Snowpiercer, the new film from director Bong Joon-ho, is ravishingly bonkers. Based on a French comic book saga, the film presents a future vision of the world plunged into permanent, uninhabitable winter, a result of overcompensation in the battle against global warming, a witty detail introduced in early one as a signal to the satiric sensibility woven through the film. The only refuge on the entire planet is aboard a train that doesn’t stop, rattling along tracks that traverse the entire world, taking exactly a year to complete a round trip. The incredibly long locomotive wasn’t built for this purpose. Instead it was the crackpot notion of an inventor who grew up loving choo-choos, testifying in a video from his childhood that he’d like to live on them forever. When the cold descended, the train was the only option for those who were looking for an alternative to freezing to death.
What the film lacks in engineering plausibility, it more than makes up for in allegorical potency. The train has become a microcosm of global society, with the wealthy and privileged closer to the engine, enjoying decadent pampering. The impoverished live in squalor toward the caboose, grimy in their bunks and solemnly accepting gelatinous protein bars for daily sustenance. Any hint of discontent is met by a lecture about gratefully accepting their assigned place and the occasional bit of vicious corporal punishment utilizing the frigid outdoor temperatures. In this system, a man named Curtis (Chris Evans) plots a revolution, one designed to succeed where others have failed. The goal is get all the way to the engine. Bong crafted the screenplay with Kelly Masterson (the writer behind Sidney Lumet’s excellent final feature, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead), and it has an admirable commitment to heightened lunacy and delightful unpredictability. Each new train car provides its own surprise, some gruesome, some thrilling, some comic in the most twisted way. And at least one of those cars manages to hit all three tones, thanks in no small part to some wickedly warped satire and a fearlessly full-bodied performance by the invaluable Alison Pill.
Much as Bong concentrates on the mechanics of his visual storytelling, he pulls strong performances out of his actors. Evans is as good as he’s ever been, especially when called upon to deliver a deliberately nutso monologue about the earliest days on the train, grounding it an emotional honesty that is as superheroic as anything he does when adorned in a stars-and-stripes uniform. There are nice supporting turns by Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and two of the co-stars from Bong’s wonderful The Host, Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung. Then there’s Vlad Ivanov, who plays the heavy with a level of dead-eyed menace unseen on the screen since J.T. Walsh shuffled off this mortal coil. But nothing else quite compares with the broad strokes of Tilda Swinton as a Thatcher-esque overseer of the underclass. Swinton’s performance, in keeping with her career-long tendency, is such a colorful caricature that it settles squarely into love-it-or-hate-it territory. I felt both emotions in about equal measure. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
With Bong’s perfect sense of tonal balance, Snowpiercer is playful and bleak, serious science fiction and a splendid wild ride, employing an almost childlike logic that favors what’s effective in the moment over what might stand up to devoted scrutiny. That’s appropriate given the film rushes along with the same unyielding momentum as the train that is the setting for practically every scene. Bong’s filmmaking feat is that he keeps it solidly on track the whole time.