It is a rare and refreshing experience these days to go to the theater and see an epic science-fiction action film in the summer that is trying to make a point. I very much enjoy watching franchise cogs that work mostly because of how they slot into all the other moving parts around them; I’m also totally partial to nonsensical, explosion-filled garbage that distracts me with sound and flashing lights. But Snowpiercer is that rare experience you don’t get to have much in the summer anymore, a loud, clanging, original action flick that’s grabbing you by the lapels and yelling in your ears.
There’s been much made of Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s mixed first experience making an English language film, clashing with Harvey Weinstein over editing his movie into something more commercial. Supposedly this 125-minute cut is what the director is satisfied with, and that makes sense to me, because Snowpiercer is a demented nightmare vision of a Hollywood action movie, and it’s lost nothing of its committed, neo-Marxist message, which it tries as hard as it can to bash into your brain.
Snowpiercer is set after the onset of an ice age, triggered by humanity’s efforts to solve global warming, and set on a train that runs perpetually around the earth, doing one circuit per year, using some combo of a perpetual motion engine and recycled ice that it’s better not to think too hard about. The glorious advantage of setting the movie entirely on a train is that it’s so easy to make the class stratifications Bong wants to talk about clear. At the back of the train, conditions are grim; everyone’s got soot on their faces, people are missing limbs, they eat black jellied “protein bars” handed out by the military, and once in a while their kids get measured and snatched away for reasons unknown.
The film starts slow and with thudding obviousness. We’ve seen enough movies to get the impoverished conditions Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer) suffer in, and we understand that they would want to rebel, guided by their wise old leader Gilliam (John Hurt). If that wasn’t clear, Tilda Swinton swans in with crazy false teeth and glasses, a funhouse-mirror Margaret Thatcher, spitting orders and braying about the “sacred engine,” reinforcing a caste system that has clearly existed since the train began its journey.
The rebellion happily gets started pretty quickly, and that’s when the fun begins. The best kind of dystopian film is one that reveals little details of its world bit by bit, peeling back layers to get to the central mystery underneath, and Snowpiercer’s train structure makes that all the easier. As Curtis and company storm and hack their way forward, the sets get more elaborate, weird industrial drugs and translator gadgets get dug up, and we’re joined by Bong’s longtime collaborators Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung (both featured in his best-known film, the brilliant monster movie The Host) as an engineer and a psychic who can help them get further forward, although they travel for their own reasons.
The joy of Snowpiercer is two-fold—watching the sets change and get more and more elaborate as the cars get richer and richer is fantastic, and all the money of this $40 million mini-epic has clearly been devoted to making these carriages as original as possible. The action is crunching, ear-splittingly loud and mostly very brutal, but it’s always well-staged and somehow Bong manages to change up his set-pieces even though they’re all taking place in, y’know, a train.
Evans is a nice brooding pair of shoulders to rest things on, but the joy of Snowpiercer’s ensemble is the weirdoes around him, particularly Swinton’s horrible dime-store rent-a-Stalin and Song’s hypnotized, drug-sniffing iconoclast. We build to a showdown at the front of the train with another recognizable actor who specializes in this sort of monologuing, who thinks himself as miserable in his opulent isolation as those at the back.
Bong’s point, that our stratifications are as much about isolating social classes from the others as they are about inequality, is well taken. He’s making no bones about drawing our eyes straight to his point, which is both refreshing and jarring, and his wacky mix of tones is tiresome at times, refreshing at others (one jaunt inside a schoolroom led by a cracked-out Allison Pill is both). Snowpiercer is nothing close to a perfect experience, but it’s a thousand times more memorable than most experiences you’ll have this summer at the cinema.