Over the past decade, blockbuster film franchises have begun adding elements of science fiction to their formula for success and diluting the genre in the process. In many cases, sci-fi ideas end up as glorified set-dressing or character backstory. The science fiction of the modern blockbuster lacks teeth. This is probably due to focus-testing and studio interference, thanks to enormous budgets that demand absolute mass-market appeal, but it results in films without a coherent vision of the problems that might be encountered in the future, or who might cause them, or the ways in which we might be able to address them. Nothing is specific enough to cause any discomfort for a modern audience.
This kind of context makes “Snowpiercer” really refreshing. Director Bong Joon-ho has made an action film rooted in genre tropes that has a precise idea of what problems await us in the future and who is to blame for them. These projected problems also reflect very real and profound issues with our current political and economic way of life, of course, which is what makes some of the best science fiction so invigorating.
It’s not a subtle film in its use of allegory, and maybe even using the term “allegory” at all is a stretch. This is a story that takes place on a train with designated sections for each class of society, moving endlessly through an arctic wasteland created by humanity’s miserable response to climate change. I don’t know how much more straightforward this can get. I don’t think that’s a failure on the film’s part, though. Its passion is tangible, and if you’re not already sympathetic to these ideas, it’s going to spend about two hours trying to convince you otherwise.
The focus here is on the suffering and injustice that globalized capitalism creates, and it demands acknowledgement of the gross inequality that pervades our society and of its systemic causes. The solutions that the film espouses are not incremental or reformist but drastic and revolutionary. It is not interested in palliative care. At its best, it feels urgent in a way that most other modern action films don’t even bother attempting.
“Snowpiercer” has more going for it than just a fierce political spirit, though. The whole film reflects a clear artistic intent – another area where modern sci-fi action films often fall flat. It flickers back and forth between comic book exaggeration and grave seriousness, but remains self-aware. Its graphic violence leads to moments of both distress and laughter. But the film never loses track of its pacing, as it balances its frenetic action sequences with moments of intense quiet and contemplation.
The attempts at emotional catharsis fell flat for me. I was never as convinced by its characters’ emotional trials as I was by the film’s vivid, stylized portrayal of capitalist cruelty and excess. The ending is bold and gratifying, but it works best when viewed through the film’s ideological goals. As a narrative closer, it has less impact.
“Snowpiercer” succeeds on its own, but in the current cultural climate, it excels. It feels good to watch an action movie that’s this frustrated with the state of things, that wants to start a discussion about where we’re headed and what to do about it. And it engages in that discussion with confident cinematic technique. Whatever it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in volume and intensity. Here’s hoping some big budget filmmakers are listening.