Ever felt society is coming off the rails? Snowpiercer is for you. This train-bound, power-to-the-people, futuristic adventure will rock your world. It’s a movie-movie, with edgy cred and a vivid dystopian vision that, while ostensibly futuristic, speaks harshly to the class divide already defining us. Adapted by writer-director Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host) and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer plays out in 2031 on the titular train to nowhere, a “rattling ark” carrying what’s left of humanity in a new ice age (caused by an inept attempt to correct global warming).
The action begins at the back of the train, where class-war rebellion brews amongst an exploited underclass held under armed guard. The peg-legged, one-armed elder Gilliam (John Hurt) remains recognized as leader, but he’s ceded much of his authority to his lieutenant Curtis (Chris Evans). “I’m a shadow of my former shadow,” Gilliam tells Curtis, and the rebels seem to know it as they increasingly look to Curtis for direction. Before long, the rebellion becomes full-blown, and those once held at the back begin moving, car by car, to the front. There, they will find Wilford, the train’s creator and overseer, and seize control from him. First, they need to take the prison car and spring Namgoong (Song Kang-ho of The Host), the designer of the gates between cars, to enable the rebel advance. But Namgoong has two demands: that his seventeen-year-old daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) also be freed, and that the pair be supplied with the addictive chemical substance Kronol. This agreed, the rebels move forward, obtaining a useful hostage in the craven, grotesque Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton).
In both story terms and visuals, Snowpiercer is the gift that keeps on giving, and instant genre classic that plays something like a grim cross between The Great Escape and Time Bandits. Even without the character name, the film obviously operates under the influence of Terry Gilliam and hearkens back to the nineties heyday of Gilliam knockoffs, like Delicatessen, that promised style and substance in concert, a thrilling creativity and a distinct alternative to mainstream pablum. Certainly, Snowpiercer has energy to burn, a rarity in today’s cinema, and the car-by-car structure--from concentration camp to the man behind the curtain--promises ever-more-wondrous surprises (including the guest star playing Wilford).
Bong mightily impresses with a strong, unified graphic sensibility in design, photography, and editing, and he gets great work from a tremendous cast that also includes Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Alison Pill. No one can top Swinton, though, who could easily snag an Oscar nom for her consistent and consistently hilarious portrait of a fearful functionary (complete with unflattering bob wig, plastic-framed glasses and overbite teeth that let out a ridiculous brogue). Well-placed, artfully designed action beats goose the story along, with violence that never crosses over into gleefulness. And for all the style on display, Bong locates moments of poignancy in the tension defined by one character as “the misplaced optimism of the doomed.” No question: with this bracing, darkly witty tale of survival--a game of numbers and “balance”--Bong Joon-ho pulls out the stops.