“Snowpiercer,” Reviewed: Super Train.


Let’s start by agreeing that Snowpiercer (rated R)one of the year’s most compelling and well-crafted pieces of filmed entertainment, is no documentary. When the premise is established that a man-made climate change “solution” goes wrong, accidentally turning our warming planet into a barren, frozen husk, Korean director Bong Joon-ho (2006’s The Host) isn’t inviting a debate about the science. Nor is he asking us to ponder the engineering wizardry of a prescient inventor who pro-actively creates a perpetual motion engine to power the Rattling Ark, a massive train that circles our icy globe, once a year, without stopping. Gifts like Bong’s film don’t come around often, and we shouldn’t worry about the “why”: Instead, try to kick back and enjoy the dizzying, dystopian ride.

The ecological-themed backdrop adds urgency to the story (as does the opening narration that explains the whole problem started on July 1, 2014 – gulp), but at its heart Snowpiercer isn’t too preoccupied with global warming. Much like the crazy-quilt cast of international actors populating the Rattling Ark, the director (who co-wrote the film with Kelly Masterson) has built a mash-up of genres: Quite a bit of near-future sci-fi, a dash of magic realism, some well-choreographed Asian-style action, and most of all class warfare that’s waged on every battlefield.

The train, you see, holds the planet’s entire surviving human population, and to keep things orderly a rigid caste system keeps the richest passengers toward the head of the locomotive while the poorest live in squalor in the tail. For the one-percenters up front it’s not a bad way to travel; but life in the way, way back is like living in a cattle car – a metaphor that holds up when the population is occasionally culled by visiting soldiers looking for a violinist, or a small child for reasons unknown.

This is a rich, complex setting for any film, let alone one whose primary antagonist-protagonist conflicts are staged with hatchets and automatic weapons. But that’s what makes Snowpiercer such a twisty, inviting pleasure. The narrative structure couldn’t be simpler: Curtis (a barely recognizable Chris Evans, light years away from his Captain America duties) and his band of Tail-inhabitant rebels must move to the Head of the train, one car at a time, to wrest control of the engine from Wilford (Ed Harris), their enigmatic “benefactor” who created the Ark. Getting there from here is at turns excruciatingly difficult – just ask the car full of black-masked assassins who aren’t inclined to let Curtis pass – and mind-bendingly surreal, as in the car whose sole inhabitant appears to be a sushi chef, ready with one freshly prepared nigiri per rebel.

Entering each new car plays like starting another chapter of a fascinating novel, one that satisfies in its self-contained moments while never losing sight of the story’s larger themes. When Curtis finally meets Wilford, he’s treated to a villainous monologue that answers questions we didn’t think to ask about his journey – but those revelations are less a “twist” in the usual Hollywood sense, and more a validation of the journey we’ve just taken: Like Curtis, we’ve earned the right to have those blanks filled in.

As Curtis, Evans contributes a performance of the same workmanlike quality that keeps on distinguishing him in low-budget and indie projects (Sunshine, Puncture) when he isn’t cashing big checks in comic-book movies. He’s appropriately haunted by the life he’s had to live on the Ark, and justifiably driven to do something – anything – that might change his fate. Harris, in what amounts to a cameo, is terrific, but the film’s not-so-secret weapon is Tilda Swinton as the savage administrative lackey who puts Curtis and his crew through their paces on Wilford’s behalf. She’s terrific in a role that forces her to switch allegiances as easily as she pops out those false teeth.

One last thing: By the end of Snowpiercer, the film takes on a startling resemblance to an early 1970s classic that I won’t reveal here, lest it give too much away. (I expect you’ll figure it out when you see it for yourself.) The two movies couldn’t be more different, and yet they play like opposite sides of the same coin. It’s just another sign of the timelessness of Bong’s film that it’s already earned itself a compare-and-contrast partner in cinema studies classes from now until doomsday.

(IMAGE: Chris Evans in Snowpiercer. Photo courtesy of Radius/The Weinstein Company.)