Snowpiercer is the fifth and perhaps most ambitious feature film yet from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, best known outside his home country for his subversive and satiric 2006 creature feature The Host. While that was the first of Bong’s films to delve into science fiction territory, it was still set in contemporary Korean society. Snowpiercer plunges into a full-on post-apocalyptic scenario, and it’s one of the more unique we’ve seen on the screen in recent years: following an experimental procedure to stop global warming that ended up causing a new Ice Age, the last surviving humans have been packed onto a gigantic train that will circle the Earth in perpetuity.
At least that’s the idea. Inside the train itself, however, the microcosm of civilization that has been preserved is not doing so well after 17 years. The poor are packed into the rear of the locomotive, sleeping in crowded, filthy quarters and existing off disgusting “protein bars” supplied periodically by armed personnel – who occasionally take children from the rear section for purposes unknown — while the wealthy and privileged live at the front in luxury, complete with education for their kids, nightclubs and restaurants and all the food and drink they can enjoy. The tail compartment is sealed off from the rest of the train, and tensions are understandably high, although a couple of past attempts at rebellion have been quashed.
That doesn’t stop Curtis (a grungy Chris Evans), a fired-up leader from the rear who plans to break out and is no Captain America, storm the front and hijack control of the train with the help of a small group of rebels, including his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), their elder and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose son has been abducted. As they fight their way to the front of the train – blocked at every opportunity by security forces under the command of the loathsome Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) – and their losses pile up, Curtis becomes even more intent on getting to the front and confronting Wilford (Ed Harris), the creator of the train and still presumably its driver.
Snowpiercer is Bong’s first international co-production (it was filmed in the Czech Republic) and his first time working with English-speaking actors, but the director’s stylistic trademarks are all present and accounted for. Like the train itself as it careens and turns on its endless track to nowhere, the tone of the movie veers wildly from horror to suspense to surrealism to bizarre humor to pathos – standard operating procedure for the director. It may all seem too weird to viewers who have not seen any of his previous work, but it’s exactly what gives Snowpiercer its own wild energy. In the hands of a more conventional filmmaker, Snowpiercer might have become a pretentious, grim slog through its end-times scenario; in Bong’s hands, the film’s narrative twists and visual extremities are unpredictable and all the more enjoyable.
He’s aided by his strong and capable cast (including two of his Korean regulars, the superb Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung), with Chris Evans delivering perhaps his finest performance to date as the haunted Curtis (his monologue toward the end of the film is a thing of shocking, crazy beauty) and Tilda Swinton going into full-blown monster mode as the vicious and double-dealing Mason. Hurt and Harris provide gravitas at either end of the film, while Alison Pill shows up in an unexpected cameo that is as hilarious as it is genuinely disturbing.
Working with a budget far exceeding his previous films, Bong pulls off some impressive visual effects (although the CG falls short in a few instances) and makes the most out of his excellent production design. Each compartment of the train is a new world unto itself, some dark and forbidding, others bursting with color and light, and one of the movie’s biggest delights is that we are constantly being thrust into an entirely different and often dazzling setting every time the next set of doors opens. Bong stages several inventive action sequences as well, most notably one that plunges the combatants into an eerie darkness just as they’re about to clash.
Does the science in this sci-fi fable (which is based on a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige) make sense? Not at all, but that’s not really the point. Bong has created a not too distant future scenario that feels plausible even if it’s not, but what he’s really after is the train as metaphor. That aspect of the film does come across a bit obvious and heavy-handed at times – it is another variation on the one percent vs. the rest of us – but the fantastic environment and some of the plot’s turns are gripping enough to keep us from feeling like we’re getting preached to, even if the film starts to feel a little long toward the end.
What’s important is that Bong wants to actually say something with his mix of action, pulp storytelling and allegory. Science fiction cinema right now – particularly when it comes to big-budget summer tentpoles – seems to have abandoned the notion that this genre is and should be about ideas and not just spectacle. Snowpiercer has a lot to say about the human condition – most of it not very optimistic – and uses the trappings of sci-fi effectively to get its point across. Snowpiercer is completely entertaining, often visionary and frequently bonkers – and not once did I want to disembark from Bong’s hellish train ride.
Snowpiercer opens in limited release on Friday (June 27).