'Snowpiercer': A dystopian ship of state

Director Bong Joon-ho puts futuristic class struggle on runaway train

Wednesday July 2, 2014 04:00 am EDT

The Snowpiercer seems like an impractical home for Earth's survivors, who'd probably find greater safety in some kind of underground silo than a vehicle frequently beset by the elements. But the Snowpiercer makes an inspired movie metaphor as a relentless ship of state, pushing forward without heeding the cost to its poorest passengers. Director Bong Joon-ho helms a rabble-rousing, boundlessly creative sci-fi adventure that builds up a full head of steam before losing some of its momentum.

The length of the train emulates the class system, with the aristocracy housed in the front cars, just behind "The Sacred Engine," while the impoverished masses eke out an existence in the tail section. Living in cramped, makeshift quarters, the tail passengers have a reluctant leader in Curtis (Chris Evans), a haunted revolutionary who waits for the right time to lead a rebellion against the rulers and their jackbooted thugs. Early scenes emulate prison breakout movies, with Curtis and his cohorts timing how long doors stay open, assessing the guards' ammo supplies, and enlisting a junkie gate-cracker (Korean actor Song Kang-ho).

Based on a series of graphic novels, Snowpiercer also proves reminiscent of video game structure. When Curtis and company strike back against their oppressors, they go forward car by car, not only ascending the social ladder but experiencing different environments, like gaming levels. They might encounter a car that's a giant aquarium, or one filled with axe-wielding thugs in one of the film's bravura action scenes. Curtis wants to go all the way to the engine to find the mysterious Wilford, the near-deified scientist who built the train. Plot-wise, Snowpiercer resembles the darkest "Doctor Who" episode imaginable.

The film's fascinating design draws inspiration from the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Terry Gilliam, with "Gilliam" even providing the name of Curtis' aging mentor, played by John Hurt. Snowpiercer proves similarly brilliant at creating an intricate, lived-in on-screen world with both huge, sprawling moments (such as the train speeding past frozen cities) and funny little details with the actors. A shoe thrown in defiance becomes a darkly comic recurring prop. But Bong Joon-ho and his role models all have a tendency to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, even though not everything does.

Filmed mostly in English, Snowpiercer's international cast includes Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer, with Tilda Swinton best capturing the Swiftian satire in the material. As the mouthpiece of the ruling class, Swinton comes across like a combination of Margaret Thatcher, Dolores Umbridge, and a rabid poodle. Her hilariously wild exaggeration finds a perfect counterpoint in Evans' seething, taciturn performance, by far the weightiest he's given to date.

You can admire Snowpiercer's willingness to venture into uncomfortable territory, even if some of its choices don't pay off. The talky final act proves anticlimactic compared to the early high-adrenaline scenes. Nevertheless, Snowpiercer's uncompromising vision gives it far greater moral gravitas than the bigger summer movie franchises. It's more powerful than a locomotive.

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