How Snowpiercer Builds a New Kind of Prison
South Korean filmmaker, Joon-ho Bong, has never been afraid of mixing genres. In Snowpiercer, Bong mixes action, sci-fi and satire to create a delightfully twisted prison break story. Snowpiercer owes much of its effectiveness to an ingenious script that uses 3 discrete acts to effortlessly shift its tone and genre. The first act establishes the prison; delineating the rules, hierarchy, and surreal conditions. The second act takes us through the prison; peeling away each layer of corruption with frenzied action and violence. Finally, the third act deconstructs the prison; exposing the true face of tyranny and the rationale behind it. It’s an audacious script that warrants deeper consideration.
The key to any good prison break movie is establishing the prison as its own character. Whether it’s the evil warden’s twisted idea of justice or the intricate kingdoms built by the inmates, the prison must exert both a physical and a psychological hold on the prisoners. The true genius of Snowpiercer’s script (co-written by Kelly Masterson and based on the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige) is that it creates a prison from which no one—neither prisoner nor jailor—can escape. The only way to “break out” is to seize control; to replace one tyrannical warden with another. Indeed, Bong is challenging his characters (and the audience) to understand that the problem is not with the leader, but with the system itself.
Bong establishes Snowpiercer’s premise using a cleverly-edited montage of newsreel clips. In the year 2014, an experimental compound is released into the atmosphere in a desperate attempt to reverse the effects of global warming. The experiment is a catastrophic failure, plunging the earth into a deep Ice Age that kills every living thing. The only human survivors reside in a colossal train that circles the planet in a continuous circuit. A tightly-regulated social structure is instituted, with the elite class living in luxury at the front of the train, while the poor live in abject squalor in the train’s tail section. It’s a flawless structural choice that guarantees conflict will permeate every scene.
Snowpiercer begins laying its thematic groundwork almost immediately by meshing the setting with the character motivations. As the story opens, 17 years have passed on humanity’s makeshift ark, with brutal guards and authoritarian flunkies quelling periodic revolts from the tail section. Now, the downtrodden have a new hope; his name is Curtis (Chris Evans) and he has an audacious plan to seize control of the train’s “Sacred Engine;” a perpetual-motion engine that keeps the train a’rollin. “Whoever controls the engine controls the world,” Curtis explains to his second in command, Edgar (Jamie Bell). The realization that he must become a tyrant to defeat a tyrant provides a compelling character arc for Curtis and drives home Bong’s themes regarding systemic tyranny.
These early scenes in the train’s tail section employ a decidedly surrealistic tone. One is reminded of a Terry Gilliam creation as people scurry in and out of cubbyholes. In fact, one of the secondary characters is even named ‘Gilliam’ (John Hurt). Camera angles are exaggerated, as are the prisoners, some of whom are missing arms or legs and have a tenuous grasp on reality. Elite jailors wearing garish attire appear randomly and make bizarre demands of the prisoners. “Does anyone play the violin?” one inquires, while another carefully measures the arms and legs of children for no apparent reason. After a prisoner foolishly attacks a guard, his arm is frozen and then smashed to pieces with a comically-large hammer. Here, not only is Bong establishing life in the prison, he’s also dispelling the foolish notion of peaceful subjugation in the most ridiculous ways possible.
To further establish the prison, Bong sprinkles twisted versions of some prison escape tropes into the first act. For instance, instead of tunneling their way out of the prison, Curtis and his crew tunnel their way through the prison; assembling empty oil drums into a long tunnel that wedges open the doors between train compartments. Instead of eating prison rations tainted by bugs and grime, the prisoners dine on a ‘protein block’ made exclusively of roaches and insects. In fact, these protein blocks are an important motif throughout the film. Messages are covertly smuggled in the blocks, they are traded for drugs, and even used to represent train cars as Curtis’ crew plans their attack strategy. Later, after Curtis captures the warden’s primary adjunct, Mason (an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), he forces her to eat a protein block while his crew feasts on sushi delicacies. In each instance, Bong subverts prison break conventions while still using them to build anticipation for the upcoming revolt.
With the prison now firmly established, Bong finally unleashes Curtis and his gang on the rest of the train. The tone shifts from the surreal to the chaotically violent. In fact, the second act begins with propulsive bloodshed. Slow-motion combatants engage in a vulgar ballet of dismembered limbs and blood-spattered windows. In the beginning stages of the revolt, Curtis encounters resistance from a faceless horde; hulking guards outfitted in grotesque masks and leather aprons. Indeed, these are the train’s butchers, their battle axes dripping with the blood of a ritualistically-gutted fish… a symbol of the blood bath to follow.
And my, how the blood does flow. The battles are intensely personal. There is no gun play here; just hand-to-hand combat, with the grunts of society battling middle management for the right to ascend. Yet, even in the heat of such animalistic carnage, there is an understanding that everyone in this prison is united by the common goal of survival.
Nowhere is this unification more evident than in the Yekatarina Bridge sequence. Not only is it the film’s most sublime scene, it also cements Snowpiercer’s overarching theme. Deep into the bloody battle between Curtis’ crew and the hulking butchers, an announcement rings out to brace for impact as the train steams toward the perilous Yekatarina Bridge. It’s there that we see the incredible power of the Snowpiercer as it blasts through huge chunks of ice strewn across the track. Everyone hunkers down and awaits the fate of the train. Even more surreal is that crossing the Yekatarina Bridge marks a meaningful anniversary… that of another full year spent aboard the train. The brutish guards joyfully proclaim, “Happy New Year!” Even Edgar admits that, “I hate getting old!” It’s a powerful thematic statement Bong is making; even as the inmates and guards play their little survival games, the prison is all that matters. The players may change, but the game stays the same.
As Curtis’ rebellion progresses deeper into the heart of the train, the battles diminish. The surrealism of the tail section and the chaos in the middle of the train now yield to a more satirical tone. There is peace and order in this place. None of the inmates have ever ventured this far into the prison, and it’s a new world to them… alien and strange. The jailors are withdrawn from reality; consumed by the opulence that has so inured them to the suffering of their lesser prison mates. Diners in a fancy restaurant car barely notice Curtis’ dirty crew as they shamble past. Tailors painstakingly measure their clients without a care in the world. Obese patrons luxuriate in the comfort of their personal spa. To be elite in this part of the prison affords not only luxury, but blissful ignorance to the blood-covered fists pounding on your door.
As they near the train’s engine, only one seemingly-indestructible henchman remains to oppose Curtis’ rebellion, which now consists of but a handful of battered survivors. The harrowing journey has exposed Curtis to the corrupting nature of the prison and he has acclimated well. When faced with the choice of saving Edgar or moving onward to victory, Curtis doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his star pupil. When a gunman surprises him in a compartment full of schoolchildren, Curtis ruthlessly dispatches not only the teacher, but Minister Mason, who had granted safe passage through much of the train. In his quest to overthrow a tyrant, Curtis has become a tyrant. A damaged and conflicted tyrant, perhaps, but a tyrant who is now capable of seizing the Sacred Engine and using it for his own devices. Indeed, it seems almost pre-ordained that Curtis should assume control of this prison… but by whom?
That is the question that Bong endeavors to answer in the third act. Of course, he’s not interested specifically in Snowpiercer’s warden – we know from the beginning that the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris), lives and rules from the front compartment. Rather, Bong’s script wants to know the nature of Wilford. More specifically, does the same fate await Curtis or can he still save his soul and liberate the prison.
It is here that Snowpiercer bears an uncanny resemblance to another ‘epic quest’ film, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Willard’s journey up the river, much like Curtis’ journey through the train, is galvanized by an unseen bogeyman; a figurehead worthy of both contempt and adoration. Once confronted, this figurehead—this God incarnate—attempts to justify the tyrannical kingdom he has created. Similar to the scenes between Willard and Col. Kurtz, the final scenes between Wilford and Curtis are dialogue heavy and, ultimately, somewhat anti-climactic. There is simply no confrontation capable of resolving such a riveting expedition.
Bong understands this conundrum, so he wisely keeps the narrative focus on Curtis rather than adding undue emphasis to Wilford’s character. Yes, he allows Wilford to deconstruct Snowpiercer’s traveling prison, but only to emphasize Curtis’ indecision about becoming the new warden. As Wilford spews his self-aggrandizing theory for preserving ecological balance on the train, Curtis comes to see the futility of his own quest. There, at last, he accepts the sad truth confronting him from the very start; the only way to escape this prison is to destroy it. He understands that tyranny will only breed more tyrants.
It’s possible that many viewers will dislike at least some portion of Snowpiercer. Some may lament Joon-ho Bong’s genre mixing or tonal shifts. Indeed, a movie this diverse almost demands a divided response. And yet, as uncompromising as the script may be, its delicate structure perfectly achieves Bong’s thematic goals. Political implications aside, Bong makes an important statement about the nature of tyranny while still delivering a visual and visceral masterwork. It’s exhilarating to see a filmmaker take such huge chances with his script. In that regard, Snowpiercer provides not only a satisfying experience, but a tantalizing glimpse of what might be yet to come from Joon-ho Bong.