An object of blunt force and breath-catching beauty, Snowpiercer plays what-if with a familiar doomsday scenario: What if Noah’s ark never found dry land again? Would the animals turn on each other? Would Noah cotton to how his calves looked in jackboots?
In this English-language debut from acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), set in 2031, some 17 years after a failed experiment to counteract global warming initiated a catastrophic new Ice Age, a train powered by a perpetual-motion engine crosses the world on a continuous track. Humanity is now extinct, save the couple thousand souls aboard the titular train, a fixed ecosystem with finite resources – although “soul” is a loaded word to use to describe a population reduced to its most basic, and base, instincts.
Working from the French source comic book Le Transperceneige, Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) use the train’s top-down layout to dramatize the class divide. At the front of the train reside the pampered first-class passengers, while in the very back, the poor are pinned in like cattle and plundered like a spare parts shop whenever first-class is in want of a classical violinist or a sous chef. Primed for rebellion, the steerage class rallies around a reluctant leader named Curtis. He’s played by Chris Evans, who flexes some of the same muscles (deltoid, jaw) as in his day job as Captain America, but Evans subverts the uncomplicated action heroics of the Marvel movie cycle for a much grimmer meditation on heroism here. Bong’s confidence in his leading man to carry the third act – which includes a crucial tight-framed and unbroken monologue – is rewarded by the best work of Evans’ career.
Evans’ stoic center is orbited by an international cast that is a perfect melting pot to reflect the train as a kind of limbo-land Ellis Island, forever denied entry to any New World. Bong has cast his film exceptionally well – including Bong regular Song Kang-ho, as a drug-addled securities expert, and Tilda Swinton, all-in, loony-bin brilliant as a fanatical mouthpiece for the ruling class – and all the actors have screen presences forceful enough to round out frugal characterizations that, by design, have but a single goal.
The revolutionaries’ mission? To seize the engine, which is manned by the train’s designer and godhead Wilford. As Curtis and his ragged band of insurgents set off to meet the wizard (and ideally slit his throat), the story advances with a video-game-like plotting, with each railcar representing a new level with a new challenge. The comparison isn’t meant as a slight; call it respect for the filmmakers’ purity of intent. The film is as single-purposed as its heroes in the quest to get to that damn engine, but that isn’t the same as single-minded. Bong and Masterson subtly contour the film with religious iconography – in the bitter irony of its step-into-the-light trajectory (the benighted rebels are blinded by sunlight when they reach the more affluent rail cars); the emphasis on the train’s powerhouse as the “sacred engine”; an intriguing allusion to transubstantiation; and mirroring versions of a supplicant-and-divine-leader relationship, between Swinton’s Mason with the enigmatic Wilford, and Curtis with his steerage-class sensei Gilliam (Hurt).
The latter is so named in an affectionate nod to an overt inspiration, Terry Gilliam, who conjured memorable sci-fi grotesqueries in Brazil and 12 Monkeys; the same courtesy could have plausibly been extended to Jeunet and Caro or Lang, whose similarly visionary futuristic pictures of spoilt humanity certainly influenced this one. But Snowpiercer holds its own; it’s an unruly but rattling – and ravishing – work of art. On first watch, I wondered if there was anything to scratch beneath the surface – it seemed so straightforward, I worried there wasn’t enough there there – so I rewatched it almost right away and was surprised to find it still left me panting. Then again, shake a snow globe, and there’s no telling where its disparate parts will settle. I can’t wait to watch it again, to see where it settles next.
For an interview with Bong Joon-ho, see "Apocalypse by the Trainload," June 27.