Which is too bad! “Snowpiercer” deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible. Though it is a movie with a message, it’s more than just a message movie: “Snowpiercer” is one of the best pure action films of the last decade, a high-concept piece of brutality on par with the “John Wick” flicks.
As the film begins, humanity has virtually gone extinct thanks to the efforts of environmentalists to blot out the sun and save the planet from global warming. (Good villains, the environmentalists!) The last remnant of the species survives on a train that circles the globe at top speeds, smashing through ice drifts that accumulate on tracks thanks to the power of the sacred engine designed by the mysterious Wilford (Ed Harris).
The train is separated into classes just as a common passenger train might be, but with far greater consequences. Those in steerage live on top of one another, consuming protein blocks made of bug guts; those in the middle class have a few amenities — meat to eat; sushi, every once in a while — while the one percent is one man, Wilford himself, who lives alone in his ivory engine car, looking down on the people he has saved and wants to keep in their place so everything can keep running smoothly. The underclass, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and given an assist by locksmith Namgoong Minsoo (“Parasite” star Kang-ho Song), seeks to undo the unnatural order or die trying.
Much like “Parasite,” “Snowpiercer” is ultimately less about the iniquities of the capitalist system than trying to find a way to exit it altogether. Leaving aside whether or not the critique holds water — it doesn’t, capitalism is fantastic as evidenced by the fact that actual anti-capitalist hordes are trying to get you to eat bugs now — the metaphor works much better when set on a train than it does when set in a house. There’s a natural simplicity to it all that provides a visual map for the action: going between the cars gives the message a cleaner geography than traveling up and down the stairs of a home.
More importantly, though, “Snowpiercer” never forgets what sort of movie it is. “Parasite” ducks and dives between farce and fable, culminating in a sad little speech. “Snowpiercer,” on the other hand, is an action flick, one that uses the geography of the class metaphor in clever and creative ways to really make the action pop. First off, the confined horizontal space means forward momentum is key, leading to truly wonderful bits of action dedicated to pushing forward and pulling back, like extended, repeated versions of the great hallway fight in “Oldboy” or the slo-mo charges in “300.”
But the geography of the train comes into play in other ways, like the fantastic moment in which the train is going around a curve, allowing the upper-class soldiers to fire through the windows at their lower-class antagonists, the train’s natural bend serving as a cut-through of sorts. This bit of angular trickery shows off the myriad ways in which Bong has thought through what it might look like to actually wage war on a high-speed bullet train, providing visceral thrills in addition to intellectual fodder.
“Snowpiercer” benefits from the relative simplicity of its story and its message; though frequently didactic in a way that “Parasite” avoids, that very didacticism helps drive the action as surely as the eternal engine drives the train. This is not a world in which shades of grey find much room to spread their shadow; the film exists in a realm of black and white. This is, perhaps, a personal failing, but I’ve always preferred it when filmmakers just went for it. To consider another filmmaker whose politics and pictures freely mix, this is why I’ve always preferred “Bamboozled” or “Chi-Raq” — films that just boldly state their theses and go from there — to “BlacKkKlansman, which mixes subtler storytelling with blunter moralizing to distracting effect.
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