a cog in the machine (again, something shown literally at movie’s end). This is demonstrated clearly right at the beginning — the violinist wants to bring his wife along, the guard tells him “we just need your hands,” not, note, we just need YOU… he’s just a pair of hands. To which the violinist replies “not both?” referring to his wife, and the guard, not getting it, says “yes, both hands.” Then there is the whole business with Andy throwing a shoe and having the instrument of his revolt — his arm — removed, essentially worse than killing him in the eyes of the elites, who see him as nothing more than a good pair of arms.

    Secondly, I think there are two forms of propaganda that they DO use to keep everyone in line in the back. First, as they do in the front, the constantly remind the tail-dwellers that if they go outside, they will freeze and die. They reinforce this both through speeches (Mason says “order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,”) and through their torture device — they could easily have just cut Andy’s arm off, but instead they go through the whole freezing thing… why? To remind everyone that outside the train is death. It’s a lie that’s set in place to make everyone think that no matter how horrible the system they are trapped within is, they are stuck in it, because there is no viable alternative. To leave the system is to die.

    Their second method of propaganda isn’t revealed until the third act — but it’s the revolution itself — revealed to be staged by Wilford as a form of population control. But surely if population control was the ONLY goal, they could just regularly go into the tail and shoot a bunch of people. Instead they do it through revolutions. Why? In my mind this is analogous to the myth of the American dream: poor people voting against their self-interest because they think they will be rich one day. The revolution brings that tail section hope, and that hope keeps them from turning against each other — that dream that one day they’ll be the ones on top. Wilford basically admits to this when he says Curtis’s revolution was a “blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” He’s giving the people of the tail an exciting story, a folk hero, to keep them hopeful and in line. I could even read this as the movie’s critique of more traditional rebellion narratives on film, be it Star Wars or whatever, that they feed the masses simple stories of underdog triumph to keep them safely underfoot in reality.

    Next, I think the first act very intentionally sets up super evil villains and super likable good guys, so that it can subvert it, but I think you were maybe looking too intently at the villainous side. Because rather than show the bad guys in shades of gray, what the film does is gradually reveal the good guys are just as “bad” as the bad guys. Or rather, that it’s not that our plucky underdog heroes have to overthrow the bad guys and everything will be okay, but rather that it is the system of control, the system of inequality, that prays on the worst of human nature and eventually turns everyone bad. This is explicitly addressed in the third act, with Curtis being tempted by what he has hated most — basically the revolutionary hero who grows up and takes the cushy corporate gig — but it is absolutely present throughout.

    Right at the start, for example, Curtis tells Edgar “it will be different when we get there (to the front).” But instead of agreeing with him, Edgar states plainly “I want steak.” They don’t have an egalitarian philosophy — they simply want what the rich guys have. Next, Curtis tells Gilliam they must go all the way to the front of the train. “And then what?” Gilliam asks, knowing they don’t have any more plan than that for how to keep everyone on the train alive, or for how to distribute their dwindling resources more equally. “We kill him,” Curtis replies, and it’s the reply of many movie-rebellion leader before him. Just kill the black hat, and everything will be okay. But that’s not how the world works.

    Next, Nam is introduced as a Han Solo type, and we keep waiting for his come to Jesus moment, but it never comes. He never joins up with the rebels because he knows that rebellion within the system of control doesn’t work. The only way out is to escape the system, or to destroy the system. He’s the true radical and reveals himself to be the true hero of the film.

    And there are many more examples like this. Andy loses an arm and has a shoe put on his head, so when he captures Tilda he puts a shoe on HER head and threatens to cut off her arm. The system affects everyone equally. I think Bong best plays with this stuff in how he deals with Mason’s character. When she is first stabbed by Grey in the back of the leg, everyone I watched the movie with cheered, as the movie’s first act had riled up the audience’s bloodlust. But then Gilliam is shot point blank in the head, and what does Curtis do? Does he take the high road? Does he show how he’s better than those in the front of the train? No, he shoots Mason, an unarmed prisoner, at point blank range. The audience’s cheers catch in their throats (of course, this is right after the good guys have murdered a pregnant woman).

    Lastly, I got a completely different read on the Ed Harris scene than you. He’s the one villain in the film who’s not BIG in the way that Swinton or Pill are. He eventually shows some nastiness, sure, but he mostly seems pretty reasonable. He’s not dressed ornately like the others, he’s in a friggin’ bathrobe. He doesn’t talk about the divine engine or of his wonderful genius, he says they’re all “trapped in this hunk of metal.” He doesn’t say “the engine is forever,” he reveals its parts are going extinct. It’s a total Wizard of Oz moment — here is not a fearsome and insane cult leader, but a lonely pragmatist whose ideas, extreme as they are, might even make sense.

    Gilliam’s betrayal fits with the theme I laid out above — that everyone’s corrupted by the system… that’s what makes the system untenable. And yes, Wilford’s arguments might still not hold much weight to you and I, but he picked Curtis for a reason.. he knows, as we now know, that Curtis is, as he’s been saying all along, not a leader. That he’s a coward and a baby-eater, that he’s selfish at heart. That’s the type of person that will take Wilford’s offer. Curtis basically walks right into the trap. He tells Wilford “there isn’t a soul on this train who wouldn’t trade places with you.” And isn’t that what it really comes down to?

    Lastly, I think Bong has always taken this dark view of human nature — that man is not grandly evil, but instead petty and selfish and corruptible. But to my mind his film’s are never cynical, because they are always tempered through hope and renewal, usually represented through family bonds and most explicitly represented in the young (this is most evident in the end of The Host). He seems to say the world is a tough place, the systems of control we have in place have corrupted us all, and while its too late for us, its not too late for humanity — its up to the next generation to to break us free and lead the way. Which is the exact message of the last scene of Snowpiercer and seems like the very opposite of cynicism to me.

  32. Oh God, sorry for writing a book, and sorry for all the spelling/grammar issues. Should have proofread less quickly.

  33. Ro-Man the Hew-Man

    July 6th, 2014 at 7:15 am

    This has to be the most hilariously silly movie I’ve seen this year, and in quite a while, so much so that after seeing the scene with the roaring (slo-mo roaring!) fat guy and the skinny guy who suddenly runs on the wall to get him, I started suspecting that maybe this was actually made AS a comedy from scratch. (It’s not).

    “Subtlety”-wise it reminded me of some of those goofy agitpropfilms we were getting here in the 50s and the 60s, about the evil of America and the West in general; at one point I was waiting for an equivalent of that immortal Russian export, “А у вас негров бьют!”, but there was nothing of the sort. (Actually it seems that you could go for reverse and say, “Южнокорейцы негров бьют” instead, judging by that Korean director’s hilarious/unbelievable approach to that black woman in the opening “rebellion” scene!)

    If that guy Michael Bay ever starts believing he should go serious and pretentious, and start making “deep” and “ambitious” movies with “commentary”, this is the kind of movie he’ll make.

    Hey, they can still do like Shamalama did with his “Happening” and pretend they wanted to make a B comedy. And they already have the PERFECT tagline: “Babies taste best!”


    Daniel Strange — you say “Version one is capitalism, version two is communism. We’ve seen from the real world that neither version is perfect, and if Wilford’s biggest sin in creating this scenario is that he let too many people on the train (instead of having a more balanced distribution of wealth between the people who had bought tickets), that’s understandable too: is it better to have let those stowaways die, or make them live in squalor?”

    But I reject that these are the only two options available. There’s plainly enough resources on the train to comfortably cloth, house, and feed every person on the train. Heck, they have whole cars devoted to drugged up orgies and saunas. They have restaurants, several different bars. They have farming (apparently?) and also the equipment to produce synthetic food like the protein bars. But nearly all the resources available are going into producing a luxurious, opulent life for the front half, and, in fact, the people at the back half are really mostly being kept alive because occasionally the produce something that the front half wants (a violinist, a child no one is going to complain about being worked to death).

    Interestingly, Wilford has never seen this. He has the luxury of talking gradnly about balance without ever having to actually see how that’s working out in the real world. But Curtis HAS seen it. He’s the first person ever to see the whole thing, to pass through the entire world. Now, do you really think that Curtis could go back to the rear of the train, seeing what he’s seen, knowing what he now knows, and honestly tell people, “don’t worry, stay in your place, be a shoe. There’s an excellent reason you’re being kept in grinding poverty.”

    Absolutely not. It’s an easy argument to make to the front half, who benefit enormously from this so-called “balance,” but the poor people at the back would immediately and correctly point out that this is utter bullshit, a cynical fairy tale to explain why it’s OK to live extravagantly off the suffering of others. The IDEA of the need for balance is obviously an entirely practical and necessary one. But there’s many ways of balancing an object on a lever, right? A large object can balance with a small object depending on where they’re actually set in relation to each other on the lever. What Wilford has done (or allowed to be done, it’s hard to know exactly how much he pays attention to the day-to-day running of the society) is balanced it in a particular way which massively favors one group over another, and then convinced himself that because it’s “balanced,” this is the only possible way to arrange it.

    Curtis can think of a much different way to balance the train. But can anyone with the power to make this kind of decision not abuse it? Thankfully, he never has to find out.

    Bonzob — I think that’s an excellent interpretation. I hadn’t considered the parallels in the story, but I think you’ve found some great ones. I think that folds nicely into what Curtis is thinking about at the end — if given Wilford’s power, could he really improve things? Or would he just end up a different kind of monster?

  35. Bonzob, I like your interpretation of the movie. You raise points I hadn’t thought of, or didn’t notice.

    I still find the villains’ hostility to be counterproductive though. Willard’s final speech to the hero seems designed to shock and horrify him – rather than actually win him over, which might have been more unsettling and thought-provoking. (Maybe it’s Harris’ cold performance, more than the actual dialogue, that made me feel that way.) Similarly, when Swinton tells the underclass of their role in things, it seems designed to scold and insult them (thus motivating them to rise up) rather than make them complacent (which would work more in the villains’ favor).

    An interesting movie. I have to be honest and say I didn’t actually like it that much. But it was the good kind of “I didn’t like it” where you end up wanting to talk to someone about it, and end up having a discussion with people who had different interpretations than you.

  36. (Wilford not Willard)

  37. Fair enough, Curt — it’s fun to discuss for sure. I still see the Harris scene differently, but maybe you are right, that his performance is muddying the waters (it’s not my favorite performance in the movie for sure).

    But I see a lot of seduction there, rather than just being grandly evil. He gives Curtis things he knows he wants — real food, time alone, silence. He compliments him “you did a man’s work,” “you’re the only person who’s walked the length of the train.” He preys on his guilty conscience, telling him “you know how people are without order. They devour each other. You’ve seen this. You’ve been this.” He intentionally hides the truth about the children from him until Yona reveals it, etc.

    Even the Gilliam reveal seems less like a “look how evil I am!” moment, and more like a “even your mentor saw that this was the only way. Are you really saying you don’t agree?” type thing.

  38. The Allusionist

    July 7th, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Third-ing the call for you to watch Bong’s Mother, Vern, and posthaste. Not that Memories of Murder isn’t essential viewing as well, but Mother hews closer to a hard-boiled detective tale, and seems more up your alley.

  39. By the way, did anyone else expect this movie to turn out to be a long commercial for Coors light at the end?

  40. I just found out that you can see this through on demand. Is this one that should be seen in the theater?

  41. Yes, definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

  42. For me, MEMORIES OF MURDER is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I don’t say that very often. Sadly I haven’t seen MOTHER yet.


    I think that there is a middle class. I think that was the part of the train that just got blown through for the most part – the woman in the car drinking tea and surrounded by books, the dentist working on someone. Plus, also what I would call the mall cars – the beauty salon, etc. I thought it was interesting because even though you didn’t really see those people much, they seemed satisfied with what they were doing. It was interesting that when you got to the very front cars that those people didn’t seem satisfied. That was when people seemed crazed again. They weren’t industriously working in the gardens, or hanging out in the sauna. They were fucking and dancing and tweaking – they had that drug just laying around everywhere. It didn’t seem like a happy celebration. It seemed like they were trying to escape their existence just as much as the people at the back.

    Speaking of the people at the back, what was their purpose? I think it was more diabolical than what’s been discussed so far. Sure, they came and got a person every so often to play the violin, make the bug-protein bars or a kid to stuff in the gears, but that didn’t seem like it happened very often. Wilford said that they only started needing the kids to run the engine recently. I think he didn’t let them kill themselves off, or kill them himself, because he realized that the train society needed a bottom rung. They were all left alone to die and eat each other for awhile, but then suddenly Wilford started feeding them. Maybe that was just because it took them that long to come up with the bug-bar concept, but I am wondering if the people started acting up, making him think the paying passengers would be more compliant if they knew they weren’t the bottom of the social strata.

    I think this also is illustrated by his engineering the revolt. He didn’t want to use it as population control of the paying passengers in the way of killing them. He even said he wasn’t happy with how many of those people were lost. And he could’ve just gone into the tail section and killed off however many he wanted, to control that population. I think it was another threat for the paying passengers and a way to keep them in line. It was to remind them that they could have it worse, they could be in the tail section. Or they could have it worse, they could not have the protection that Wilford’s soldiers offer from the tail section. Maybe these things could act as population control for the paying passengers as a reminder to what will happen if they start breeding like rabbits, so keep yourselves in check, people.

    It was an interesting movie. I’m not sure yet how much I liked it. It’s one of those that I have to think about for awhile. I do think the performances were excellent, specifically Tildon. Someone mentioned the speech Evans gives about babies tasting better and whether it could be seen as comedic. I didn’t have that reaction and I didn’t hear any laughter in the audience, even the nervous kind. I thought he did really good there and bought into it as a serious tragedy.

  44. Maggie — that’s an interesting point, and might explain why Wilford doesn’t really make much effort to stop the rebels as they march through the train. Maybe the point is to prominently put them on display for the front sections.

  45. Why is it that all the evil nasty women in the movie are WHITE and the “good” women are ethnic….why is it okay to portray white women in such a negative light, and no one even has a problem with that? If it was the other way around, EVERYONE would be up in arms!

  46. It would also make no sense, because we do not live in a world where it is predominately women of color in positions of wealth and power.

  47. Imagined future based on present, not imagined future based on imagined present.

    It would have had been cool if Bong Jun-Ho hired Gulnara Karimova for the lead baddie role, but you’d need an all Uzbek cast to make it work.

  48. No no, clearly Bong Joon-Ho has a racist agenda against white women (but not white men). That’s why he cast really good actresses in the roles and gave them very interesting characters: because he hates white women. And only white women, everyone else is cool.

  49. The Undefeated Gaul

    November 17th, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Well, I guess it’s a risk going to see INTERSTELLAR since opinions seem to be very divided. And the ending is easy to hate, I have to admit. It’s not a complete movie-breaker though, and just for that chance you end up loving it as much as I do it would be a real shame to have missed it in the cinema. It’s gripping all the way through, it’s got another one of those world class McConaughey performances and it’s by far Nolan’s most emotional film (I teared up twice, which almost never happens to me). Cherry on top is the soundtrack, pure Zimmer magic.

  50. The Undefeated Gaul

    November 17th, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Shit that should’ve been in the MINORY REPORT thread. Being about INTERSTELLAR and all.


    Got around to seeing this on the weekend, and I thought it was pretty great. Can’t add much in the way of substance to what’s already been said in the intelligent review and comments above, so I’ll risk saying something stupid, “to keep the balance” as Wilford would preach (clearly I would be a tailender on the post apocalyptic train ride) –

    As the film progressed, and as the rebels moved through the carriages and got closer to Wilford at the front of the train, it occurred to me I had seen this story before – WILLY WONKA AND THE GODDAMN CHOCOLATE FACTORY. SNOWPIERCER is Willy Wonka On A Train. Impoverished, socially challenged Curtis/Charlie makes his way through various obstacles, finally passes the Wilford/Wonka test and inherits the kingdom. A broad stroke, sure, but hey, that’s what I was thinking. I also got a WIZARD OF OZ vibe from the mysteriousness of Wilford locked away in his palatial front carriage, but just like The Great Oz, ultimately he’s somewhat of a dick.


  52. Poeface, don’t worry, it’s not idiotic – I totally felt the episodic nature and candy-coated sets were straight out of Willy Wonka. There’s definitely a fairy-tale feeling to alot of aspects of the story (the kidnapping of the children, their eventual fate, The Wizard of Oz-style reveal) that alot of people can’t seem to get past. I know tons of people who HATED this movie, probably because they were expecting less Willy Wonka and more Hunger Games.

    I’m not exactly saying this should have been a PG-13 kids movie or anything, but in a weird way I sort of wish it was, since announcing itself as a blatant fable would have quashed all the nerd complaints about logistics and lack of realism. Plus I can guarantee kids of today would look back 20 years from now and share stories of being traumatized by that frozen arm scene and the bug bars, etc…

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