Snowpiercer

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-Review by Paul Ewbank-

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Snowpiercer was originally a French dystopian post apocalyptic graphic novel, released in 1982 to critical acclaim. Last month a Korean film adaptation starring Chris Evans hit American theatres, and to coincide an English language version of the source material was released for the first time by Titan Comics. Having managed to track down (lol track) both the film and the first volume of the comic I can report that the comic is pretty interesting and well worth a look, if not the absolute classic it’s being billed as, while the film is genuinely excellent. I know that preferring the film adaptation to the source comic is generally not the done thing in nerd culture, but hey, I’ve always been an out of control badass.

What initially drew me to the comic on my latest Amazon graphic novel binge was the unique concept- a post apocalyptic future where earth has frozen over and the remnants of humanity live on a colossal train- the titular Snowpiercer- that runs on a never ending journey sustained by a perpetual motion engine. The train is a cross-section of the old human society, preserved against the endless white and cold outside. The upper classes at the front of the train, nearest the warmth giving engine, live in luxury while the poorest are packed like cattle into the dark, freezing carriages at the back. It’s a powerful analogy that reminded me of things like Elysium, where a bold and easy to understand sci-fi concept is used to unsubtly comment on the real world and its shortcomings. And Snowpiercer brings its class-struggle on a train to life through cramped, claustrophobic panels and all the little details which you need to make something so farfetched seem believable.

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Given its weighty premise and political subtext the biggest problem with Snowpiercer is a lack of actual content. The actual story is rather meagre- concerning a guy called Proloff, a refugee who escapes the squalor of the tail only to get arrested and summoned to the front on the train to reveal the details of his escape plan to the bigwigs. The majority of the volume is just that: a lower class guy, a political activist called Adeline and some interchangeable soldiers walking through some train carriages. Hardly edge of your seat territory. Proloff himself is likeable- resolutely un-violent and for the most part just glad to be out of the tail and into the warmth, but the supporting cast are as one note and lacking in colour as the black-and-white visuals. The lack of depth and interest in the story and characters limits the amount of real commentary that Snowpiercer can deliver, and the result is a comic with a very clever premise that never really manages to do much with it. There are a few interesting ideas thrown around, like how the upper and middle classes demonise the tail folk, or how the activists campaigning for their rights are totally oblivious to just how bad conditions really are in the tail. Adeline and her political buddies come across as well meaning but totally ignorant of the real situation and only willing to help in ways that never actually put them at risk of harm, while the upper classes see the tail as dead weight and view whole struggle as nothing more than a potential threat to their power. It’s a pretty bleak view of class politics that doesn’t really paint any of the groups favourably and offers no solutions, and it’s uncomfortably close to reality. There’s the beginnings of some interesting ideas, and the lack of action and movement is probably deliberate since the overall tone is one of nihilism and hopelessness, but it never makes as exciting a read as the premise would suggest. The one redeeming feature is the ending, which is totally unexpected and utterly brutal- easily up there with The Mist and I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream in terms of most unpleasant endings in sci-fi. Still, given how flat most of the journey to get there is, it’s tempting to write Snowpiercer off as little more than an above average comic with a unique concept.

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…Which is why the fact that the film keeps nothing of the original except the premise is such a good thing. One poster for Snowpiercer the film features a grim, bearded Chris Evans at the head of an angry mob, with the tagline Fight your way to the front, so it’s pretty clear from the moment you leave the station that this is gonna be a very different ride to the one that inspired it. Evans plays Curtis Everett, leader of a band of tail section rebels who plan to overthrow the ruling class by fighting their way through every damn carriage on the train and killing everyone in their way. At first I thought that such a simplistic action movie adaptation would annoy me, but acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s movie is anything but generic. This thing is off the rails. Getting tired of my train puns yet? Bong is a director with a flair for both vivid detail and for hitting you with curveball weirdness when you least expect it, and both these qualities elevate Snowpiercer to a much higher platform than its simple, linear plot would suggest. Ingenious ideas like the rebels making a huge pipe to wedge the compartment doors open and grim details like the lower classes eating protein bars made from processed cockroaches or being punished by having their limbs exposed to the freezing cold outside are juxtaposed with moments of bizarre black comedy like Tilda Swinton making a speech about social order in the most ridiculous fake British accent imaginable while wearing huge protruding dentures. There’s a real sense of unpredictability as you never know what’s going to be in the next compartment: one particularly gripping scene has the heroes opening a door to reveal a whole carriage full of absolute thugs in balaclavas holding axes, but later on there’s a walk through aquarium, complete with sushi bar, and a totally out of nowhere scene in a primary school where brightly dressed rich children sing bouncy songs about everybody dying if the train stops. In every aspect this is a film with a totally un-western sensibility and as a result it’s totally unlike any other action movie I’ve seen.

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Most of the political and thematic stuff is saved for the final scenes, which I won’t spoil; suffice to say that the final moments of the film are full of surprises and some very dark ideas about human nature and the need to artificially impose balance on society. It’s a brilliant, haunting climax full of real emotional gut punches. Looking back over the film there’s all kinds of symbolism going on that I missed first time- the whole journey from the tail could be analogous to the rise and fall of human civilisation, and the idea of balance and equilibrium crops up a lot. There was also a fair bit of stuff that went over my head, like when the leader of the axe gang pulls out a fish and smears his axe in its blood before passing it to his buddies to do the same, but on the whole this film achieves the kind of clever commentary and emotional heft that the comic could only dream of, and manages to be a brilliantly weird, kick-ass action movie at the same time. My only gripe is that the very, very end doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and is inferior to that of the graphic novel, but it’s still pretty good. There are so many details an great little touches I haven’t had chance to mention, and I actually can’t wait to watch this again to see what else I didn’t pick up on. Snowpiercer the film is a true work of genius- a brilliant idea in the hands of a master director, and one of the best sci-fi films of the last few years.

I guess you could say that I’m totally on board with this one.

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