As Snowpiercer’s opening titles fade to black, a lone “O” remains visible for a beat. It feels like a minor detail, but it’s ultimately a prophetic and powerful one – because the perfection, order, and utter hopelessness of an unbroken loop is at the heart of the narrative of this smart bit of summer counter-programming from politically-minded Korean director Joon Ho-Bong (The Host)
Bong delivers an original, metaphor-laden, and action-charged examination of climate change and classism all within the confines of a sci-fi supertrain: in the near future, mankind botches an attempt to reverse global warming by launching experimental coolants into the atmosphere, resulting in an almost instantaneous second ice age. Only the one-percenters who could afford a ticket aboard the gigantic, perpetually running luxury train known as “Snowpiercer”—and the lower-class rabble who scratched and clawed their way into the rear compartments—escaped the frozen cataclysm, all of them doomed to traverse the Earth over and over until it becomes habitable again, or they all die.
In the first act of the film we meet the wretched denizens of the back section, led by Chris Evans’ Curtis, Jaime Bell’s Edgar, and John Hurt as the old sage Gilliam. They’ve been cramped up and living in the hellish tail section of the train for 17 long years, existing on gelatinous protein bars and being kept in line by armed thugs (as well as a snivelling, weaselly bureaucrat played by the always mesmerizing Tilda Swinton) working for the wealthy, totalitarian regime controlling the front sections of the train. Someone from those front sections is slipping cryptic messages to Curtis and crew inside the protein bars, planting the seeds of an uprising, which Curtis eventually launches with the aid of the train’s security designer Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).
Although these sequences of Evans and the coach-class revolutionaries biding their time and plotting their takeover of the engine room do drag a bit, it’s refreshing to see a director let the audience get to know the characters before the inevitable death march commences; and Bong does a tremendous job with the lighting, cinematography, and set design here – you can feel the squalor, the filth, the claustrophobia, and the desperation of Curtis and the tail-dwellers in every shot. Life in the rear the train is a literal hell, but it’s nothing compared to the existential hell Curtis will eventually experience.
Once Bong sets Curtis’ revolution in motion, Snowpiercer becomes a powder keg of violence and metaphor; a propulsive and inventive blast in the face to conventional summer blockbuster fare. Both the action and the social commentary hit hard as Curtis and his band push their way forward through the various train cars (each one offering their own individual visual aesthetic, caste system analysis, and deadly obstacles) to their ultimate destination of the “sacred engine”; the head of the snake. It is here where Curtis ultimately comes to several utterly devastating and horrific realizations – the worst of which is that the snake’s head is eating its own tail; life in a class system is an endless cycle. The system cannot be changed, it can only be destroyed.
In a summer movie season overloaded with clanging robots, explosions, toppling skyscrapers, and the usual sturm and drang, Snowpiercer is a shocking jolt of intelligence and originality. The apocalyptic dystopia, grime, (and bad teeth) will call to mind George Miller’s Mad Max films, while Tilda Swinton’s brilliant, outlandish hyper-parody of a Margaret Thatcher-esque facist tool of the state invokes the spirit of Terry Gilliam. The rest is pure Asian martial arts brutality mixed with American action sensibilities and some truly poignant and beautiful imagery. It’s a challenging, strange, unique, engaging; and rewarding ride on a perpetually-rolling allegorical locomotive.
4 stars out of 5.