In the near future a coolant called CW7 is introduced into the atmosphere in order to counteract global warming. It backfires and freezes the planet, along with the vast majority of its population. The only known survivors live aboard the Snowpiercer, a rickety bullet train that travels around the globe, powered by a perpetual-motion engine. A class structure quickly forms, with almost all of the resources hoarded by ticket holders in the front carriages, while refugees are left to fight for scraps in the back. Revolution is inevitable, and it falls upon Curtis (Chris Evans), a reluctant freedom fighter, to rally the troops and fight all the way to the heart of the train.
This isn’t the plot for a video game but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was, because Snowpiercer certainly has all of the hallmarks of a modern sci-fi shooter. Its white male protagonist is moody, stubbly, beanie-clad and significantly less interesting than the supporting cast. The antagonist embodies a philosophical outlook that the director is keen to critique, and the setting is a dystopic microcosm that’s intended to reflect our own society.
Joon-ho Bong’s English language debut isn’t a video game adaptation, but if it was, it would be the best one ever made. This is because, unlike so many adaptations before it, Snowpiercer embraces the style, structure and quirks of video game storytelling.
Hollywood’s beloved three-act structure certainly has its merits, but it often acts as a strait jacket when screenwriters try to jam unwieldy video game narratives into it — think of how the brutal abridgement of the Hitman universe robbed the fiction of its central themes. Thankfully Snowpiercer doesn’t have three acts, it has 21. The film is structured around the layout of the train, with each successive carriage introducing another fragment of narrative, and another aspect of its fictive reality. It makes for a swift and engrossing narrative, and it leaves the audience hungering for the next carriage in a fashion not dissimilar to the hunger for the next level or cut scene in a video game.
Indeed, the whole thing plays out a lot like a corridor shooter, with action crammed into each carriage, and narrative progression often taking place at the intersection between them. This format isn’t revolutionary, The Raid and Dreddare structured around the layout of decaying tower blocks for instance, but the idea executed expertly in Snowpiercer.
As well as its structure, Snowpiercer also borrows storytelling techniques from video games. Environmental storytelling, the idea that even without action or dialogue, a space can tell a story all of its own, is employed heavily. Where The Raid simply layers floor after identical floor, the Snowpiercer’s carriages pitch from poverty to wealth, infusing narrative into the physical space itself.
On our way to the engine room we peek into classrooms teaching fearful classist politics to the children of the bourgeoisie, labs using unsavoury ingredients to prepare black protein blocks for the refugees and, in a nice nod to Bioshock, even an aquarium carriage. That Bong doesn’t reveal the luxurious forward sections of the train until the 63rd minute, the exact midpoint of his 126 minute movie, indicates the amount of care that went into crafting this visual arc.
Boss fights are another central tenant of video game stories, and Snowpiercercertainly has its fair share of villains, each dispatched in suitably ceremonious fashion. Mason (Tilda Swinton) is undoubtedly the highlight, with the mannerisms of Margaret Thatcher (right down to a prosthetic overbite), the worried eyes of Ayn Rand, and the warped politics of both.
The last boss even denigrates Curtis for killing so many passengers, thus drawing attention to the jarring narrative dissonance between the film’s spectacular fight scenes (in which Curtis remorselessly kills scores), and the character’s abrupt moments of reflection. Ludonarrative dissonance is a concept in video game criticism that refers to conflicts between a video game’s narrative and its game play. Games like Spec Ops and Uncharted 2 have attempted to address this dissonance, but Snowpiercer is the first to apply the concept self-critically inside an action film. One character even calls the film’s events “a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” It’s exactly the kind of post-modern commentary that we’ve come to expect from bosses in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid, or in Ken Levine’s Bioshock.
Furthering the video game similarities, there’s even a hackneyed ethical dilemma at the end of the final battle, and it’s very reminiscent of the binary morality of theinFAMOUS or Fable franchises. The last boss questions Curtis agency, and offers him morally repugnant but easy way out.
There have certainly been dystopian stories with more consistency, better aesthetics, and more substantial things to say about class war, but few are this much fun.
This piece was originally published in Abstract Magazine.