I have often complained about the lack of momentum in action films. Scenes that consist of incomprehensible movement and clanging metal and explosions that we know pose no risk to the heroes bore me quickly. Give me action that moves forward. Give me heroes who know what they want and where it lies, and give me an array of entertaining obstacles that lie in their path. Good action films are balancing acts within balancing acts, like a knife-juggling tightrope walker. A good action movie needs to be thrilling, which is no easy feat, and then give us a reason to be invested in the thrills.
A film like Snowpiercer, then, is some kind of small miracle. Burdened with telling a story that JJ Abrams might consider too high-concept, Bong Joon-hu moves the film forward with absolute resolution. It contains the single most thrilling action set piece I’ve seen since Clive Owen looked for a baby in the midst of a firefight in Children of Men. It has at least three more fight scenes that put just about anything you’ll see this year to shame. All the while, its curiosities never cease. Like the best sci-fi, its setting is one of the most fascinating characters. The Rattling Ark- a massive train whose route takes it around the globe, completing one revolution per year- provides the setting for a barrage of fight scenes that might be the closest quarters combat in the movies to date. Think Elle Driver battling Beatrix Kiddo in an RV in Kill Bill Vol. 2 only there are thirty of them each and you might get the idea.
I enjoy when films set up their stories with minimal clutter and then set off to play. One of my favorite aspects of Pacific Rim is how neatly it builds its world. In just a few minutes it lays out the rules. Kaiju have arrived. Jaegers fight them. Here’s Raleigh Beckett. Have fun.
Snowpiercer has a different type of efficiency. It lays out the rules via opening credit narration (17 years before the film is set, the world froze; all of humanity now lives on a trans-world train powered by perpetual motion). Its opening scenes show us that this condensed version of humanity retains all the disparity between rich and poor of the pre-Apocalypse world. The poor here eat brown blocks of gel and dream of what the world looked like before it was encased in ice. The rich enjoy steak and sushi and drug-fueled nightclub raves.
In back cars of the train, deadly raids and brutal torture are commonplace. This is the world the film’s protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans), entered as a teenager and came of age in. The teens in the cast, like Jamie Bell’s Edgar and Ah-sung Ko’s Yona, have no memory of any other life.
The oppressed people of the rear of the train have grown beyond weary of their lives. Time has come to fight back, and take control of the train. The revolt is led in spirit by a pseudo-prophetic rail-thin stack of leather named Gilliam, played by John Hurt (who still embodies a lifetime of hardship with a glance better than anyone). In practice, it is lead by Curtis.
Snowpiercer contains more characters of note than most action films bother with. More surprisingly, we actually care about them.
Casting is essential in this genre, more than it gets credit for. The right actor can invest you in their character with a glance, a word, or in the case of Luke Pasqualano, a wordless, utterly cool entrance into a fight scene.
The film is uniformly well-cast. Octavia Spencer can make you cry by reading off an Altoids tin. That she gets to bash bad guys with a lead pipe feels like an embarrassment of riches. Jamie Bell seems like he is always going to be playing teenagers, even as he nears his thirties. But well, he plays good teenagers. He’s at his best when open-faced and earnest. That was true when he was actually 15 and it holds today. He stole the show in Nicholas Nickleby and he nearly does the same here as Edgar, the teenager who hero-worships Curtis.
Chris Evans has had a hell of a year. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the best Marvel superhero film yet. Here he is given material that might overwhelm a typical, stone-faced action hero. He gets a harrowing monologue that explains his perpetual grimace. Curtis’s backstory nips any potential fan-theories that he is actually Steve Rogers in the bud.
He shows amazing versatility, as an actor and an action star. His earnest convictions elevated the Captain America films, and here he is just as convincing at portraying lean, efficient brutality,
Curtis is not the film’s only protagonist. Song Kang-ho, so memorable as a down-on-his-luck dad in The Host, here plays Namgoong Minsoo, a brilliant, drug-addicted engineer who built the doors that divide the cars of the train; the closest thing humanity now has to borders. The rebels need him and his daughter Yona to open the doors to carry out their mission. He initially complies for free drugs but as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has significantly deeper motives. He might be the only character in the film who believes in a future in any meaningful sense.
For the bulk of the film, the closest character to a primary antagonist is Mason, a spokesperson for the train’s government, played by Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Mason as a sort of religious cultist Maggie Thatcher. She feels relocated from the cast of Brazil, which is never a criticism in a sci-fi film. She howls about the rear-car denizens knowing their place and frets about finishing her speech too early as her bodyguards torture a man by freezing his arm solid. And yet she’s not an utter heel, present to give us someone simply to root against. Mason is a devotee of a system and is unprepared to see it falling apart around her, failing to keep her at a safe remove from the people she has been keeping in their “preordained place”.
I can’t shake just how good the action in this film is. Yes, you might think: it’s a good movie, and it is an action movie. Therefore it has good action scenes.
But there is something truly giddy about action that is particularly suited to its environment. The entire film takes place in a train, of course, but every car of the train serves its own purpose, from the rear cars that house the poor, to the middle cars that handle utilities, to the very front where the engine (and it engineer, Wilford, who is treated as a mysterious, godlike figure). Setting up the plot by giving the heroes a series of stages to overcome is as old as storytelling itself, of course, but it feels more organic when the stages represent the known inhabitable world. Here each stage has a life of its own, with claustrophobia as the only constant.
Bong Joon-hu shows a choreographer’s eye for action. The fights are thrilling without descending into indistinguishable chaos. There is a scene early in the film that stretches a four-second sequence into one of the most astonishingly choreographed action scenes I’ve ever watched. It’s a gleeful exercise in taking the audience’s pulse a few beats faster with every cut, from the sudden chaos of the buildup to an astonishing decision that Curtis makes that instantly makes my list of favorite movie moments.
Snowpiercer’s story eventually does end up being too much to explain in real time, leading to one of my more commonplace cinematic annoyances: the villain’s grand plot explanation. But it works here, for the same reason parlor scenes work in mystery novels: if the story is told right, the audience will be adding up the pieces all along, and the big explanation becomes a moment of interaction with the story. For all of Snowpiercer’s thrills, it’s just as curious about the world it inhabits. By the end of the film, we want answers and resolution, not just a climactic showdown.
Snowpiercer is a film of many pleasures. Movies that elicit as much excitement as they do fascination are rare. This is a film I want to revisit just to gawk at its sights again. Sometimes I watch a film and wonder if the filmmaker gave more than a moment’s thought about the world the movie inhabits. Snowpiercer wants you to pay attention to the action, yes, but don’t forget to look out the train’s window. You never know what you might miss.