Snowpiercer is a train, but it might as well be called the Ark, for it contains the only survivors of an environmental apocalypse. This near-future scenario, starting 17 years after the Earth’s surface froze over in a backfired attempt to reverse global warning, is the metaphorically rich background to South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian horror movie of the same name. From the director of the acclaimed environmental monster movie The Host, Joon-ho’s English-language debut is an ambitious, gripping, and unfortunately, too-often gonzo allegory that seeks to recreate the philosophical rabbit holes of The Matrix while masterfully pulling off an Orwellian coup d’état.
Within the train is a totalitarian society unto itself, ruthlessly divided by class. While those in the overcrowded rear cars barely subsist on gelatinous protein bars, those in first class enjoy resort-like interiors with sushi from the aquarium, fruit from the greenhouse, and every luxury that a captive work force can provide. In a particularly brutal sequence, the near-instant death from the freezing temperatures outside is displayed when a disobedient passenger has his arm frozen and shattered with a mallet (this fetishistic and over-the-top focus on bodily harm is the film’s most distracting flaw).
John Hurt is Gilliam, the mutilated old leader of a rebel faction fomenting a takeover from the tail section, and Chris Evans (aka Captain America) is Curtis, his dedicated but unsure protégé. Though Evans is effective in this subdued role, as is Jamie Bell as his fervid assistant, and Octavia Spencer as the ferocious mother of a young “train baby,” it’s the supporting performances that distinguish the inarticulate narrative, especially Kang-ho Song (The Host) as a drug-addled engineer, along with Ah-Sung Ko as his young companion, Vlad Ivanov as a James Cameron-style security goon, and Tilda Swinton as Mason, a mid-level enforcer who communicates with the godlike Mr. Wilson, the unseen creator and operator of the train’s engine. Swinton miraculously pulls off this campy character, who is burdened with clownish prosthetics and a thick accent, infusing a stock minion with facets of intelligence and equanimity.
There have been rebellions aboard Snowpiercer before, but none of them succeeded in reaching the luxury cars in the front, let alone the heavily guarded sanctum of the Divine Engine room. As Curtis leads the rebels forward car by car, Joon-ho choreographs one spectacular set piece after another—most impressively, the train’s precarious hurtling along a narrow, canyon-spanning bridge, and a battle that is thrown into chaos when the train is plunged into total darkness by a tunnel and the security battalion dons night-vision goggles to hack away at the rebels. The complexity of the camera work is occasionally breathtaking.
Loosely adapted from a French graphic novel, the film’s grimly heightened realism runs out of steam in the final act, descending into farce while trying to sensationalize the fate of the train’s abducted children, yet it ends on a note of almost poetic resolution. Though the characters and their motivations fail to match the imagination of the cinematography, the potently symbolic and strangely convincing world with Joon-ho’s locomotive is a horrifying thrill ride not soon forgotten.