The last survivors of mankind are trapped on a train as it rattles across the frozen wastes of planet Earth.


Remainers on the lost Ark: Jamie Bell and Chris Evans


The word lockdown takes on a whole new meaning in this dystopian express ride based on an all-but-forgotten graphic novel of 1982. The last thousand survivors of a new ice age are confined on a train as it hurtles round our frozen planet in the year 2031. To counteract the effects of global warming, an ill-judged scientific project dubbed CW-7 reversed the temperature of the globe that all but wiped out humanity. The ‘Snowpiercer’ itself is a “rattling Ark” inhabited by the last of mankind trapped on a travelling missile that, thanks to its speed, pierces through snow banks and other wintry obstructions. For Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), the train has been his entire world for the last eighteen years, while, for others, it is all that they have ever known. A five-year-old boy, before he vanishes, calls it “the whole wide train.”


Such dystopian metaphors for the collapse of society would seem two-a-penny in recent years, but Snowpiercer is slightly different. In spite of a stellar international cast, the Czech-South Korean co-production was never widely released due to a creative impasse between Harvey Weinstein and the director. Weinstein, whose company had acquired the distribution rights from CJ Entertainment, had insisted on the addition of an opening and closing monologue as well as the editing of twenty minutes. In the event, the film switched distributors and suffered from only a limited release. Later, Weinstein went to prison and the director, Bong Joon-ho, won an Oscar. Seven years later, the film is finally being released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK and has been turned into a TV series.


Bong Joon-ho, whose Parasite (2019) netted him three Academy Awards, is known for his dramatic tonal shifts. Here, he gamely attempts to have his cake and eat it and throws everything at the screen in a bizarre allegory of the class system that recalls the work of everybody from Terry Gilliam to Luc Besson. It’s nothing if not engaging and, with its constant changes in gear, keeps one guessing until the closing curtain. At the tail end of the locomotive – the arse-end of the train – the lower echelon of humanity huddles together in squalid conditions, deprived of proper nutrition and human comforts and cannot remember anything better. Unbeknownst to them, there’s also the economy section and, closer to the “sacred engine”, the first-class seats…


Bong keeps our interest by throwing in a series of excessively brutal set-pieces and narrative surprises, while enlisting the complicity of a colourful roster of star names. Chris Evans is the stoic (and inexplicably well-groomed) American – the reluctant leader of the lower order – and Jamie Bell is his second-in-command, complete with Irish accent. There’s also Octavia Spencer as a fellow undesirable, John Hurt as a peg-legged sage, while Tilda Swinton devours the décor as a tyrannical official, like a despotic, dentally-challenged Joyce Grenfell with a Yorkshire accent. The actress modelled her character, she says, on Margaret Thatcher, Adolf Hitler and Silvio Berlusconi. The allegory is broad and at times ham-fisted, with an element of pantomime stirred into the ultra-violence. No doubt fans of Bong will lap this all up, but the realism of the film’s blood-letting and the caricature of some of the acting (Ewen Bremner never did understand the art of understatement) are an uneasy fit. Had Bong decided to go further in either direction, he might have found a more emotionally satisfying thrust. But then, that’s not his sandpit.




Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ko Asung, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Alison Pill, Vlad Ivanov, Luke Pasqualino, Clark Middleton, Stephen Park, Emma Levie, Adnan Haskovic.


Dir Bong Joon-ho, Pro Jeong Tae-sung, Steven Nam, Park Chan-wook and Lee Tae-hun, Screenplay Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson, based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Ph Hong Kyung-pyo, Pro Des Ondrej Nekvasil, Ed Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim, Music Marco Beltrami, Costumes Catherine George, Sound Dave Whitehead.


Moho Film/Opus Pictures/Union Investment Partners/Stillking Films-Lionsgate.

126 mins. South Korea/Czech Republic. 2013. UK DVD Rel: 25 May 2020. Cert. 15.