A dark, hilarious social comedy, Snowpiercer is also filled with bruising, brutal action sequences. Under the direction of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, that adds up to a great deal of fun.
Adapted for the screen by Bong and Kelly Masteron from a 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, the premise, frankly, is ridiculous: the extremely wealthy Wilford (Ed Harris) dreamed of building a perpetual-motion engine that would power a luxury train on a private rail system circumnavigating the world. He achieved his dream before a scientific experiment goes wrong and causes another Ice Age that kills all life on Earth, except for those “lucky” enough to gain passage on the train, named Snowpiercer.
The truly “lucky” ones are those who were rich enough to secure accommodations on the front part of the train. The unlucky, i.e. the poor and unwashed, are kept in the back part of the train by armed guards, and suffer privations on an epic scale. Despite occasional rebellions, the situation has continued unabated for 17 years, and Curtis (Chris Evans) has had enough. Under the guidance of the group’s unofficial leader, the aged and disabled Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis has hatched a plan to rush the armed guards, move forward through the train, and eventually take control of the engine, so as to establish liberty and justice for all.
The anguish of the underprivileged passengers — including Curtis’ best friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as an angry mother, Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose young child has been taken away by the guards for undisclosed reasons — is dire and a unrelieved until Tilda Swinton shows up as Mason, an authority figure. She delivers a speech that, judging by its words alone, is intended to intimidate and terrorize the cowed and downtrodden: ‘Everyone must remain in their place! We in the front, and you in the back!’ Yet her buck-toothed appearance and Swinton’s out-of-touch delivery of the lines mark it as a patently comic invention, and that welcome dose of levity returns balance to the piece.
Although grim and violent action predominates, the humorous commentary continues, especially once the sleepy-eyed Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) enters the picture. He’s a drug-addicted security expert who’s been locked up for years, and the rebels must entice him to join them. He and his partner in crime Yona (Ko Ah-sung) supply perspective as the rebels fight their way toward the engine.
Each car on the train is different, fulfilling a different function, and, if it wasn’t already crystal clear, each car allows for different aspects of societal and class norms to be criticized. Bong and his team, notably production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, create a wonderful variety of luxurious settings for the front half of the train, no matter how impractical they may appear, and their unflagging imagination, as gloriously photographed by Hong Kyung-pyo (Bong’s 2009 film Mother) reaps increased benefits as the rebels approach their ultimate goal.
Song Kang-ho has appeared in many of the best-known Korean films to have enjoyed exposure in the U.S. (J.S.A.: Joint Security Area and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, to name two), and worked with Bong previously on 2003’s Memories of Murder and 2006’s The Host. Here he is a shaggy dog of a man, and he’s teamed well with Ko Ah-sung, who played the girl captured by the monster in The Host
Among the English-speaking cast, Chris Evans acquits himself quite well, embodying a man who has spent half his life on the train and is burned out from his suffering. Tilda Swinton’s comic turn is pure gold. John Hurt and Ed Harris lend the necessary dramatic heft to their roles.
Snowpiercer offers up an energetic sociology lesson that is sometimes glib and sometimes sincere, but always entertaining and propulsive.
The film opens Wednesday, July 2, at Angelika Film Center (both locations, in Dallas and Plano), Alamo Drafthouse, and AMC Grapevine.