Science fiction films are rarely about the time or the place they depict. Instead, the futuristic settings and story lines are used as allegory to comment on contemporary society. The best science fiction has always been able to provide its political and social messages while still remaining entertainment. Snowpiercer is one of these, but takes it a step further. Where most science fiction sets its events outside of the present day, Snowpiercer is set in the foreseeable future, less than two decades from the present day. This gives the film an immediacy that meshes well with the fast-paced action-thriller style of director Joon-ho Bong. It is a story that can’t be explained away by it’s distance. There are no aliens and no monsters, only people. Even the technology is barely ahead of the curve, most probably already being used in top secret government facilities.
This is a world that developed directly as a result of one of the biggest modern day global crises: global warming. In attempting to halt it in its tracks, humanity instead managed to speed it up, creating a worldwide ice age that leaves the planet uninhabitable. All that is left of the Earth’s ecosystem is confined to a train that endlessly circles the globe. A contained macrocosm, those who did not have the money to pay for the luxury of the front are confined to the tail, living in what amount to slums and living off of an unidentifiable brown jelly like substance. The train is not much different from society at large, where the power and wealth is controlled by a chosen few and everyone else fights over the scraps they are left with.
Joon-ho Bong has assembled a talented multi-ethnic, interracial cast that creates a cross-section of human characters. As much as the film is about the lengths that desperate people will go to and class struggle, it is also about how in the end, if you’re only in it for yourself, life is vapid and empty. This might be a representation of hell on Earth, but it is also a testament to how no one is particularly different from anyone else, save the hand they have been dealt. There is no clear black/white, good/evil dichotomy here. The heroes enact horrible deeds, and the villains can be sympathetic.
Aside from all the big, political and philosophical meat to the film, Snowpiercer is also a solid popcorn film. It is dark, gritty and full of action, including some of the most physically visceral fight sequences from this year’s film roster. It’s only real fault is that at just over two hours, the film runs a little long, losing some of the suspense of the tightly wound first act. There’s also a story line with a hit man, which is doesn’t make a lot of sense and drags the film on too long. This is mostly forgotten in the final act, however, which is incredibly strong, managing to be poignant, devastating and uplifting in a single stroke.
We need more science fiction like this. Hard-hitting, intelligent commercial entertainment. Maybe then audiences will learn that smart can be fun too.