Snowpiercer is an English-language science-fiction film produced in South Korea, depicting a post-apocalyptic reality in which our world has succumbed to a new ice age due to human interference. The last of civilisation finds shelter aboard an ever-moving train (powered by an “eternal” engine). In this quirky microcosm of humanity, class-based system has emerged – the front is controlled by the elitist group, while the poorest live in the back cars.
The picture went through quite a battle to receive a limited release in the United States in an complete uncut version. While the strong cast (Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris) itself should have attracted people, however The Weinstein Company didn’t have much faith in the project. Thus, change was requested – trimming of the film and introducing narration. It’s true that director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t waste time and jumps straight away into the story of a revolt planned by Evans’ character, but the plot is always clear and easy to follow and needs no clarification. Still, the big distributor doesn’t seem to think so. If that’s not an insult to the audience’s intelligence, I don’t know what is.
Marco Beltrami is not a typical Hollywood composer. Yes, he’s participated in several bigger projects – Hellboy being the best example. However, he often chooses small films on which he gets more creative control. Snowpiercer, while moderate in scale, gave him an opportunity to create an unique s-f world, not limited by typical genre restrictions. It’s a schizophrenic portrait of humanity. There is no clear strong theme to navigate through that story, but the composer shapes a peculiar narrative out of this, seemingly eclectic collection of musical elements. As the characters move through the train, from the poorest section to the more posh front cars, the music changes from very primal and brutal into more elegant and refined. It is a subtle, but interesting way of depicting this surreal journey through this never-ending segmented world.
‘This Is the End’ plays over the main titles, in which audio clips recount the struggle to find a solution to global warming and the subsequent chaos that followed the global climatic disaster. Right off the bat, Beltrami defies our expectations with a melancholic piece led by piano and cimbalom. That last surprising choice of an instrument brings back the memory of other distorted vision of the future in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, where accordion served a similar purpose (albeit in far less subtle context). Buck Sanders, composers’ frequent collaborator, provides and interesting whooshing and wintry electronic ambience. ‘Stomp’ is an elegiac string piece for strings, which shows us the condition in which poor people of back cars finds themselves in.. ‘Preparation’ underscores an extended sequence of preparation for revolution. It’s a suspenseful track with rhythmic strings punctuating the pace, while shy woodwinds add slightly mysterious flavour. The next cue, ‘Requesting an Upgrade’, takes the excitement further with an interesting action piece. Unlike most scores of modern age, it is the string section that creates energy the propels the sequence, not the usual brass or percussion. ‘Blackout Fight’ largely continues that trend, although the electronic ambience is more pronounced.
One of the most striking elements of Beltrami’s score is the use of piano. It’s desolate solo performances are at the heart of this film – ‘Take the Engine’ is an early example of that. In both ‘Axe Schlomo’ and ‘Water Supply’ the lonely instrument yet again finds its companion in cimbalom. ‘Sushi’ is a lovely classically flavoured cue, strangely reminiscent of John Williams’ distant echoes of home in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. ‘We Go Forward’ introduces a catchy ostinato, led by piano and cello, as our characters move towards posh section of the monstrous vessel. The larger ensemble and synthesiser soon join in. ‘Steam Car’ is largely based around sound design effects, mirroring the main character’s desperate state of mind after horrific incidents he just experienced. It’s an interesting concept, but difficult to enjoy on album.
In a sudden change of style, ‘Seoul Train’ presents some pulsating electronica, composed for the decadent club party segment of the train. At this point the score and album become more contemplative and low-key, before picking up the speed yet again in the last four tracks. ‘Take My Place’ is an extended melodramatic cue for strings, cimbalom, harp and synthesisers. It is the first track on the album, where Beltrami’s music takes a deeper breath and spreads wings emotionally. Following that, ‘Yona Lights’ picks up the action and suspense yet again. The end credit piece ‘This Is the Beginning’ finally offers a brighter perspective on this world and its new hope, with exciting and propulsive snare drums section brilliantly mimicking moving train. The brass, largely absent throughout film’s running time, takes the music to almost heroic proportions. This newfound optimism is short-lived, however, as Yona’s Theme takes centre stage – a haunting waltz led by solo violin, somehow bringing a memory of different sort of doomed trains in Earths’ history. It’s a contemplative and bleak coda to the 55-minute Varese Sarabande soundtrack album (previously available only in South Korea). That is, of course, unless we count a brief bizarre and grotesque easter egg schoolchildren song at the end – another Gilliam-like element.
The score is not easy to enjoy, but also difficult to dismiss. The truth is that, while melodically elusive, both the mood and soundscape are ultimately able to intrigue and offer something else than usual, and there’s a definite ghostly sense of regret and loss that might find its way into hearts of some listeners.
The soundtrack album is generally well-balanced and never really outstays its welcome. As it has been proven several times now, Beltrami works best when not constrained by genre and temp-track expectations. While devoid of strong narrative backbone, Snowpiercer haunts and disturbs in equal measure.
Snowpiercer is out now from Varese Sarabande Records