Film Review: Snowpiercer

In this dark, wildly entertaining vision of a post-apocalyptic planet, Bong Joon-ho conjures a speeding train of survivors who mirror the class system and all its inequities of the real world.

A lollapalooza of a thrill ride, Snowpiercer mounts a dystopian sci-fi fable which transcends the genre by ratcheting up the social commentary. In its focus both on the looming disaster of climate change and the swelling economic disparity between the rich and everyone else, it’s both timely and relevant, while keeping the entertainment quotient high. The brainchild of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho by way of Le Transperceneige, a French graphic novel, the film is premised on a future in which a failed global-warming experiment kills off all life on the planet. A lucky few survivors, however, board the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circles the globe.

In the film’s clever faux-scientific premise, the world’s nations have countered global warming by spraying a newly developed chemical gas in the atmosphere. What they get for their trouble is a new Ice Age and a world that’s become a frozen, snowy hell. A prescient billionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris) has built a train which alone fosters human life, circling the planet with such demonic force it makes the TGV resemble a cowcatcher. When Snowpiercer encounters snow and ice blocks, it just smashes on through—thrillingly conveyed through CG work—as it continues its circuit of the wrecked world.

Most intriguing, a strict class system prevails on this roaring ark, where the “tail” houses the hoi polloi, while the front caters to the moneyed. There’s no mistaking Bong’s message that the train mirrors the real world in microcosm. The unsustainable imbalance brews a rebellion headed by one Curtis (handsome action hero Chris Evans, star of the Captain America franchise), who has languished for 17 years in the tail and is panting to bust loose. He’s aided by aging mentor Gilliam (John Hurt, sporting an umbrella handle for a hand) and Jamie Bell, covered in schmutz and wounds that do nothing to lessen his charm. The plot is to get to the front of the train—“We control the engine, we control the world”—the “engine” also standing in for capitalist dogma. In their scheme to reach the train’s wheelhouse, the rebels pull from a morgue-like bin a security expert (Song Kang-ho, from The Host) and his young daughter—“waking” them with a feel-good drug—who can unlock the gate of each compartment for them.

Part of the fascination of Snowpiercer lies in the “realistic” details of the crazy post-apocalyptic world posited by the filmmakers. The protein bars that nourish the underclass make Soylent Green seem tasty in comparison. And as the invaders advance from their grubby quarters toward the front of the train, they encounter the happy few dining on steak and sushi to the music of string quartets; lush solariums, an aquarium, rave parties; a dentist providing the well-off with veneers; and a schoolteacher (an amusing Alison Pill) indoctrinating children in the virtues of the mighty Wilford.

Viewers should be forewarned that Snowpiercer makes liberal use of the violence peculiar to such Korean genre films as Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (though mercifully without its dental horrors), including brutalities visited by the police force on the underdogs, sickening sound effects, and Curtis’ confession about a group of survivors who went Donner Pass out there in ice-world before boarding the train. As well, the tone—veering between dark comedy and horror—is sometimes as jolting as the train.

That said, Bong has pulled terrific performances from his international cast. A standout is Tilda Swinton as Wilford’s second-in-command, uncorking a comic Margaret Thatcher impersonation in a set of weird chompers and ratty furs while accusing the rebels of “violent hooliganism.” Beneath her clowning, the message is clear. “I belong to the front,” she intones, “you belong to the tail. Know your place. Keep your place.”

The film’s tech package is superb, especially flashes of wrecked snowbound cities, ice-bound tunnels, and the train’s monstrous engine; the percussive driving score raises the pulse. Bong even permits a smidgeon of hope when a character reveals that an Inuit woman has taught him how to survive in the frozen world.

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