Audiences will likely be divided on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a brutal, bold and beautiful film that flies by, even at a hefty 126 minutes – so long as you’re willing to climb on board with its somewhat ludicrous premise. There are those who will struggle to swallow the basic set-up – that a failed climate change experiment plunged the world into another ice age, the only survivors of which had managed to clambor onto a fortified train that uses a perpetual motion engine to endlessly travel the globe. To those people, I say this: do your best to suspend your disbelief, because where Bong goes from there is truly spectacular.
In big-budget moviemaking today, there are Big Dumb Fun popcorn spectacles, slick and intelligent blockbusters and then, much more rarely, productions like Snowpiercer, which seem to operate in a different realm entirely. You see, Snowpiercer isn’t just a smart film. More aptly, it’s a smart film that is powered by some of the biggest, ballsiest and straight-up coolest ideas you’ll see on screen this year. And to Bong’s credit, he never pretends that any other aspect of Snowpiercer, from its actual dialogue to its star-studded cast, is intended to outshine those ideas. Instead, the director tackles every scene with the precision and restraint of a true artist, supplying the brilliant technical detail he’s known for but stopping just short of distracting audiences from what’s really ticking at the film’s core.
To lay out every weighty topic that Snowpiercer explores would be to venture too far into spoiler territory for my liking, but the basic set-up provides a few hints. 17 years after the Snowpiercer, that aforementioned train which houses the remnants of humanity, first embarked on its eternal journey, a class system has emerged. The rich inhabit the front of the train, living in decadent carriages filled with every luxury they could ever want. At the tail end, it’s a different story – the poor live in adject poverty, subsisting only on disgusting protein blocks and living in filthy, smoke-choked cargo holds. Authority, of course, comes down on the side of the rich, with guards abusing the poor tail inhabitants in horrific ways.
As grim as this reality is, hope yet lives in the form of Curtis (Chris Evans), a rough-and-tumble lad from the tail section who leads a violent uprising against the class system. He’s determined to improve the living conditions for the tail dwellers and simultaneously punish the elite who have so ruthlessly suppressed them. As his revolution gains traction, Curtis leads his followers on a transformative and dangerous journey through the train to seize their freedom.
Bong takes care not to overly laud or glorify Curtis – as the tail passengers incur greater and greater losses in their fight against the better-armed security forces, one begins to see him not as a hero but as a symbol of unconditional resistance, as someone who will do whatever it takes to improve his own situation. But as Snowpiercer chugs along, it’s impossible not to be sucked into his plight. A lot of that is thanks to Evans, who gives probably the best performance of his career thus far. A far cry from the broad-shouldered Cap, Curtis has the hungry, desperate look of a condemned man about him, and Evans captures that without letting the character’s fire ever appear extinguished. The actor has experience as an action star, but he’s never taken on a challenge like Snowpiercer before, nor has he so effectively tugged at the audiences’ heartstrings.
Elsewhere, Tilda Swinton gives a batty, brilliant performance as Mason, the deluded second-in-command who addresses the tail dwellers with a commanding sadism that (intentionally) frames her as the unhinged lovechild of Margaret Thatcher and Muammar Gaddafi. You don’t know whether to laugh or cower during the roaming speech she gives before brutally punishing a tail dweller who threw a shoe at her – I ended up doing both. She’s the most memorable performer in Bong’s strange circus by a long shot.
Though Snowpiercer is bursting at the seams with talented actors (including Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt and the aforementioned Harris), the only other one to leave a big impression is the remarkable Kang-ho Song, whose security specialist Namgoong Minsu becomes a key player in Curtis’ uprising, helping his forces to get through different train cars. Namgoong’s own shadowy motivations make for a fascinating counterpoint to Curtis’ theories of order and justice and Wilford’s own conceptions of forced Darwinian and political determinism.
The combination of Bong’s big ideas, all these talented perfomers and some of the most visually striking action sequences to be committed to celluloid in a long time (one in particular stands a fighting chance of becoming an all-timer) makes Snowpiercer a wild, delightful ride. Don’t miss it under any circumstances – Bong has delivered one of the year’s most unexpected and engaging films.