In different hands, “Snowpiercer” might have been just another generic action movie. Yet with South Korean director Bong Joon-ho at the helm, it’s instead something more off-kilter and more disturbingly satisfying.
Set in the near future after an attempt to reverse global warming has gone horribly awry and plunged the world into a deep freeze, it takes place entirely aboard a climate-controlled, technically advanced train that endlessly circumnavigates the earth. Exactly how the train has an infinite supply of energy is never quite explained, but that’s part of the film’s mysterious charm.
The passengers are all that’s left of humanity, and they’ve brought with them the same emotional and social baggage that weighed them down before the disaster. Rigidly segregated along class lines, the train affords the 1 percent a luxurious lifestyle near the front where the inventor/engineer Wilford (Ed Harris) is at the controls. The middle class resides at the center, while the restless, riotous poor are cordoned off at the rear, a rat’s nest of poverty and filth.
So these les miserables launch a revolution, led by Curtis (a bearded and downcast Chris Evans), his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the elder statesman of the group, Gilliam (John Hurt). Their goal is to storm to the front with the help of a former security expert, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) whom they need to break out of the prison car.
Getting from Point A to Point B, and having to do a lot of head-knocking along the way, is not all that different from what, say, a Jason Statham movie might offer. And, yes, “Snowpiercer” has its fair share of stylized fighting. When Curtis and company go up against Wilford’s hooded, ax-wielding goons within the narrow confines of a darkened train car, it calls to mind the famous hallway battle in another South Korean film, “Oldboy.”
Yet “Snowpiercer,” based on a French graphic novel and with a screenplay co-written by Kelly Masterson (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”), goes beyond that into the surreal. Tilda Swinton is phenomenal as Mason, Wilford’s toady and fascistic public-relations mouthpiece, who has to sell the caboose crowd on the virtuosity of their lot in life.
Allison Pill (“Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World”), as a teacher indoctrinating the next generation of train titans, is equally impressive in the movie’s best scene, set in what could be an ordinary classroom. It’s “Triumph of the Will” meets “Alice in Wonderland” and is totally chilling and funny at the same time.
Of course, there’s always the question of what Curtis will do when and if he faces down Wilford and takes the controls.
The film is beautifully shot by Bong Joon-ho, making his English-language debut and best-known for the films “Mother” and “The Host” (the one from 2006, not the travesty with the same title from last year). The frozen landscapes seen from the train windows are breathtaking.
While “Snowpiercer” doesn’t end nearly as well as it begins – the last act is a bit of a letdown – it’s nonetheless a unique and impressive vision of a nightmare future.