Streaming’s Hidden Treasures: Snowpiercer

Image: Netflix

Streaming has changed the way we view films. It is a change that has been welcomed by many and sniffed at by others. Like it or not, however, Netflix, Amazon and the like play a huge part in being a film-lover today. These platforms have vast amounts to offer, some of which is sorely overlooked. Streaming’s Hidden Treasures aims to pick out quality, different and lesser-known cinema from across the internet, offering a guide to a variety of entertainment with ease and affordability.

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ko A-sung

Streaming Service: Netflix

I remember when Snowpiercer was released in the country, or rather, when it wasn’t. The much-hyped dystopian thriller was the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and had a cast including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt. What could go wrong? Well, there was a dispute between Bong and Harvey Weinstein about the film’s length. Holding firm, Bong finally got his cut released but with a different distribution company and at a cost. Snowpiercer only got a very limited theatrical release and none at all in the UK. For a British film fan, it was an injustice; one that has since been rectified by Netflix. Available on the streaming giant’s UK service, Snowpiercer is no disappointment. This is compelling, intelligent thriller filmmaking of the highest order.

Based on the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, the story is set in the year 2031. Global warming has devastated the planet (as if!) and a worldwide attempt to reverse it has instead led to the freezing of the entire globe and near-total extinction of humanity. The survivors are all aboard a constantly-running train designed and owned by the mysterious Mr. Wilford. They are not all in this together, however. The rich are at the front of the train enjoying live music and steak dinners whilst the poorest are cramped in at the back, surviving off daily ’protein bricks’. Unsurprisingly, revolution is stirring amongst the tail-end passengers, led by the reluctant-leader Curtis. Chris Evans does a good job as Curtis, betraying both his tenacious idealism, and world-on-his-shoulders weariness.

The film is primarily an action thriller, and a bloody good one at that. The script, adapted by Bong and Kelly Masterson, quickly sets up the premise and character relationships as we dive headlong into the narrative. From frame one, the revolution is propelling forwards like the train that carries it. Despite the quick set-up, these are mostly a bunch of vivid characters, with any under-writing hidden by a superb ensemble cast that includes Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho, Ko A-sung and Ewen Bremner. Their adversaries are where most of the humour is found in wildly entertaining performances from Tilda Swinton and Alison Pill. Keep ‘em peeled too for a silent Luke Pasqualino (Freddie from Skins to British TV audiences) in an action-heavy role.

Snowpiercer plays at times like a heist movie, with the upper echelons of the train as the vault. The careful planning and waiting for ‘the big day’ soon go out the window, however, and are replaced with a brutal, bloody assault on the senses. The action is beautifully choreographed, shot, and scored, with plenty of heart behind it as the group fight for their survival. Bong uses the compartmentalised train to maximum fact, passing through a variety of colourful mini-worlds to keep the quest for equality fresh. His stylised direction mixes well with the excellent set design; some of the carriages have an authentic and grubby feel, whilst others are a dreamlike feast for the senses. We move through them with great pace, having long enough to marvel at them, but not long enough to settle.

Thankfully, the somewhat unsubtle social commentary in the film’s set-up is properly explored rather than left as crude surface-level allegory. The general debates about class and division are obvious from square one, but the story takes a smart turn in its investigation not just of class, but of post-apocalyptic survival. Yes, this is a metaphor for society, but Snowpiercer doesn’t forget that it is also a film about a train, exploring the moral specificities of this very specific case of a ‘closed ecosystem’. The climax is a worthy pay-off to the violent trudge through the train that explodes the narrative and thematic groundwork that has been laid in the previous 90 minutes.

What Bong does so well with the narrative is that the moments of political and moral debate are woven expertly into the fabric of the film. Throughout, Snowpiercer remains focussed on being a proper thriller that never loosens its grip. It is a testament to the acting and filmmaking on display here that when the action slows and the social commentary is opened up, the film is exhilarating not despite it, but because of it, especially in its impeccably acted showdown between Curtis and Ed Harris’ train overlord Mr. Wilford.

I used to go around telling people to watch films they’d never heard of. Spoiler: it didn’t work. Despite my various protestations that these beloved films of mine were worth watching, people are very hard to persuade if they have to buy a cinema ticket or DVD to test out your recommendation. In that respect at least, I am thankful for streaming. If you have a Netflix account, or more accurately leach off someone else’s, then you have no excuse any more. Snowpiercer is well-acted, thoughtful and bracingly entertaining filmmaking.

Andrew Young