While South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's biggest stateside breakout is certainly the 2019 Best Picture-winner Parasite, that wasn't the first time he memorably put capitalism under a microscope. In fact, if there’s one thread that winds through his eclectic body of work, it's a fascination with the entanglements between the haves and the have-nots. Fortunately, the guy's a master at managing tone, and he never fails to balance what could easily be exhausting critique with great comedy, brilliantly realized characters, and a rarely paralleled visual maximalism.
While Parasite and 2017's Okja both served to expand his purchase stateside, it was his 2013 film, Snowpiercer, that first signaled Bong's crossover ambitions. It was his first film primarily in English, its cast was rounded out with an Avenger and a number of Oscar winners, and it was an easy-sell adaptation of a popular series of graphic novels. However, it remains something of a curiosity, all things considered. It's few people's favorite Bong film, and, while it performed fairly well, it wasn't the $200 million grosser a proper advertising campaign and release could've made it. So what happened? And how did its reputation grow to the point that it spawned a big-budget TV adaptation in 2020?
One of the film's many charms is the sheer bluntness of its setup. Following an attempt to rein in the most devastating effects of climate change through environmental engineering, humanity is plunged into a snowy devastation.
The sole survivors live on the title train, Snowpiercer, where they circle the globe for as long as it takes the world outside to become habitable again. By the time we catch up with them, they're 17 years into life aboard the train. And, while a tense sort of normality has set in, it's at constant risk of fracturing.
The timeline of the film has humanity’s critical environmental engineering mistake taking place some time in 2014. The process-y elements driving that error are largely kept off-screen, but we do get some sense of the conditions that led to it. In a pretty economical opening montage, we see news clips, hear varied horrified voice messages, and leapfrog around the globe, witnessing all along just how dire climate change has become.
Bong caps this sequence with brief snatches of jets releasing long chemical trails into the air, ostensibly in an extreme attempt at cloud seeding. Of course, the efforts prove disastrous, as they plunge the planet into such profound cold that it becomes uninhabitable.
The social order that defines life aboard Snowpiercer's eponymous vessel is perhaps the film's greatest storytelling asset. When we meet the passengers on the train, they've been on board for nearly two decades. Not only has their day-to-day life stabilized - it's become downright regimented.
At the outset, we're with Curtis Everett (Chris Pine), a wily member of the lower class confined to the back of the train. He and his co-cabin members toil in utter squalor. Their bunks are filthy, they wear rags, and they endure the regular humiliation of random headcounts conducted by thuggish armed guards decked in riot gear, which they wear ostensibly to defend themselves against the lower classes they police. Even mild acts of defiance are put down with total severity. Case in point: Andrew (Ewen Bremner), who loses an arm as punishment for throwing his shoe at an upper-class passenger after she takes his child for some unspecified business in another car.
Through these beats and the later push to the front of the train, Bong spools out how precisely his dire version of social stratification has come to function within the train. Yes, the wealthy enjoy increasing levels of luxury in each successive car. But they're able to do so not just because of their wealth. Their lives depend in no small part on being walled off from the prying eyes of those at the back of the train.
Bong heightens this dynamic one step further in his treatment of the engineer, Wilford (Ed Harris), who functions as a sort of god, complete with a celestial position at the very front of the train. There, he oversees the complicated machinations that not only keep the passengers alive, but also, given that the passengers are all we know to remain of humanity, essentially preserve the species. Of course, that's a weighty position, and it's one of the rare cases of a movie madman's god complex being justified (though, notably, not redeemed) by the internal rules of the film.
At the back of the train, Curtis is stewing on how best to improve his and his cabin-mates’ circumstances. He talks over the possibility of leading a rebellious drive forward with Gilliam (John Hurt), a wizened sage and one of his closest friends. Gilliam has seen previous insurrections fail, in the process learning what not to do. Together, and with the help of Curtis's right-hand man, Edgar (Jamie Bell), they devise a scheme to force a series of car doors open in order to launch an advance.
They're also spurred on by a mysterious supporter who sends them messages in their food. Each one is short and on the cryptic side, but they're all essentially pro-rebellion, signaling some level of dissent in the higher ranks.
Timing the maneuver proves to be key, as Curtis leads his fellow rebels through a dry run with the pipe they'll shove through each of the cabin doors to keep them propped open. As they practice, they're interrupted by a surprise count, and the decision to launch is effectively made for them: Either they go now, or they risk their pipe being discovered, which would end the rebellion before it had a chance to begin.