Director Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1976 Australian film Dead End Drive-in tells the story of a pair of young lovers, Jimmy (Ned Manning) and Carmen (Natalie McCurry), who nick off to a drive-in cinema in a borrowed Chevy. This isn’t your average drive-in, nor is the film set in a familiar time or place: it is a dystopian Sci-Fi based in a world where the economy has collapsed and crime is rampant.
We see little evidence of what happened to the world around them, because the film is almost entirely based in the drive-in. Incapable of leaving (the wheels of the Chevy are stolen, the gate locked) they are forced to adjust to a new lifestyle within the venue’s fences. The drive-in is represented as a microcosm of society: inhabitants work to earn tokens to spend at the candy bar, become embroiled in political and cultures allegiances, and, understanding how grim the world outside them is, generally arrive at the understanding that life is better in quarantine. Jimmy is the classic anti-establishmentarian, the caged free sprit determined to smash the system — and consequences be damned.
Snowpiercer, the first English language film from South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother), is Dead End Drive-in’s cinematic brethren. It too splatters an intellectual premise with loads of pulpy B-movie tropes. It too is based in a contained environment: Bong’s story takes place entirely on a train, set in a future where a botched attempt to counter global warming resulted in the world becoming frozen and uninhabitable. It too revolves around the exploits of a protagonist, Curtis (Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans), who refuses to exist as a pawn in somebody’s game.
Curtis is part of an impoverished lower-class, relegated to the back of the train, who have their children stolen from them and exist on food bars made from dead insects. With help from comrades Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Gillian (John Hurt), they mount an uprising and claw through carriages, slowly approaching the front of the vehicle, where life is grand and the carriages divine.
Just as writer/director Gareth Edwards’ hyper-powered chopsocky The Raid (2011) was like a video game in its sense of spatial simplicity (the characters literally move up levels in an apartment building) so too is Snowpiercer, but laid out horizontally. There’s a “what comes next?” thrill to it that consistently entertains. Every door to every carriage introduces us to new mini-worlds, like tiny arcologys from Sim City, and Bong — throwing in dollops of gore and ostentatious fight scenes — has enormous pleasure reveling in the randomness of it.
The story has Orwellian undercurrents, correlating class divide to a wide-reaching conspiracy involving the poor servicing the rich and functioning as dispensable properties in a grand order of things. Adapted from post-apocalyptic French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is a strange and colourful beast: messy, uneven and full of weird indulgences and dangling plot threads. But by God it’s good fun, a fast-paced and visually stunning romp with a tonne of surprises up its sleeve.
Among them is an outrageously entertaining performance from Tilda Swinton as a pernicious bureaucrat, a Thatcher-esque caricature whose conservative politics extend into cat-stroking inhumanity. Like Dead End Drive-In, Snowpiercer serves up a mean dose of social commentary for those who care to look. For those who don’t, it’s a wickedly entertaining oddity.