The electrifying, ambitious Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a moving train — but that train contains the world. Massive and powered by a perpetual motion engine, the Snowpiercer continually circles the planet on interconnected railways. It was conceived as a sort of railway equivalent to that real cruise ship that people live on, but has become a dystopian Noah's Ark instead, carrying the last remnants of the human race through a planet frozen over after a well-meaning attempt to combat global warming 17 years earlier went very wrong. It might as well be a spaceship, given how hostile the atmosphere outside it has become. The Earth is still there, but it no longer seems capable of sustaining life.
Snowpiercer, which opens in a few cities this Friday and will expand to more in later weeks, is the English-language debut from the talented Korean director Bong Joon-ho, and is as wide-ranging and tricky to pin down as the train for which it's named: It's based on a French graphic novel, and has an international cast led by Chris Evans that also includes Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Jamie Bell; it's set on a giant, impossible metaphor that it treats with winking solidity; and it's a sci-fi movie that's also a story about a bloody class war and the terrible things we do to survive and then keep doing in the name of limited resources.
Evans is Curtis, the hesistant leader of the revolution brewing in the back of the train, where the poor are packed into a grimy, windowless area, depending on deliveries of protein blocks from the wealthier and more powerful, who live in the cars further up. Their representative is Mason, who Tilda Swinton slyly plays like a sci-fi satire on Margaret Thatcher in her conservative suits and oversized glasses, delivering wobbly lectures on knowing your place while overseeing a punishment of inventive cruelty involving forcefully exposing someone to the bitter cold outside.
Advised by the sage Gilliam (Hurt) and joined by fellow tail-section residents, including Edgar (Bell), Tanya (Spencer), and Andrew (Ewen Bremner), Curtis storms the row of gates barring passage up the train and begins a long, brutal, surreal journey into how the other cars live.
Reluctant hero is a part Evans plays very well, and his role here could be the dark flip side of his recent superhero turn — Curtis is a man who's been through too much to be idealistic, even as he rallies people on his side for a very dangerous venture. Snowpiercer is a reminder of how compelling a leading man Evan can be even out of the costume, as he invests his character with a sense of a complicated past even though the film delves quickly into action. Curtis knows there's a man in charge, the near-mythical Wilford, the creator of the "Sacred Engine." But, aside from that, he has no idea what's coming, and has to maintain a sense of unity despite this.
Curtis and his crew are as surprised by what comes as we are. Snowpiercer has plenty of strange, disturbing, hilarious sights up its sleeve, as the revolutionaries retrieve a junkie security specialist named Namgoong Minsoo (Song) from the prison car for help getting through the doors, and end up bringing his equally addicted teenage daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) along too. (The film handles the language gap between the characters with elegant efficiency that folds in its non-English speakers seamlessly.)
The residents in the tail have been living in squalor, but they don't have to travel far to start seeing luxuries, beginning with the everyday ones of windows and natural light. The tail-sectioners have been told they should be grateful for what they have — "Eternal order is prescribed by the Sacred Engine," intones Mason — but it becomes clear that the closer they get to the front of the train, the more the people living up there have to spare. It's not that there's not enough for everybody, it's that no one wants to give up a plusher existence for the benefit of the unfortunates they've banished to a place where they go unseen. The train is a giant, closed ecosystem that maintains its arbitrary structure by force, and those in more comfortable perches have taught themselves to feel that they deserve what they have.
Snowpiercer may have a premise that's flatly ridiculous — nothing about the train makes practical sense — but it summons up some legit class rage to which it allows no easy solutions. It's a smarter, bleaker film than last year's similarly themed Elysium, but it also has more of a sense of humor. And for all its very resonant talk of order and the way Mason sneeringly refers to its restless poor as freeloading "ingrates," Snowpiercer also manages some impressive action sequences, including a strategically timed battle with axes and one darkly comic scene involving Alison Pill as a manic schoolteacher. It's an arthouse answer to this summer's blockbusters, creating a world that's just as captivating and boldly envisioned, but that comes with a lot more bite.