“Snowpiercer” is a veritable United Nations of sci-fi films. Directed by the Korean Bong Joon-Ho (“The Host”), based on a French graphic novel and with a cast built around Captain America (Chris Evans), Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and Song Kang-Ho (of “The Host”), it’s a visceral, exhilarating action satire set aboard a train — the last train, the only train on an Earth that has frozen over thanks to a botched effort to stop global warming.
The politics are as simple as the plot. The train powered by “The Eternal Engine” has to keep moving to keep the last survivors on Earth from freezing. In the front are the rich, the powerful. They have servants, armed protection and control of all the resources. In the back, “The Tail Enders,” “free-loaders” in this society, are fed gelatinous protein bricks, beaten down, abused and misused, constantly reminded to maintain their “pre-ordained particular position.”
“Order” is what this train needs, the martinet Mason (Tilda Swinton, doing a Margaret Thatcher without the polish) barks. It’s what the mysterious Mr. Wilford, “the divine keeper of the sacred engine,” demands.
It has been like this for 17 years, ever since the Earth froze over and life went extinct. The train, a stop-gap built to pierce snowdrifts on a vast track that spans the continents, rattles and hurtles on. But Curtis (Evans), his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell) and their guru Gilliam (John Hurt) have other ideas. They plan to lead the latest attempt to storm the engine and take over.
Curtis may say “I’m no leader.” Heroes in movies and the comic books they’re based on often do. And he may “suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed.” But when the Front fascists come, measuring tape in hand, and grab a few right-sized children (Spencer if the fierce mother of one of them), the revolt begins.
Bong Joon-Ho stages the bloody brawls, confined to the narrow cars of a very long, very fast train, as thrilling set pieces. They’re little slices of “300” or your favorite samurai or sword fighting movie. This is fast-motion or slow motion slaughter with clubs and axes, in the light or in the dark. The deaths are gory, personal and excruciating.
The quest of the bedraggled tail-enders feels like a bloody “The Wizard of Oz” set on a “Runaway Train,” with each section they assault a revelation.
The anti-hero of “The Host,” Song Kang-Ho, plays an electronic security “specialist” addicted to the drug of choice on this eternal train, opening security gates to cars with food and water, luxury and comfort, hedonism and health care.
“Snowpiercer” was delayed due to a rumored battle over the final edit and running time, and it does tend to dawdle as it rattles toward the climax we can see coming. It’s more an instant cult film than a picture with any prayer of reaching millions.
But for all its lapses in logic, all its lunatic touches, you have to appreciate the sheer audacity of any action movie that starkly lays out the planet’s growing gap between the have-nots, and the “haves,” who stress “order” and “balance” and stability as priorities everyone should share.
“That’s what people in the best place say to people in the worst place.”
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and drug content
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt
Credits: Directed written by Bong Joon-Ho, scripted by Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson, based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige.” A Radius/TWC release.
Running time: 2:06