Wednesday 24 June 2020


Directed by: Bong Joon-ho. Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton. Sci-Fi, South Korea 2013, 126mins, Cert 15.

“The train is the world. We, the humanity”

Finally arriving on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK 7 years after its completion, this dystopian allegory on a train from Oscar winning director and co-scripter Bong Joon-ho (PARASITE) seems all the more pertinent given the present enforced world-wide lockdown.

In an attempt to combat global warming, scientists dispersed a chemically engineered coolant dubbed ‘CW-7’ into the atmosphere to bring Mother Earth’s temperature down a bit. Unfortunately, it worked rather too well and ushered in a new ice-age killing off almost the entire planet except for a few survivors who manage to board a train – the Snowpiercer. Designed by a rail-obsessed maverick genius known as Wilford, his technologically advanced ‘rattling ark’ circumnavigates the world once every 12 months on a global track layout, smashing through built up snow and ice blockades whilst being entirely self-sustaining.

Based on the French graphic novel ‘Le Transperceneige’, the film wears its class struggle allegory on its sleeve. The working class poor suffer squalid conditions in the rear of the train, whilst the first-class passengers towards the front enjoy luxurious dining and recreational facilities. However, 17-years after boarding the Snowpiercer, anti-hero Curtis (Chris Evans) is planning a peasant passenger revolt under the mentoring eye of his elder confidant Gilliam (John Hurt). But this plot to obtain a collective upgrade by taking the engine: “We control the engine, we control the world” will rely on a security specialist Namgoong Minsoo(Song Kang-ho) who is seemingly addicted to a drug manufactured from flammable industrial waste, and a hunch that the ‘armed’ guards have actually run out of live ammunition... 

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton - marvellously grotesque), in one of her raids on the poor end of the train, places a shoe on the head of protective father Andrew (Ewen Bremner, ‘Spud’ from TRAINSPOTTING) to reinforce the social hierarchy in this new world order on rails. Echoes perhaps to George Orwell’s chilling pronouncement from ‘1984’: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” But in case you think SNOWPIERCER will be bogged down with socio-political commentary, rest assured it storms through its (admittedly scientifically dodgy premise) with as much forward momentum as the train the action explodes within. Like a bleakly violent reworking of THE WIZARD OF OZ, every newly hot-wired door opens into a carriage of increasingly colourful lands offering tantalising glimpses of luxury and civility, with the ultimate prize being an audience with the omnipotent wizard himself, Wilford (Ed Harris) in the train’s Emerald City, the engine.

In order to avoid spoilers, details must remain vague and sketchy as to what the increasingly darker journey down the Snowpiercer specifically entails. There is a standout bloody set-piece when the train enters a tunnel, and a memorably disconcerting visit to the classroom section. But the fact that revealing the ingredients of the gelatinous ‘protein packs’ fed to the rear-end passengers occurs less than an hour into the running time signals that far more horrific surprises are awaiting further down the line.

Technically and visually, the film is a marvel of design, with each new section of the train offering bold, intricately detailed carriages. The cinematography pulls off the not inconsiderable achievement of making the potentially claustrophobic set-up of confined spaces visually arresting and immersive.

To this end, Bong Joon-ho is assisted with some strong performances, with John Hurt, now sadly missed, but fascinating as always, and Chris Evans stepping up to the mark proving he is more than just Captain America and delivering a third-act monologue which is so disturbing Marvel fans should be forewarned. 

The Blu-ray transfer vividly captures the nuanced detailed textures in both set and character, reproducing the extensive gamut of colour from the drabness and gloom of the rear carriages to the opulent garishness of the front sections whilst offering a pin-sharp transfer with a pleasingly filmic texture.

With a Netflix commissioned series due to arrive shortly, and director Bong Joon-ho’s stock higher than ever thanks to PARASITE (although genre aficionados were already championing the director after his 2006 creature-feature THE HOST),  now is a perfect time to catch this exceptionally well-realised, uncompromised, Korean Sci-Fi actioner powerhouse.  

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.