Long story short: Snowpiercer tells a timeless story with the kind of industrial sci-fi filmmaking that made movies like Blade Runner and Alien classics.
Snowpiercer will remind you of: No Escape, Brazil, Time Bandits, The End of Violence, Blade Runner, Alien, The Purge, Elysium, Cube, The Hunger Games
Review: Bong Joon-ho's new movie is a slew of unforgettable images. In any random scene you'll find a shiny black brick of protein for dinner, an evil fat girl in yellow, wheelbarrows of eggs, or a buzzing hive of executioners wielding edged weapons. There's stuff in this movie you've never seen before. Scene to scene, the images never cease. They're the brushstrokes of a weird, violent dystopian thriller called Snowpiercer. The title is cool and so is everything else about it.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer begins with the end of the world. News broadcasts over the opening credits reveal mankind ushered in a new ice age by trying to fix global warming. The world froze, but a "precious few" survived thanks to the Snowpiercer, a train of 1000 cars in the comic (less in the movie) that circumnavigates the globe non-stop and provides its own energy allowing life to continue.
The film begins 17 years later, in 2031. The "rattling ark" is still running but it's become an Orwellian nightmare with the lowest class on the brink of revolution. Curtis (Chris Evans) is the leader. Edgar (Jamie Bell) is his right hand. And Gilliam (John Hurt) is the Yoda character, a sage elder with a hook for an arm and one leg. Curtis tells him, "Control the engine, control the world." His plan is to get to the front and take power from Wilford, the mysterious engineer who designed the "sacred engine." But to get there they must go through one door at a time, not knowing what's on the other side.
The first inkling Snowpiercer is something special occurs before the uprising starts. Children are measured and taken from the back for an unknown reason and a father (Ewen Bremner) reacts naturally. As punishment, security locks his arm outside the train where it meets the cold. The other passengers watch in horror as the frozen arm is brought back inside and shattered for everyone to see. It's this kind of creativity that makes the film so compelling.
After the arm punishment, Curtis rallies his troops. He gets help from the train's security expert (Song Kang-ho) who can bypass the automatic doors separating the cars. The first few are near empty, but the third is full of axe-wielding, hooded thugs ready to filet Curtis and his gang.
The appearance of the executioners makes everyone stop cold. It's a bone-chilling sight and one of the most horrific scenes of any movie in recent memory. Bong allows things to play out, but he balances the violence with a few stylistic flourishes that help move things along. Curtis, for one, dances through the scene in slow-motion, axe flying, as the background noise fades away and a distant piano rises. The tone is almost romantic as the hero fights his way through the crowd of immense evil.
It's tempting to delve into every detail of Snowpiercer and celebrate them all (Tilda Swinton's Margaret Thatcher-esque performance, the steampunk art direction) but I'll resist at the risk of spoiling the rest. I will mention the train itself proves a marvelous setting for a class warfare tale. It provides a tangible video game structure for the story to advance as each new car (or level) is a new surprise and challenge for the uprising. Bong (who also penned the screenplay) does a fine job building tension as the film goes on. There's a startling tightening of the noose that happens as the story draws to close. The final scene is hyped and it lives up to it.
Snowpiercer tells an elemental story of a struggle for freedom on one level but it's also a topical allegory. It's not exactly hard to read between the lines as in most dystopian stories. Like The Hunger Games, last year's Elysium, or the video game Bioshock, Snowpiercer presents a world where the rich have created a Shangri-La for themselves while the poor toil for food and survival. It's not subtle. The 1% here are just a little more forthright about their shady motives. Snowpiercer works on both levels, as a badass action thriller and a dystopian cautionary tale. That's a supreme achievement for any action movie these days, but what you'll remember are the images. This is simply one of the most creative and visionary films of the year.