In a resurgent Mother Russia, stockpiled with thousands of nuclear warheads, Vladimir Putin seems hell-bent on throwing caution to the wind. Smack dab in the Pacific Ocean lays an island of trash, surrounded by warm waters below and disturbed atmosphere above. Malevolent radicalism spreads like a plague through the Middle East, committing atrocities in the name of some twisted version of holiness. A fog of pollution permanently hangs over China’s great cities as a pinnacle for humanity’s permanent ignorance. You could be forgiven for thinking we’re not far from a dystopian future, where society as we know it is but a remnant of its former glory. Certainly, Hollywood and its independent peripherals have taken notice of the times we live in. More and more audiences are treated to post-apocalyptic ventures of all shapes and sizes, treatises exploring the folly of man and the ferocity of Mother Nature. Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” can proudly claim a place at the top of such a sub-genre, a thriller embodying the best of modern-day science-fiction whilst celebrating the gloriously grotesque auteur-isms of Japanese cinema.
Straightforward, but not cloying in its thematic purpose, “Snowpiercer” is about classism aboard a super-train housing the last of humanity. The tail are the lower classes, the head the upper class, and naturally, the upper classes have disenfranchised and essentially enslaved the dirty “scum” of the tail. Outside an uninhabitable Earth covered in ice, the result of humanity’s attempt to curb the threat of global warming, inside a hellish existence of historical cannibalism, cramped quarters, minute healthcare, and black protein bars from an ungodly source representing their only source of food…for the tail anyway. The head of the train is everything you would imagine in a nightmare of excess. But a select few of these poor, huddled masses are staging a revolt, and when said revolt is under way, Joon-ho’s film takes off with the sort of propulsive energy that drives this train’s immortal engine. It’s an unpredictable thriller of shaded characters, stomach-churning twists, and balletic violence of a certain scintillating kind. This is the sort of movie where you cheer as one little Hispanic fella performs an acrobatic feat on his way to some awesome brute-befalling kill. Sounds cynical, maybe even a little gross, but when the news is all about an oppressive chasm growing between the haves and the have nots, it’s difficult not to revel in such vengeful metaphors. Chris Evans is the reluctant leader of this ragtag group of rebels, bringing an intriguing assortment of character actors in tow to break through those barriers: Jamie Bell as his hotheaded friend, Octavia Spencer as a distraught mother, Ewan Bremner as a tortured father, that acrobatic killer who, it turns out, never says a word, and Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko as a father and daughter duo of drug addicts with valuable talents. Stealing the movie from all of them with giant spectacles, over-sized dentures, and an accent of New England superiority, Tilda Swinton is the train’s terrible second-in-command and one of the keys to the rebels’ journey for the front. Regardless of Swinton’s imposing stature, Evans gets to do more acting in one scene here than in all of his Marvel duties combined, and he acquits himself better than ever.
Minor contrivances such as an unbelievably indestructable henchman and Joon-ho’s penchant for knocking off likable heroes (who does he think he is, George R.R. Martin?) are annoying in the moment, but quickly fade from memory once another uncanny use of his ever-moving camera wows the senses. Sure enough, the fight scenes here make America’s current, if declining, shaky-cam aesthetic look passe in one bloody instant. Like any good mystery, science fiction or not, truths a many are laid bare by the end of this violent adventure, altering the fabric of humanity’s predicament and revealing much about the past, the future, and these characters themselves. “Snowpiercer” is a gem of dystopian storytelling, a refuge from the mundanity of effects-driven blockbusters, and one of the best films of its calendar home, 2013.