Edinburgh 2014: ‘Snowpiercer’ review


A stunning, visionary example of dystopian science fiction cinema at its very best, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) – based in the French graphic novel – is a blockbuster of gargantuan proportions. Starring a cavalcade of well-known faces including Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans and Song Kang-ho, this futuristic allegory beautifully imbues radical social politics with a sharp and intuitive eye for style and action. Upending the social structure of society and transposing it horizontally, the upper-class has become first-class on the Rattling Ark – a gigantic speed train hurtling across a world pushed into a second ice-age due to the meddling of man.

If this colossal locomotive were to stop moving, the last remnants of humanity would freeze to death, making the train’s perpetual-motion engine both the beating heart of humankind and an exceptionally prized asset. A literal microcosm of a contemporary neoliberal society, those at the front of the train rule over the rest, with the rich dictating to the complicit, who in turn oppress the poor and underprivileged. However, as history has continually taught us, this type of dictatorship is unsustainable and revolution an inevitability. We thus board the Rattling Ark just as the seeds of disquiet begin to blossom into battle, with Evans’ Curtis at the forefront of the uprising. A magnificent tapestry of rich visuals, futurist whimsy and dark social satire, Bong’s Snowpiercer certainly isn’t your average sci-fi epic.

A surprisingly unnerving and claustrophobic chamber piece that plays out almost like a video game, our ragtag horde of rebels move through the train from carriage to carriage, with each advancement as fresh and unfamiliar to us as it is to them. By positioning the viewer at the very back of the train and allowing us to pass through it, Bong creates an air of mystery and intrigue – mirroring the passengers yearning and fascinating for the riches that lie ahead. As we progress from the dark, grubby rear of the train’s flank to the opulent splendour of the front carriages, Snowpiercer evolves steadily, growing richer with every step and slowly feeding us morsels of information – enriching this ludicrous premise with enough magic and wonder to suspend our disbelief entirely.

Seamlessly entwining the dramatic tensions and linear narratives of western cinema with the stylised violence and absurdity of its Asian counterparts, Snowpiercer is a genuinely global film – a rich hybrid of styles that breaks through cultural and political boundaries. The performances are equally as diverse. While Swinton’s Thatcher-esque fundamentalist steals the limelight, but the entire cast from Jamie Bell and Evans to Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung all bring something fresh to the fore. And yet, it’s the depiction of class warfare and the rise of the proletariat that makes Bong’s triumph more that just a runaway actioner. The intelligent scrutiny of neoliberal ideals makes for a wonderfully reflective, spectacular think piece on social irresponsibility and individualism.

The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.

Patrick Gamble