Flawed, but fun ‘Snowpiercer’ makes a hip action flick out of a bizarre sci-fi parable
How’s this for an allegory for the human condition? In the post-apocalyptic future, the surviving members of humanity are trapped together in a giant, high-speed train endlessly circling the globe on the ultimate fast-track to nowhere.
That’s the story in Snowpiercer, the first English-language film from Korean cult filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, a brooding cautionary tale of social dynamics and environmental suicide dressed in the trappings of a bloody, brawling action thriller. It’s a rather despairing look at the species, and the plot is not exactly airtight, but the director’s energy and humor, along with some entertaining performances, make it worth the ride.
The film is adapted from a three-volume French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, originally published in the 1980s. Set in the aftermath of global environmental collapse, the comic is the perfect vehicle for filmmaker Bong, who tried to warn us about the catastrophic effects of climate change in his delicious eco-monster movie mash-up The Host. Now he gets the chance to explore the consequences of our negligence in Snowpiercer, which begins when a botched attempt to halt global warming launches a new ice age and freezes the planet.
All of Earth is reduced to frozen white waste, except for a cross-section of people who have boarded a ginormous train driven by a perpetual motion engine on a track that circumnavigates the entire globe, one revolution per year. The train’s been going for 17 years, and its inhabitants have sorted themselves into distinct classes. The poor are crammed into steerage in the “Tail,” where soldiers armed with rifles periodically show up to count heads, round up people and brutalize anyone who tries to interfere.
Naturally, resentment breeds among a few Tail hotheads like Curtis (Chris Evans)—who wants to capture the “Head” and shift the balance of power—and his friend and disciple, the wisecracking Edgar (Jamie Bell). Their mentor is elderly Gilliam (John Hurt), who inspires them with his stoic wisdom and his tales of other attempted, if unsuccessful, Tail rebellions.
When the adorable little boy of Tail resident Tanya (Octavia Spencer), is hauled away, Curtis and the others are goaded into action. What follows are a few philosophical discussions and quiet revelations, but mostly bloody pitched battles as they attempt to fight their way up the train.
Along the way, they release drug-addled engineer Nam (Kang-ho Song, star of The Host) from his cryogenic sleep, along with his teenage daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Nam is valuable to the rebels because he knows every inch of the train, and Song is invaluable to the film for his hipster sarcasm. Trying to head them off at every pass is the icy bureaucrat, Mason, a spectacularly goofball performance by an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, from her ridiculous protruding teeth to her broad, loamy Yorkshire accent.
In terms of storytelling, Bong drops the ball a few times. The actors deliver their third-act revelations soulfully enough, but the longer some confessions go on, the less sense they make. Also, it’s unclear how this diverse group of folks got on the train in the first place, or why the industrialist who built it didn’t just cull passengers from his elitist friends, or sell seats to the highest bidders. The lower classes in the Tail aren’t even on board to provide labor; they’re just a herd of seething unrest.
On the other hand, the film riffs cleverly on the classic Metropolis, not only in its allegory of social classes, but in the streamlined Art Deco industrial look of the train machinery.
While not exactly upbeat, Snowpiercer nonetheless provides a bracing anecdote to the cookie-cutter superhero movies of summer.
SNOWPIERCER*** (out of four) With Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris. Written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. A Weinstein release. Rated R. 126 minutes.