'Snowpiercer': Epic apocalyptic parable on a metaphoric train
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho proved with his 2006 creature feature The Host that he could deliver an exciting, Michael Bay-sized blockbuster that also was infused with an indie-film aesthetic, a feel for true human intimacy, and a sense of the tragic.
Bong perfects this unique, exhilarating mix in his English-language debut, Snowpiercer, an adaptation of Jacques Lob's comic book series featuring a brilliant ensemble cast led by Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton.
A formidable, if perversely overlong epic, Snowpiercer is a dystopian moral parable about survivors of a second ice age that wipes out virtually all humanity.
The premise is pure cartoon hokum: Scientists, trying to combat global warming, release a chemical into the atmosphere. Oops - it triggers a deep freeze.
As luck would have it, eccentric trillionaire Wilford (Ed Harris) already had created a gigantonormous, completely self-sustaining train. A terrifying cross between Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz and Mr. Peabody, Wilford fancies himself a latter-day Noah and welcomes everyone to live on his ark - as long as they follow the rules.
Swinton is delightful in a twisted turn as Wilford's enforcer, a Margaret Thatcherian dragon lady who adores watching her men torture miscreants who have defied the train's No. 1 rule: Know your place.
See, the train has a hereditary caste system. The rich live in the front compartments, which are equipped with pools, spas, a school system, and lots of restaurants serving steak and lobster.
The story begins in the rear compartments, filthy slums that house the workers. Overworked, bored, and hopeless, they have nothing to eat but horrible-looking black protein bars. (Wait till you find out how they're made.)
Fantastical to the point of absurdity, this basic story structure yet houses a remarkable human story as messy and complex, as full of suffering, brutality, and cruelty as a Dickens novel.
The story's hero, Curtis (Evans), and his friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell), decide it's time to even things out and launch a very long, very, very bloody rebellion. Joined by scores of fellow proles, they fight on, compartment to compartment and through legions of armed guards, toward the locomotive.
Snowpiercer boasts compelling fight scenes and gorgeous special effects. It's a treat to trek through the train's various compartments: a walk-though aquarium with its own sushi bar, a rain forest, a nightclub, a gym, a kindergarten.
Yet what makes the film genuinely thrilling is how it subverts its genre. With a sensibility more Kafka and Orwell than Stan Lee, Snowpiercer isn't a triumphalist celebration of macho do-gooderism. It gives us complex, morally ambiguous heroes whose motivations hardly are pure. Evans' character is no Captain America: His bloodlust can be truly repulsive.
While its ending is liberally drizzled with hope, Snowpiercer shows that rebellion, however liberating, can have terrifying consequences.
Snowpiercer ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho. With Chris Evans, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 2 hours, 6 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, language, smoking, drug use).
Playing at: area theaters.