It’s scary to think that humans may one day go extinct. We’re just as mortal as any other animal and thinking that we’ll be here until the end of time is foolish. So when our species begins to dwindle, how will we try to survive? According to Joon-ho Bong’s film Snowpiercer, the answer lies on a massive train that never stops, hurtling through a barren wasteland of snow and ice. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Bong’s film adaptation does a fine job of setting up a unique sci-fi premise and filling it with ideas and themes that remain relevant today. Where the film falters is its weak direction of action sequences and its generally uninteresting first half. Had it not been for a great final hour, this could have been a total dud, but as it stands, it’s a very minor success.

In an attempt to stop global warming, a cooling chemical is released into Earth’s atmosphere.  The chemical ends up being far stronger than expected and sends the planet into another ice age. Nearly all life on Earth is extinguished, except for a select few who managed to secure a ticket on an unstoppable train. Now, the remaining survivors are separated by class, with the richest people in the front of the train and the poorest people in the back. Curtis (Chris Evans) has been living in the back of the train for 17 years and he’s finally had enough. With help from his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), his mentor named Gilliam (John Hurt) and Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), a specialist who designed all the security on the train, Curtis unites all the members of the tail section and ignites a revolt. But one of the leaders of the train, Mason (Tilda Swinton), will do whatever she can to stop them from reaching the train’s engine.

With a great premise and a strong cast, Snowpiercer should have been dynamite from the start, but its first half is pretty rough. Not only do the back cars of the train remain uninteresting and almost indistinguishable from one another, but the time spent with the characters is equally dull. When the action finally hits, it’s occasionally difficult to follow, a result of Bong’s reliance on shaky camerawork to mask poorly choreographed sequences. A scene where Mason’s henchmen turn out the lights on the train and attempt to kill the revolt with the help of night vision goggles should have been exciting, but it ends up feeling like a chore to sit through. The visual effects in the film are also pretty terrible; anytime the outside of the train is shown, it’s clear to see that it’s all bad CGI. Because of this, there’s no excitement when we watch the train burst through large chunks of ice on the track. When something is so obviously fake, it takes you out of the moment and ruins what could have otherwise been a great scene.

But once the remaining members of the revolt exit the back of the train, things pick up greatly. Suddenly, each train car is unique and completely different from the one before it and it’s fascinating to watch how the rich people on this train live. We walk through a garden, an aquarium equipped with a sushi bar, a classroom and even a nightclub. The stark contrast between the front and back of the train helps elevate the social commentary that’s present in the film and it would not have been possible without the mesmerizing production design from Ondrej Nekvasil. Even the action sequences in the film’s second half are more entertaining, even though some of them don’t make a lot of sense given the context of the room that they’re in and the people fighting.

There’s such a huge difference in quality between the two halves of this film that I almost wonder if it was done intentionally. Obviously, the back train cars aren’t meant to look as luxurious or interesting as the cars in the front, but that doesn’t explain the poorly directed action sequence or generally uninteresting character developments that bog down the opening of the film. If there’s one thing here that’s consistent, it’s Tilda Swinton’s performance. As Mason, Swinton concocts such a unique monster that you can’t take your eyes off of her, even though you despise her. Her character is definitely exaggerated for effect, but it’s also believable that someone like this would emerge as a leader in this type of social hierarchy. The hierarchy that exists in the train is clearly a metaphor for the class divide that is present today, so it’s fairly interesting to think about where your social status would place you on the train. These ideas are interesting, so it’s a shame that some of the material surrounding these ideas falls flat. But even though Snowpiercer is littered with problems, it’s still a train worth taking.

Snowpiercer receives 2.5/4

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