In its worst moments, Snowpiercer is a buffoonish social critique masquerading as an action film. It’s a shame because as much as Snowpiercer sets up an intriguing world and story, it tries too hard to be about something. Too much of the film falls into its preachy themes as the film grinds to a halt for social commentary time.
In a world where climate change leads to a new ice age, a group of human survivors live on Snowpiercer, a train designed to perpetually cycle through the world and keep its passengers alive. The only problem is not all passengers live the same life. Those in the back are fed protein bars and packed like sardines in a shantytown. Those in the front live in leisure and luxury, every possible pleasure and comfort provided to them at no cost. Curtis (Chris Evans), one of the men in the back, decides to lead a revolution sparked by the inspiration of the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) against Wilford, the god-like leader of the train.
While this setup might have been a compelling idea for an interesting conflict and clash of worlds, the problem is that the film consistently sacrifices world-building and story for social commentary. Almost everything about the film is built around pushing the one note, simplistic social commentary: poor people oppressed, rich people oppressors.
The most cringeworthy moment of this perpetual commentary is when Curtis and his group make it to the schoolroom carriage where the teacher (Alison Pill) cheerily tells the grade school students about how wonderful Wilford is while other students talk about how they’ve heard the passengers in the back are backwards fools. They then proceed to singsong about how without Wilford and the engine they’d all be horribly dead. The entire sequence runs tangential to the actual important plot thread, simply more social commentary broadcasted in the brashest and loudest manner possible.
There are moments when the film is compelling. The first major battle between the upper and lower portions of the train is a chilling hand-to-hand combat sequence that slowly evolves into something spectacular. In a later moment of the film, Curtis breaks down and talks about his early days on the train, a small glimpse of humanity in a film otherwise crammed with charactured people. If Snowpiercer could stop wanting to be politically salient at every turn and try to be a story about human being set in a straight action film it might be worthwhile.
The moment where Curtis talks about his past gives a glimpse of a far more interesting film, one which is far more morally compromised and complicated. Hints are given of this early on when Curtis is forced to make a tough choice in the midst of the first major battle. Instead of compromising Curtis’ nature as a revolutionary hero, the film is quick to skirt all of his flaws by constantly emphasizing how irredeemably vile and condescending the people in the front of the train are.
This is compounded by the film’s desire to have a grand reveal. If nothing else, the twist gives Curtis the moral high-ground to do almost anything he could want to do to the people in the front. Once again, the film is so quick to paint with broad, loud strokes and yell it’s themes of social commentary as loudly as possible.
Snowpiercer is about as brash and preachy as a film can get. It may as well flash its agenda on the screen in bold, red text. It’s a shame because the premise and some of the characters could have told a far more rich and valuable story but the artfulness is squandered on ideology. While art can often convey important ideas about the world we live in, the first allegiance should always be to the craft itself. The medium is the message, not the other way around.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing