I know it is a cliché, but I must say this: "Snowpiercer" is something we do not come across often in movie theaters nowadays. This is a smart, compelling science fiction film—about a train that travels through a frozen future landscape—which can intrigue us with its futuristic setting at the beginning and then pull our attention into its thrilling journey packed with interesting sights until it arrives at the powerful finale where we come to care about not only what has happened during the characters' journey but also what will happen next at their arrival point. You may recognize lots of inherent holes and flaws in its path to that ending, but the movie confidently pushes its premise throughout its running time, and it goes all the way to its inevitable destination as intended from the beginning while deftly dialing our expectation level up and down in each compartment.
The background of the movie sounds unrealistic to say the least. In 2014, the global climate disruption becomes far worse than before (it may not be that soon, but that will happen within several years if we keep neglecting the current situation), and the nations of the world jointly attempt to lower the global temperature through spraying a newly developed chemical gas in the atmosphere. The temperature is lowered as hoped, but the result is an apocalyptic catastrophe; the Ice Age returns, and the world becomes a frozen snowy hell.
While much of human civilization has frozen to death, a small group survived thanks to a train belonging to an unorthodox billionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris). Right before the Ice Age began, he laid his special railroad line all over the continents (he even built a bridge between Russia and Alaska). The train has been running on the line since the catastrophe, thanks to its high-tech engine. I do not know how his railroad can be maintained without any serious problems throughout 17 years of snow and ice, but it surely looks magnificent as it mightily and rapidly pulls its long long line of cars along the track. Even when the train comes across ice/snow blocks, it just penetrates them them using its sheer power and speed, then goes on and on while completing its world tour every year.
While Wilford has occupied the engine/head compartment since the people took refuge in his train, a strict class system has been maintained within the ark, and the passengers get as much as they paid for. The first-class passengers occupy the most luxurious compartments in the front, and the economy class passengers are the next in line, and the free passengers, who can be regarded as the 99% class of the train, are stuck in the tail compartments with little support. It is utterly freezing outside (it takes less than 10 minutes for a bare arm to freeze as hard as a rock), and people in the tail compartment have no choice but to accept their shabby social position within this micro-society, which may be the last flame of humanity.
In such a ghetto-like condition, there is always a chance of rebellion. Curtis, played by Chris Evans in his grittiest and grimiest performance, is a young rebellious man, and he has been looking for a good chance. All he and others have to do is move forward along the train and then take over the engine, but it is not an easy job because 1) they do not know what they will come across beyond their compartments and 2) Wilford and his second-in-command Mason (Tilda Swinton) are not easy to defeat for many reasons, including their merciless enforcers.
Even before the rebels make their first move, the possibility of defeat is clear to everyone, including Curtis and his aging mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), who has been a de facto moral leader respected by everyone in the tail compartments. But it looks like they have a pretty good chance this time. Curtis learns that there is a security expert named Namgoong Min-su (Song Kang-ho, who was the lead actor in "Memories of Murder" (2003) and "The Host" (2006)), and he can quickly unlock the gate of each compartment for them. After he is released from the prison compartment by Curtis, Min-su joins in Curtis' plan on the condition that he can take his young daughter Yona (Ko Ah-seong) along with him while getting two doses of a hallucinogenic drug named Kronol for his job at every gate.
The movie has been advertised as an action movie, and there is indeed an impressive sequence where two opposing groups brutally clash in one narrow space, but to our delight, the movie turns out to be far more than that, as Curtis and others desperately advance through the compartments one-by-one. The movie hurls us into a bloody mayhem at one point, and then it amazes us with what is inside some of the compartments, and then it ambushes us with more unexpected things in other compartments. The movie feels uneven and jarring at times because of that, but, it surprisingly creates some sort of harmony from that under the director Bong Joon-ho's confident direction and offbeat sensibility, and the movie throws in a surprising moment of humor even when the characters are facing matters of life and death. The movie invests considerable attention to its small but intriguing post-apocalyptic world and its colorful characters. I was particularly amused by how protein bars handed to the tail compartment people are manufactured; when the recipe is revealed, Soylent Green will not look that bad to you in comparison.
The movie is based on the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" by Jacque Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. I have not read it yet, but I can say that Bong Joon-ho and his co-screenplay writer Kelly Masterson (he previously made an impressive debut with Sidney Lumet's last work "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (2007)) have made a darkly engaging SF thriller from their source. While there is the constant urgency driving its plot and characters, the film sometimes slows its pace to let us identify with the characters and be absorbed in their dystopian world. The story never drags even when it takes some rest with the characters. The more we advance with them, the more we feel that the stakes are high for everyone involved in the conflict inside the train, and we also come to see that not every character is completely safe in this tumultuous situation as the movie ruthlessly rolling them on its unpredictable plot.
The movie also takes its time while looking around the interior of the train with fascination. Every compartment has its own function, and one of the most amusing sights is the school for the children of the front compartments. In their bright, pleasant classroom, the children eagerly participate in the lesson without questioning anything (Alison Pill is morbidly cheerful as their pregnant teacher), and we get some background history behind Wilford's train through their old-fashioned education video.
And then the story becomes more about the quest rather than action as it gets closer to the engine compartment, and the movie provokes certain questions which have been asked in dystopian fitcion. Is survival a greater good above everything including morality? Is it worthwhile to be inhuman for the better chance of preserving humanity? They say we human beings are capable of anything, but can we accept the cost of survival and move on no matter how big it is? I do not dare to tell you how these questions are presented in the film, but I must say it has been quite a while since I really felt genuine temptation in a character facing a difficult decision, but that is the case here. None of the available options is an easy one; any choice is bound to be followed by its own weighty consequences, and the final scene can be interpreted as optimistic or pessimistic depending on your view.
This is Bong Joon-ho's first feature film made outside South Korea, and he proves here that he can work competently with an international cast and crew. His cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pho does a terrific job of providing different moods, Steve M. Choe's editing is sharp and efficient and Marco Beltrami' score is solid while never stepping out of the line. You may complain that the CGI showing the exterior of the train looks cheaper than what you see from big Hollywood blockbusters, but it effectively serves the story, as any good special effects should do. We have no problem with accepting the fictional reality of the movie, so we can believe the characters are really on the train going through some tricky parts of its line, and we get ample thrills and excitement as a result.
The cast is excellent, amplifying their mostly simple roles with their talents and presence. I must confess that I had underestimated Chris Evans before watching his electrifying performance in "Puncture" (2011), and this film confirms for me that he can do a lot more than playing Captain America. There is a haunting moment when Curtis reveals his dark side to another character, and Evans is captivating to watch, conveying the unspeakable horror remaining inside his character's heart.
The rest of the cast are equally memorable in their respective roles. Tilda Swinton gloriously embraces her despicable character with the attitude of mean British headmistress, and she is fearless as usual in throwing herself into the hammy side of her character. Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Ewen Bremner play some of more distinctive characters in the tail compartments, and John Hurt, a wonderful British actor who has always been suitable for playing a shabby intellectuals since "Midnight Express" (1978) and "1984" (1984), instantly draws our attraction whenever he appears. As the Colonel Kurtz/Oz the Great and Powerful of the movie, Ed Harris is as good as expected during his eventual appearance near the finale, and Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-seong hold their own (some of their dialogue is in Korean, but hi-tech translator equipment is available to other characters in the train, so we can accept the scenes where one character speaks in Korean while the other speaking in English).
This year has been particularly interesting for South Korean audiences because three of their leading film directors have attempted to make movies outside their usual territory. While Bong Joon-ho was making "Snowpiercer," Kim Jee-woon made a pulpy B-action film with Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Last Stand" (2013), and Park Chan-wook made a tense coming-of-age drama in "Stoker" (2013), which is as stylishly disturbing as his previous films. The degree of success varies, but all prove that they are skillful directors who can wield their styles and talents even when making movies outside South Korea with a different language.
I have admired Bong Joon-ho's works for many reasons, and one of them is the unpredictability of his choices. He made me both laugh and cringe in a deadpan black comedy "Barking Dogs Never Bite" (2000), and then he played me like a piano in his great rural-set thriller film "Memories of Murder" (2003), and then he surprised me with monster film "The Host" (2006), and then he came back to another thriller set in the countryside in "Mother" (2009).
With "Snowpiercer," he has made another surprising choice, and he successfully solidifies his status as one of great South Korean directors. The movie is as good as it can be as a science fiction story, and its problematic aspects on the story level can easily be overlooked while you are entertained by its wonderful sights. I still wonder about how the hell the train in the movie can run so fast and so long for more than 10 years, but, folks, how can our hearts not be excited by the sight of this fantastic train zipping around the snowy post-apocalyptic world, especially if it is loaded with many things to admire and enjoy?