In different hands, Snowpiercer might have been just another generic action movie. Yet with South Korean director Bong Joon-ho at the helm, it's something more off-kilter and more disturbingly satisfying.
Set in the near future of 2031 after an attempt to reverse global warming has gone horribly awry and plunged the world into a deep freeze, it takes place entirely aboard a climate- controlled, technically advanced train that circumnavigates the Earth endlessly. Exactly how the train has an infinite supply of energy is never quite explained, but that's part of the film's mysterious charm.
The passengers are all that's left of humanity, and they've brought with them the same emotional and social baggage that weighed them down before the disaster.
Rigidly segregated along class lines, the train affords the 1 percent a luxurious lifestyle near the front where the inventor/engineer Wilford (Ed Harris) is at the controls. The middle-class resides at the center, and the restless, riotous poor are cordoned off at the rear, a rat's nest of poverty and filth.
So these les misérables launch a revolution, led by Curtis (a bearded and downcast Chris Evans), his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the elder statesman of the group, Gilliam (John Hurt). Their goal is to storm to the front with the help of a former security expert, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), whom they need to break out of the prison car.
Getting from Point A to Point B, and having to do a lot of head-knocking along the way, is not all that different from what, say, a Jason Statham movie might offer. And, yes, Snowpiercer has its fair share of stylized fighting. When Curtis and company go up against Wilford's hooded, axe-wielding goons within the narrow confines of a darkened train car, one is reminded of the famous hallway battle in another South Korean film, Oldboy.
Yet Snowpiercer — based on a 1982 French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige and with a screenplay co-written by Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) — goes beyond that into the surreal.
Tilda Swinton is phenomenal as Mason, Wilford's toady and fascistic, public-relations mouthpiece, who has to sell the caboose crowd on the virtuosity of their lot in life.
Allison Pill, as a teacher indoctrinating the next generation of train titans, is equally impressive in the movie's best scene, set in what could be an ordinary classroom. Triumph of the Will meets Alice in Wonderland, it is chilling and funny at the same time.
Of course, there's always the question of what Curtis will do when and if he faces down Wilford and takes the controls, absolute power corrupting absolutely and all that.
The film is beautifully shot by Bong, making his English-language debut and best-known for the films Mother and The Host (the one from 2006, not last year's travesty with the same title). The frozen landscapes seen from the train windows are breathtaking.
Snowpiercer doesn't end nearly as well as it begins — the last act is a bit of a letdown — but it's nonetheless a unique and impressive vision of a nightmare future.