By Matthew Cheney | Press Play July 18, 2014 at 5:28AM
In its narrative, Snowpiercer is not a subtle film. Its characters are broadly drawn, like figures in a myth, or maybe an allegory. Its themes are repeated and reiterated through the plot, dialogue, and mise en scène. This is all to its benefit, because the complexities of Snowpiercer enrich its margins, silences, and shadows.
On one hand, Snowpiercer is an engrossing sci-fi action movie, a great addition to the blockbuster season. Take it for that and nothing but that, and you will enjoy most of it. But even if you manage to ignore the various signs that there is more going on than what's on the surface, the film's resolution won't leave you thinking this is just a bunch of summer fun. The last section of the film is provocative, and the final scene is among the most audacious of any recent movie I know. (I won't tell you anything about it here, since the film is new and in relatively limited release, but it is certainly an ending that deserves discussion.) This is typical of director Bong Joon-Ho—when I first saw them, the endings of Memories of Murder and Mother both sent me quickly back to re-watch the entire movie, as the conclusions made those movies into something more than I'd known them to be during the initial viewing. Bong loves telling stories from within familiar genres because genres encourage certain expectations, and those expectations can then be exploited. Much of the power of Snowpiercer comes from the desires our expectations command: we think we know where the story is going, because we think we know what kind of story it is, and we want it to go in certain directions—to stay on the track of its genre, as it were—and it seems to be going there, but then ... no ... and no ... and no... The effect is almost that of Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt: we are alienated from our desires, distanced into reflection, to wondering why we wanted the journey to follow a particular path in the first place.
The distancing doesn't wait till the end, though. From early on, Bong uses multiple techniques to keep us from ever settling down into knowing exactly what the film is up to. Serious scenes of violence suddenly shift to broad humor, and vice versa. The mix of tones in Snowpiercer is jarring at first, because it's hard to get our bearings. Is this an earnest political parable? Is it satire? Is it a comment on human nature, or revolution, or maybe race or nationality? The only answer is: Yes.
Its multitude of tones and apparent purposes are equalled by the multitude of references to other movies (passionate cinephiles could spend at least one viewing just looking for allusions), some obvious and some not, as well as its own occasional meta moments, for instance a character referring to the uprising among the people at the back of the train as "a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot."
It's a slumgullion stew, this movie, but it's all held together by the clear, simple movement of the plot, the quest of the characters to get to the front of the train. It's a focused quest, a narrow one, and it structures the characters' actions and the viewers' hopes and fears. It's like tunnel vision—and, indeed, tunnel vision is an important element of one of the most impressive sequences in the film. The ending recontextualizes it all, however, and offers a new vision, one that opens the film to ambiguous and perilous meanings, and sends us back to wonder about our own world, the one we return to when the movie ends. What is the engine that powers the train that keeps us on our own tracks? What structures our own actions, hopes, fears? What lenses let us see in tunnels but hide the possibilities beyond, the invisible dreams in our periphery?
Matthew Cheney's work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.