Cold wars
A review of Snowpiercer

Thirty years ago John Hurt lent his crumpled mien and instantly recognisable voice to Michael Radford’s filmic adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Hurt played Winston Smith, the quiet revolutionary, opposite Richard Burton in his final role as the Inner Party member and Thought Police agent O’Brien. When Hurt makes his appearance in Bong Joon-ho’s new dystopian thriller Snowpiercer, playing a grizzled, one-armed rebel named Gilliam, it’s difficult to not think of his Winston Smith, and impossible to put aside thoughts of Orwell’s own dystopian masterpiece, which has overshadowed this literary and filmic genre for more than half a century.

A fictional dystopia lives or dies by the logic of its conceit. The grimy World War Two atmosphere of Orwell’s novel has dated, but its central concern – the existence of a total surveillance state – continues to haunt our contemporary imagination. Snowpiercer, which is loosely adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, published in 1982, begins from a more fantastical premise. It is 2031, and the survivors of a human-induced ice age have been circling the planet for seventeen years in a high-speed train, which is owned and run (as is the global rail network itself) by the engineer and entrepreneur Wilford (Ed Harris). The train’s spatial arrangement supports a rigid class stratification: the front carriages are the preserve of a ruling elite, while the tail end is occupied by a lumpenproletariat, who eke out their miserable days in slum conditions, while being brutalised by Wilford’s private army. All life outside the train is apparently extinct.

The idea that humanity will depend for its survival on a giant train gives Snowpiercer an unmistakeable steampunk aesthetic, harking back to the glory of nineteenth century locomotives while also looking forward to a gleaming future of perpetual-motion machines. The wretches in the train’s rear look like street urchins plucked from a Charles Dickens novel, all rags and dirt and crutches. An uprising is stirring among them, and not for the first time. John Hurt’s Gilliam has led a previous rebellion, which failed; his rebel heir is Curtis (Chris Evans), a young man whose aim is to seize the train’s front engine. “If we control the engine, we control the world,” says Curtis. But if this echoes an older socialist idea that the working class must seize the means of production, it’s as close to political philosophy as the film ever gets.

Snowpiercer is invested in a violent machismo. The insurgent underclass, lead by Curtis, is depicted as a braying mob armed quite literally with flaming torches, who fight and hack their way to the front of the train in a series of almost medieval tableaux, but who appear to have no internal organisation or means of communication with each other. Violence always involves moral questions, and the decision whether to take up armed struggle lies at the heart of revolutionary movements, but the film does not take these concerns at all seriously. As with so many other contemporary blockbusters, the slaughter in Snowpiercer is merely aesthetic: a dilemma for the makeup department, the CGI unit and the cinematographer.

The film’s narrow focus on violence and despair also misses the fact that mass uprisings create their own happiness – post-revolutionary Egypt may have quickly soured, but who can forget the scenes of jubilation in Tahir Square when the hated Mubarak was overthrown? In Snowpiercer the pursuit of pleasure lies solely with the ruling class, and for that reason the most enjoyable scenes are, inevitably, those which take place in the front section of the train. These carriages offer a sumptuous reveal, as refreshing to the eye as the switch from sepia Kansas to Technicolour dreamland in The Wizard of Oz. Like the Wizard, the engineer Wilford rules by rumour: I half expected Ed Harris to emerge muttering from behind a curtain, with a Cairn terrier nipping at his heels.

The ruling class characters, too, are the most engaging. It’s hard to fathom why anyone would follow the lacklustre Curtis – Chris Evans has precisely zero screen charisma – but Tilda Swinton steals the show as Wilford’s deputy, Minister Mason. With buckteeth and a broad Yorkshire accent, Swinton brings an obvious relish to a character type – the punctilious, disciplinary school ma’am – which reflects poorly on the film’s gender politics but is nevertheless delightful to watch. Playing bad is, as usual, way more fun than playing good.

Wilford’s train is referred to early in the film as an ark, and like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, released earlier this year, Snowpiercer is a cinematic response to the imminent catastrophe of climate change. 2031 minus seventeen years is 2014, when the new ice age begins. A quick audio montage at the film’s beginning suggests that, in the face of popular dismay, elected politicians failed to act upon the threat of climate change until it was too late. This, alas, feels like the truth.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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