The strangest, most exciting and satisfying film I’ve seen this summer is “Snowpiercer,” an unsettling sci-fi allegory helmed by a highly-regarded but little-known Korean director named Bong Joon-hoo. It is the sort of movie that deserves a larger audience, and will likely get one, if not during its theatrical run than on DVD and video-on-demand. Don’t be surprised if one day you hear “Snowpiercer” mentioned in the same breath as cutting-edge and thought-provoking works such as “Blade Runner,” “Brazil” and even “The Matrix.”
Whenever a foreign director makes his English-language debut, critics discuss whether working outside his native tongue has blunted the force of his directorial vision. I enjoyed Joon-hoo’s previous films, especially his entertaining 2006 monster film “The Host,” but “Snowpiercer” is the best thing he’s done. “The Host” was obviously inspired by Godzilla and other kaiju films, “Mother” owed a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and “Memories of Murder” was a visually striking but fairly standard police procedural.
“Snowpiercer,” on the other hand, feels original and fresh. It’s almost as if working with an international cast and moving outside his comfort zone was a source of creative inspiration, rather than a restriction or challenge to overcome.
“Snowpiercer” is takes places entirely on board a train, but don’t be put off by the confined setting. This is quite a train. It runs on a track that circles the globe, serving as a mobile home for the few humans who survived the horrible ice age triggered by climate change. When the film opens, the train has been running for 17 years, and discontent is growing. The train is divided into sections based on rigid class distinctions, with the lower classes occupying the grimy, overcrowded quarters in the rear, and the rich residing in the opulent cars in the front. The genius behind this whole operation is a wealthy industrialist named Wilford; his henchwoman, Mason (Tilda Swinton, bearing a more-than-slight resemblance to Margaret Thatcher) is his unfriendly and condescending emissary to the back of the train.
With guidance from an aging mentor, a young man named Curtis (Chris Evans, better known for playing Captain America) leads a revolt. Aided by the other passengers in the rear of the train, his goal is simple: to reach the engine, where Wilford is rumored to live. He finds and releases a prisoner named Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), who helped design the train and knows how to unlock its doors, and Namgoong’s clairvoyant daughter, Yona (An-sung Ko). Rounding out the core group of rebels is a teenager played by Jamie Bell and a grieving mother played by Octavia Spencer.
“Snowpiercer” might sound overplotted and unwieldy, but the action is fluid and exciting, the fights are intense and violent, and the visual design is surreal and striking — I was reminded of the movies of Terry Gilliam, as well as those of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose filmography includes the bizarre films “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children.” The film is never predictable, with Joon-hoo springing surprise after surprise and the characters growing more interesting as they progress through the train. There’s a disturbing battle with hooded thugs, and even more disturbing visit to a classroom for rich children and their overly-upbeat teacher.
While Evans is the star, turning in a rugged, haunted performance that sticks in the memory, “Snowpiercer’s” most intriguing characters are the prisoner and his daughter, who would rather break out of the train than take control of it.
“Snowpiercer” is not without lapses in logic, and any viewer who thinks too hard about certain developments and events will find plenty of holes. But I’d recommend ignoring such inconsistencies and simply experiencing the film as a dream (or a nightmare), where things don’t always make sense but the images and ideas are so compelling that it doesn’t really matter. “Snowpiercer’s” ragtag band of rebels is worth watching and rooting for, and while their journey is often frightening and gross, it lingers in the brain like few other cinematic quests.
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