If you're like me, the first thing you ever heard about Snowpiercer was that you might not get to see it. The English-language debut of Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose previous, much-lauded credits include the horror-comedy The Host  and the thriller Mother ), Snowpiercer has become a runaway blockbuster in Korea and France. But late last year, The Weinstein Company, who own the film's distribution rights in English-speaking territories, announced their intention to produce a special cut for those regions, minus twenty minutes of footage and with the addition of a voiceover. The announcement attracted the ire of the film's director and stars, and more importantly, of critics and online fandom. Before long, battle lines were drawn: between a director fighting for the artistic integrity of a work that local and festival critics had crowned a masterpiece, and the crude Hollywood maven known as "Harvey Scissorhands," determined to dumb the work down to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
For whatever reason—either the internet outrage, or the prospect of losing precisely that core audience that could be counted on to flock to Snowpiercer to foreign DVDs and online piracy, or simply the fact that the cut version tested less well with audiences than the original—Weinstein backed down, and now plans to give the film a limited US release in June. Whatever the commercial effects of this prevarication, for genre fans it can't help but increase Snowpiercer's allure. Not only a lauded, non-reboot or sequel genre film, but one deemed too . . . intelligent? Sophisticated? Controversial? For middle American audiences. One can almost imagine the posters: "the version they didn't want you to see!"
To watch Snowpiercer with an eye towards understanding why it was deemed so unacceptable to American audiences, however, is to come away puzzled. None of the usual reasons seem to apply here. The film isn't very long—the original cut screened at festivals was two and a half hours long, but the one delivered by Bong himself to theaters in Korea is only 125 minutes, shorter than many Hollywood blockbusters. Though classed as a foreign film, it features very little non-English dialogue (far less so, for example, than the US-produced Pacific Rim ). This is hardly surprising considering that the cast is made up almost entirely of familiar Anglo-American actors like Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, and Ed Harris. The film has a darker tone, and is more violent, than most Hollywood SF actioners, but this is speaking relatively, and in absolute terms neither of these traits is jarring—the violence, for example, is surprising mainly because unlike American action films, Snowpiercer isn't aiming for a PG-13 rating, which means that when characters attack each other with sharp objects, blood spurts. For the most part, however, the film isn't all that gory, and the camera rarely lingers on the actual thrusts and blows.
Relatively speaking, in fact, feels like the operative term when discussing Snowpiercer. The comparison to Pacific Rim turns out to be apt. Guillermo del Toro's monster flick has been lauded for its progressivism in featuring multiple non-white, non-Western characters, and a female lead who is not a love interest but a heroine in her own right—despite the fact that by the film's end most of its non-white characters have been sacrificed in the cause of enabling the white, male, American lead's heroism, and that the heroine is sidelined, acted upon and on behalf of by various men, for most of the film's second half. The current state of representation in Hollywood films, however, is such that even these half measures count as great leaps forward. Snowpiercer is a good film, but it's worth remembering this relativistic yardstick when approaching it. That it defies so many of Hollywood's conventions says more about how excruciatingly narrow those conventions have become than about the film's own unconventionality.
Based on the comic Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette (1982-2000), Snowpiercer takes place seventeen years in the future, after an attempted technological fix for global warming renders the Earth a frozen wasteland, incapable of supporting life. The only survivors huddle aboard a self-contained, self-sustaining train, which traverses the planet on a year-long circuit. Though the passengers at the front of the train—the so-called ticket-holders—live in luxury, the ones at the back, who were admitted without tickets in the last scramble for survival when the planet froze, live in squalor, fed on "protein bars" and subject to the brutality of the guards and to cruel punishments when they step out of line. Led by Gilliam (Hurt) and his protegé Curtis (Evans), the tail passengers are planning a rebellion. Acting on the advice of mysterious messages making their way from the front of the train, they release the prisoner Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song) and his clairvoyant daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). With their help, Curtis plans to reach and take over the train's engine, and to kill the mysterious Mr. Wilford (Harris), the train's creator and the man responsible for their stratified system.
The class system metaphor of the segregated, head vs. tail train society is hard to miss, and just in case we had, the film frequently has Wilford or his lackeys repeat their philosophy that everyone on the train has their preordained place and role, and that the brutality with which the tail passengers are treated is merely the natural order of things. But Snowpiercer often seems so enthralled by the power of this metaphor that it fails to fully consider its implications. The idea of a constantly traveling train is evocative, and to SF fans in particular it will recall the similar concept of the moving cities on Mercury, traveling on rails just ahead of the immolating sunlight (as seen, most recently, in Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 ). But those associations, and the film's imaginative use of its moving setting—in one memorable scene, the train makes a gigantic loop as it turns, which allows Curtis and a pursuing bad guy who is several cars back to fire at each other from across that great distance—obscure the fact that Snowpiercer never explains just why the train needs to be moving at all. The engine, which we're told keeps the passengers from freezing, would surely work just as well if the train were stationary. More crucially, though the tail passengers frequently rail at the injustices they suffer at the hands of the front, it's never made clear why they're tolerated at all, and not simply killed. Several characters stress that the train is "a closed system" that must be kept in careful balance, but in order for this point to explain the tail passengers' presence, they would have to contribute something to the system—labor, most likely. As the tail is completely isolated from the rest of the train (Curtis even has to come up with an elaborate, carefully timed plan to get past the tail compartment's door), the claims of interdependence that fuel the front passengers' classism make no sense.
It's hard to hold these kinds of worldbuilding gaps against the film—certainly if you compare Snowpiercer to Elysium (2013), another recent SF film with a class war theme, its world feels rich and thought-through. But Snowpiercer takes its central concept so seriously, and so forefronts its characters' pain and outrage over their mistreatment, that this wobbliness feels more significant than it would in most comics-based action SF films (this is a particular problem with the film's ending, whose triumphant and literal smashing of the class system has, potentially, the slight side effect of ending the human race). And yet it's also the train metaphor that makes the film work despite the iffyness of its worldbuilding. Proceeding along the train to areas where people of their class have never been seen before, Curtis and his men discover their world car by car. Post-apocalyptic squalor gives way to utilitarian greyness, which gives way to lush opulence and luxury, and finally to quasi-steampunkish futurism at the engine compartment. Tiny details, such as the tail section passengers cringing at their first exposure to sunlight and then gazing at the frozen world outside, give texture to the strangeness they feel, alongside the audience.
The film's plot, too, is governed by the structure of the train. In some cars, the tail passengers are met with brutal violence, while in others they gain a greater understanding of how the train works. The film shifts tone from grim to comedic as the characters transition between these cars, but tying them together is a sense of the train as its own society, with customs and traditions. In the middle of a bloody brawl with dozens of Wilford's thugs, the train passes over "Yekaterina Bridge," its one-year marker. Suddenly, the masked goons beating on our heroes with axes and spears pause to count down, in unison, to the new year. In another car, the tail passengers find a school where the front passengers' children are taught pro-Wilford propaganda by a maniacally peppy teacher (Pill), who cheerfully leads her students in shouted recitations of the train's history, concluding with the loud proclamation that without the engine "we will all freeze and die!"
The tonal variance between the tail passengers' grim determination and the front's absurd hedonism and Wilford-worship can leave Snowpiercer feeling center-less. At times Curtis feels unmoored from his own story, a deadly earnest figure who doesn't realize that he is living in a farce. But Evans, who has already shown himself capable of shouldering a heavy burden of earnestness in his performances as Captain America in the Marvel movies, succeeds as well here with a more compromised character. For most of the film, Curtis appears to have the tediously predictable character arc of the white male lead in an SF action film, proclaimed as a natural leader by all who meet him but demurring from accepting the role because of his own inner turmoil. When we finally learn why Curtis is reluctant to claim the mantle of leadership, however, it's a revelation that genuinely casts him in a new light, and makes us wonder, along with him, whether he really is a hero.
Stealing the show from Evans, meanwhile, is Swinton as Mason, one of Wilford's top aides. Swathed in '40s-style tweed suits and speaking in a thick Scottish accent, Mason is, like most of the front passengers, a caricature. But the force of Swinton's performance—she plays Mason as a sort of Dolores Umbridge minus the kitten fetish and studied childishness, thoroughly devoted to Wilford and utterly uncaring about the death and suffering of anyone "beneath" her—overwhelms the ridiculousness of her character. As a representative of the train's soulless, uncaring evil, she is far more effective than Harris's ethereal, genial Wilford.
All of this is perhaps to make Snowpiercer sound stranger, more different, and most of all better than it is. Despite the ways in which it deviates from the Hollywood norm, the film is, at its core, a fairly conventional story of white male hero vs. white male antagonist (aside from Mason and Yona, there is only one other important female character, played by Spencer, who is largely secondary to the main plot; the film doesn't pass the Bechdel test, and though Namgoong and Yona have their own story running alongside Curtis's, it is mostly relegated to the background). It displays its intelligence, for the most part, in its elaboration of the details of its world, not in thinking through that world's implications, or making it more complex than the good-and-evil class divide implied by the train structure. And while its ending is shocking, the film's refusal to acknowledge its near-certain consequences gives it a presumably unintentional fairy-tale cast.
It's hard to imagine just what Harvey Weinstein thought needed to be changed about Snowpiercer to make it palatable to Anglophone audiences (in fact the most likely conclusion is that Weinstein simply believes that he is entitled to final cut on any film he distributes, which is surely an attitude that deserves to be stamped out all on its own). But the impression that his interference forms is arguably damaging to the film itself. It creates the impression that Snowpiercer is groundbreaking, when it is in fact following along well-trod grooves—simply not the ones that Hollywood, with its Save the Cat obsessions, has been paying attention to in the last decade. It's important to manage expectations when going into Snowpiercer, but despite its conventionality the film is worth seeing—for its bizarre world, for Evans and Swinton's performances, and simply for being the first sign that somewhere, out there, in that frozen wasteland that is modern blockbuster filmmaking, there might the tiniest signs of life.
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Strange Horizons reviews editor. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.