"Know your place. Accept your place."

“Know your place. Accept your place.”

Some of us know what we’re missing out on in life. We see people above us on the class structure playing with cooler toys, wearing nicer clothes, and eating better food. It’s enough to inspire thoughts of inadequacy and jealousy. If we’re adjusted though, we don’t pay too much attention to what we’re missing – we just do the best we can with what we have. But what happens when a lot of those who are missing out on something finally want to get some of it for themselves?

Faced with the crisis of global warming, humanity takes the radical step of launching a chemical into the atmosphere to bring upon earth’s rapid cooling. The chemical works a little too well and sends earth into a new ice age.

The only survivors are those who managed to pile into The Snowpiercer – a massive train powered by a special engine that runs laps around the entire globe. The train is an ark for humanity…so to speak. The members of humanity that had money and status when they boarded are kept up front, and surrounded with every comfort imaginable. Those that didn’t? They remain at the back. They’re crammed in like sardines, unwashed and undernourished, living on a steady diet of gelatinous protein bars. Just to make things interesting, they are sporadically visited by a woman from the front who takes a child or two without rhyme or reason.

Eventually, those stuck in steerage decide that it’s time to change their fate, and following the lead of Curtis they begin to push their way up to the front. Flanked by his lieutenants Edgar and Gilliam (Jamie Bell and John Hurt), Curtis and the tail inhabitants push forward four cars. Once there, they are able to employ the services of Minsoo (Khang-ho Song) – handy, since he designed Snowpiercer’s security system.

But even this small success doesn’t mean very much when a pit bull carrying a hand purse named Mason (Tilda Swinton), can throw endless amounts of guards armed to the teeth at Curtis and his kin. Mason is at the heel of Wilford – the train’s inventor and de facto deity of the society contained within it. It’s Wilford who controls everything that goes on within the train’s cars…and Wilford who the riffraff from the back of the train must take down.

Tilda Swinton in SNOWPIERCER
In some ways, SNOWPIERCER is like a video game. Time and again, we have our avatars dropped into a setting and find them fighting their way through to “beat the level”. As level after level is beaten, the avatar faces down a bid boss waiting for them at the end of the game…or in this case the end of the train. The fun thing about this sort of story structure is the way it keeps the tale so accessible. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, not trying to redefine the genre. It just wants its audience to level-up with its heroes until they reach the big boss.

At the same time the film has the cheek to work in allusions to the class structure, and what the have-nots must contend with to get an audience with the haves.

What’s interesting is the way things get more and more absurd as our heroes get closer and closer to the front of the train. At first it’s predictable; better food, better accommodations, better clothes. Then it begins to get subversive, and we see that those with means get taught differently than those with none. Finally as the team gets within striking distance of the engine, things take a turn for the absurd. They see for themselves the true opulence and excesses these passengers indulge upon. They are living without care or consequence, and either too inebriated to see how nuts their lives have become…or too indifferent.

Our heroes don’t linger in the face of it, because how can you. If you’ve spent your entire life being told by your parents to keep your room clean and clear the table after dinner, how do you react when you meet a family with means that has a house staff that does such things. Are they under the influence of their wealth, or obtuse because of it?

Either way, it seems absurd to those who come from a different class. When they are scrounging for every meagre comfort, they cannot comprehend how there could be people on the earth so surrounded by comforts that they could throw some away because they just have too much. That, or they remember some of the terrible things they have done to survive and look to make those above them understand.

This facet of the class divide is expressed amazingly well with a monologue by Curtis in the film’s final act. While I dare not reveal the details here, the soliloquy lays out just how much he and his kind have gone through, and how much their eyes have been opened to see the world for what it is. It’s a narrative touch that is both intense and chilling, and Evans sells it well. It paints a bold picture of true desperation and does so much to make us understand the drive, desperation, and guilt of those who try to climb up the social ladder.

By taking the video game structure and grafting it on to a class struggle, SNOWPIERCER dares to do more. It easily could have leaned back on its haunches and settled on being just a movie about a brawl on a train. However, by painting its picture in the colours of the class divide, the movie gains a resonance that most summer action flicks sorely miss. The funny thing about that resonance, is that we often forget we’re missing it since so many action flicks sidestep it completely. It’s almost happening so frequently that audiences don’t know what they’re missing out on.

Almost.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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