All good science fiction really needs is a great hook, and “Snowpiercer’s” setting is just that: in a post-apocalyptic icescape, a train holding the last scraps of humanity circles the globe in a never-ending loop. But “Snowpiercer” is more than a mere survival story, and proves to be a brainy, elegant sci-fi tale, using a familiar rags-to-riches arc in creative fashion to deliver one of the year’s best films.
Much like any train, the Snowpiercer is divided into classes, with the social elite in the front of the train and the “freeloaders” confined to the back few cars. Those in the tail are crammed together like sardines and fed saggy protein blocks, and a rebellion slowly begins to brew under the leadership of Gilliam (John Hurt) and his reluctant protégé, Curtis (Chris Evans). Once the inhabitants of the front, represented by the ruthless Mason (Tilda Swinton), go too far, Curtis leads the charge towards the front of the train.
The beauty of “Snowpiercer’s” pointed social commentary comes from the effortless set-up, the class system of the train a potent allegory for the deeply set social divisions that prevail all over the world today. But the film is far from a ponderous treatise on social mobility, crafting a tense, harrowing journey for Curtis and his mangy group of allies. The film’s production design and world-building is remarkable, with the beauty and small details of excess in the train’s front cars striking a strong contrast to the dank pit our heroes are fighting to escape.
Director Joon-ho Bong, making his English-language debut, stages a host of impressive action sequences. The first moment of rebellion is a breathless, exciting explosion of tension, feeling almost accidental in its suddenness, while a showdown with a train car full of masked men with axes is a monumental, impressive fight with several great twists worked in. Bong also displays a knack for making the characters fighting for their lives feel like living, breathing people, and not soapboxes from which he can deliver social commentary.
Coming off of playing the squeaky-clean Captain America, Chris Evans seems relieved to sink into the unapologetically dark role of Curtis, who slowly stumbles into his leadership role, making several mistakes and hard sacrifices along the way. Evans gives a fantastic, conflicted performance here, and even as Curtis reflects on some truly reprehensible steps he’s taken to survive, Evans brings such unfiltered regret and anguish to the role that it’s impossible not to feel for him.
Way on the other end of the spectrum is Tilda Swinton’s totally insane performance as the delegate from the front of the train, Mason. She initially appears to be a crisp picture of confidence, but as she finds herself coming into conflict with the rebels, she slowly emerges as a weasel, perpetually squirming to find the best angle for herself. Swinton’s extravagant, cranked-up performance plays beautifully off of Evans’ restrained turn, and she lands some of the film’s biggest laughs. The rest of the supporting cast is equally well-suited to the world Bong creates, with Kang-ho Song playing a stoic prisoner who plays a key role in the rebellion and Ed Harris bringing the film home with his languid, arrogant performance as one of the front car’s shadowy figures.
Harris emerges during the third act, which is the most puzzling aspect of “Snowpiercer.” The film’s finale is a muted affair, casting many of the previous events in a new light and introducing an intriguing morality play before ending on a visually stunning moment that could function as a cynical condemnation or an optimistic view on the future. The film’s final scenes may raise a few too many questions, but the ambiguity is welcome, and it’s a sign of a film’s power if its story is both potent and vague enough to leave ample room for discussion.
“Snowpiercer” is a science-fiction film rich with meaning, but it never gets bogged down in that, always remaining an entertaining, tense journey. Joon-ho Bong does a great job both playing in a new genre and directing in a new language, and his cast delivers terrific performances across the board. In a weekend sure to be dominated by a three-hour commercial for robot toys, “Snowpiercer” is a refreshingly adult alternative, and it’s unlikely that a film this smart, exciting, and original will come along again this summer.
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Genre: Science Fiction
Runtime: 126 minutes