- Composed by Marco Beltrami
- Varèse Sarabande / 2014 / 57m
A very highly-regarded South Korean-made film, Snowpiercer is set in a dystopian near future in which governments’ attempts to combat climate change end up changing the climate in a disastrous way, turning the planet into a frozen wasteland. The only survivors are found on a train travelling around the world – it pierces the snow, you see – and a rigid class system has developed on board, the rich living in luxury at the front, the poor slumming it at the back. Guess what – they rebel. Directed by The Host‘s Joon-ho Bong and counting Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and John Hurt amongst its fine cast, the film waited a long time for a limited release in American cinemas but when it came it attracted rave reviews from many critics.
Marco Beltrami’s score was released by a Korean label last year and has now been picked up by Varèse Sarabande for a wider release around the world. Those who have followed the development of Beltrami’s career are unlikely to be surprised by what they find: it is a bleak, sometimes brutal score: in common with some of his other recent works (like The Wolverine, which he scored just before working on this) it is not always pleasant to listen to – indeed, often it is distinctly the opposite – but in this case there is a compelling narrative force going through it which makes it a really rather compelling listen.
The opening cue is called “This is the End”, which gives you an idea of how things are going to go. It’s introduced by a lonely, slightly chilling solo piano theme before the post-apocalyptic histrionics take over. After that, the score blends fierce action cues with very rugged suspense and drama – very effectively. No punches are pulled in the action, which comes in various forms – the desperately dark “Axe Gang” is quite oppressive, contrasting with “Blackout Fight” which has a more expansive feel (but remains far from cheerful!) – the latter is perhaps the most crowd-pleasing piece here. Cleverly, Beltrami uses a battery of percussion to convey the sense of forward motion of the train, a relentless march on.
His soundscape is an interesting one: a lonely dulcimer in “Water Supply” contrasting arrestingly with the freezing strings around it. Importantly, at times the composer allows the listener a moment of calm, a chance to draw breath – “Go Ahead” has a hint of warmer emotion to it and is followed by an elegant classical piano solo in “Sushi” making a nice break from the general anarchy.
The dramatic thrust is soon back, the appropriately-titled “We Go Forward” driving from a typical Beltrami action ostinato into some electronics (continuing in “Steam Car”) which more literally evoke the train. “Seoul Train” is a surprising piece of electronica, not expected in the context of the score but somehow blending seamlessly with the whole. Strained emotion is at the fore of the bittersweet “Take My Place”, desperately sad yet also very beautiful (the melodic highlight of the album, in fact) and it is the first of four cues which end the album in some style. “Yona Lights” has a real sweep to it, the strings swelling in a way they rarely have before that point; it feels cathartic. “This is the Beginning” is full of sunlight and optimism, a rousing finale to the score which I suspect is going to find itself included on many people’s “favourites” playlists. There’s still time for an epilogue, “Yona’s Theme”, a haunting waltz with real character (and a funny little choral Easter Egg once it ends).
As impressive as much of it is, the album isn’t an unqualified success: particularly in its second half, a few cues seem a little lifeless and detract from the overall experience. A slightly more judicious production may have enabled this to be considered amongst the very top tier Beltrami scores, but as it stands it is a little short of that. That said, this is undoubtedly my favourite Beltrami score in a long time: it is no less brutal than The Wolverine or World War Z but far more satisfying an album and certainly comes recommended.