Dystopias, like cupcakes, Brooklyn, and online lists, are very much in vogue at the moment. Therefore, there is a certain amount of trepidation one has in watching yet another film about the end of the world as we know it. But “Snowpiercer,” the first English-language offering from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, is not your run of the mill cinematic trip to the apocalypse with teen clichés such as grimy but attractive love interests and predictable plots.
“Snowpiercer” opens with a premise that at first sounds like a joke: to combat global warming, humanity accidentally froze the Earth and the remaining survivors live on the Snowpiercer, a huge train that circumvents the frozen wasteland of Earth on a never-dying engine and looks like it belongs in a Coors Light commercial.
But unlike the Silver Bullet Express of beer advertisement fame, not all is well on the Snowpiercer. We quickly become acquainted to life in the windowless back of the train, where the permanent passengers eat disgusting-looking protein bars, sleep in bunks piled on top of each other and live under the boot heel of the train’s oppressive hierarchy. The rigid class system is organized much like that of a real train or airplane, with the cheapest and lowest passengers in the back and increasingly powerful and rich passengers as you move to the front. At the very front of the train, in the train engine, lives Wilford (Ed Harris), the designer of the Snowpiercer. Wilford lives unseen, directing his minions to keep order and enact draconian policies on the back of the train.
As you might have expected, in response to these inequities, our protagonist Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) is planning a revolution — to leave the prison that comprises the back of the train, reach Wilford, take control of the engine, and give rule of the Snowpiercer to those in the back. The majority of the movie follows Everett as he travels from car to car facing the new challenges — often bloody ones — that Wilford and his minions throw at him.
What makes the movie great is how it feels like a travel movie contained on a claustrophobic train. As an audience, we always see new train cars at the same time Everett does, and we can partake in marveling at the increasingly ingenious and luxurious cars that appear as our heroes move to the front. I won’t spoil the fun of some of the more ridiculous cars, but know that at its best “Snowpiercer” recalls the excitement in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” when Willy Wonka moves on from one fantastic confection-creating device to the next.
Unlike “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” however, “Snowpiercer” is brutally violent and a great percentage of on-screen characters meet grisly ends. Here is where the movie’s Korean origins make the greatest impact: in the largely choreographed fight scenes for which Asian cinema is famous. Like the design of the train cars, these fights are innovative and imaginative, often using the unique nature of the train sets to great advantage. They are also so over-the-top, that while the body count is high, they made me far less squeamish than Hollywood movies attempting to make their violence as brutal and realistic as possible. I also must say that one fight involving the train going through a tunnel was one of the most unique and just plain cool scenes I have seen in any movie in a long time.
“Snowpiercer” also succeeds in prompting some thought-provoking questions about humanity and what we are willing to do to survive. It does not waste time ambling about ill-contrived love stories or character development; this means that most of the actors do not really have a time to shine (although Ed Harris does a good job as Wilford, and Tilda Swinton does a great job portraying Mason, one of Wilford’s head cronies). “Snowpiercer” also contains some entertaining, albeit predictable twists that add to the movie instead of existing merely for the sake of playing dramatic music and showing flashbacks.
In short, I highly recommend taking a ride off the beaten tracks with “Snowpiercer.” This Korean-American movie is no Citizen Kane, but it will both entertain you and stick in your mind for days after leaving the theater. I can’t think of any mainstream Hollywood movie this summer for which I can say the same.