Upscale, gruesome, long, and unapologetically messy, Snowpiercer is a $40 million futuristic epic with startling visuals, a supercharged storyline, and oddball characters that don’t always conform to their presumed parameters. A slambam, splattery shambles with a fat dose of social satire and barely a lick of sense, Snowpiercer offers an enormously fun, unhinged ride that’s worth the investment for its mixture of a great cast, batty personalities, and mad swipes at symbolism.
After a failed global warming experiment sends our world into a deep freeze in 2014, the remaining survivors take cover in a massive locomotive that protects humanity from the frigid air and circles the globe once a year. Seventeen years later, in 2031, Chris Evans (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Avengers) is Curtis Everett, a 34-year-old who has spent more than half his life living in the working-class “tail” car, eating “protein blocks,” and waiting for the chance to fight his way to the front.
Evans is a revelation here, delivering a haunted performance that his previous work has only suggested he had in him. Tilda Swinton (Moonrise Kingdom, Only Lovers Left Alive) is equally delightful – and almost unrecognizable (“Precisely 74% of you shall die”) – in a twisted turn as Wilford’s enforcer, a secular-religious extremist dragon lady hybrid between Margaret Thatcher and Margaret Dumont who adores watching her men torture miscreants who have defied the train’s No. 1 rule: Know your place.
John Hurt and Ed Harris do admirable work: between Only Lovers Left Alive and Snowpiercer, Hurt just seems to be trying to keep fans off-balance, and Harris is doing a spin-off between Christof and The Architect. Really, though, Snowpiercer’s undeniable acting triumph is Canadian actress Alison Pill (Milk, Midnight in Paris); in her one-scene romp as Teacher, she’s cocky and charming and bemused and dangerous within the span of a few breaths.
Snowpiercer retains many of the qualities of writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s earlier films – kinetic energy, whiplash tonal shifts, irresistible commitment to a weird internal logic, and an immensely peculiar last act – as well as eyes-averting, shudder-inducing nastiness (if ghastly limb amputations, boiling vats of insects, and an extended conversation about cannibalism don’t make you squirm, I’m not sure what will).
Above all, Bong is a world-class visual stylist, and he creates a richly imagined world with a gorgeously grimy retro aesthetic, as glitteringly arresting as it is savagely merciless, keeping this eerie examination racing along. Snowpiercer also provides a grand tour of Ondřej Nekvasil’s outstanding production design, which feels like a Felliniesque romp through individually magical shadowboxes. It must be seen to be disbelieved.
Sprung from a 1982 French graphic novel, Snowpiercer is a headlong rush into conceptual lunacy, playfully postmodern in its pastiche of styles and its mingling of sincerity and self-consciousness. It’s brought to the screen with the kind of solid narrative craftsmanship, carefully-drawn characters, and respect for the audience’s intelligence rarely encountered in high-concept genre cinema. If the future is miserably dystopian (Snowpiercer’s barren wasteland reminds one of a snow-laden version of The Road), it’s thoughtful, stylishly crafted misery that keeps on hurtling forward – with nowhere to go.
A confronting think piece wrapped in a bizarre and bloody thrill ride with a universally comprehensible theme and accessible aesthetics, Snowpiercer is a downbeat spectacle that alternates between sudden violence, high camp, and heavy-handed political allegory with breakneck speed. The film features plenty of elements from previous cinematic apocalyptic visions – class warfare, decrepit living, terminal velocity. For something that’s been acclaimed as original, Snowpiercer is chasing everything from Metropolis to Brazil, and owes significant debts of gratitude to The Truman Show and The Matrix. It even contains overt musical cues to The Shining.
Yet even when its disjointed plot mechanics are too convenient, it’s brimming with technique, and you can’t help but admire director Bong’s high-wire act. Unforgettably bizarre filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off. It evolves steadily, growing richer with every step and slowly feeding us morsels of information – enriching the ludicrous premise with magic and wonder. Though black humour runs throughout Snowpiercer, what comes through most strongly is its pessimistic political conscience.
No style, no matter how bold or committed, and no setting, no matter how inventive or beautiful, can compensate for storytelling that strains plausibility as it batters your sensibilities, and Snowpiercer is the most blunt, anti-nuanced allegory produced in years. In the superlative The Host and Mother, Bong elevated and transcended the monster movie and murder mystery by refashioning them into exquisitely heart-wrenching dramas. On the contrast, due to its lack of subtlety, Snowpiercer warms the heart, but doesn’t penetrate it.
Ultimately, however, Snowpiercer holds its own as an unruly, rattling, ravishing work of visual creativity and performance eccentricity. I prefer Bong playing in his own backyard. But if one’s going to jump from Korean suspense thrillers to Hollywood blockbusters, Snowpiercer is how you do it right. Pay attention, Michael Bay: This is what real action movies look like.