The physics of Snowpiercer‘s futuristic plot are as stripped-down as the backstory is convoluted. Every human being left alive is on board one train snaking across the frozen wasteland. First class is up front, replete with late Roman Empire consumption and a mindset best described as rave-club Borgia. Everybody else is crammed cheek-to-jowl in the filthy back of the train. Those in back want to get up front. All that stands between them are many locked doors, squads of malevolent guards, years of social conditioning, and Tilda Swinton acting like a toothy Margaret Thatcher after one too many gin and tonics.
Why is everybody in a train? Well, in order to combat the planet-warming effects of climate change, mankind seeded the atmosphere with a substance that would cool the Earth down. It’s a perfectly believable setup; a Harvard professor proposed just last year doing the same thing with sulfuric acid. Also perfectly believable is the aftermath: unforeseen side effects that freeze the Earth in a new Ice Age. What’s far less easy to swallow: an inventor has just so happened to have created a self-sustaining train able to travel endlessly on the world’s connected tracks and thusly to save a tiny fragment of humanity from the deep freeze in its long steel cocoon.
The concept of the Snowpiercer train itself has an impressively loony proto-steampunk feel to it that reads much better on the page. But once director Bong Joon-ho ( Mother, The Host) adapted Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s early ’80s French graphic novel series Le Transperceneige to the screen, it loses something in the translation. The metaphorical aspect of the train, which in the books is 1,001 cars long as opposed to just a few dozen here, is downplayed in favor of the mechanics of getting from the back to the front.
The character who gets that journey started is Curtis. He’s played by Chris Evans with the requisite gruff-hero reluctance but also a solid dose of gravitas. Bong ensures that life in the back of the train looks miserable enough, from the overcrowded slum-like filth to the disgustingly jiggly blocks of black protein they subsist on and the lectures from Mason (Swinton) about being ungrateful “freeloaders,” that no reason needs be given for why the revolt starts. No matter that previous revolts have failed in the 17 years they have been on the train. It’s just a question of when.
Some of the film’s early stretches where Curtis and his sidekicks Edgar (Jamie Bell, even more waggishly engaging than usual) and Gilliam (John Hurt, in all his fulsome craggy benevolence) display a particular vein of genius. The mechanics of space and force are investigated by Bong with a claustrophobic intensity, particularly one bravura shot where a ceiling-mounted camera follows a back-trainer as he races down a length of tubing holding multiple doors open, like some revolutionary Olympic sprinter.
The mix of fully committed performers and a filmmaker shooting with keen attention to pulpy thrills makes for a heady mix. (The many extras included on this edition’s supplemental disk pay homage to Bong’s keen eye, though truth be told the most fascinating piece is an hour-long documentary on Le Transperceneige‘s epic road from page to screen.)
Each step of the gruesome fight forward hits another perverse blockage, whether it’s a train-car full of guards with eye-shielding masks (their mouths hang out from the leather casing like a fleshy protuberance from Alien) or one of those stubbornly unkillable sadistic villains whose fight scenes drag on for an eternity. The closer the film gets to the front of the train and its Wizard of Oz-like engineer (that would be Ed Harris, playing another blithely cool-headed sociopath), though, the more it loses its footing.
It doesn’t help that the special-effects view of the outside world, all snow-covered ruined cities and high bridges arcing over cavernous valleys, is disappointingly cheap in appearance. Also, the more absurdities the characters encounter in the front of the train, like the apparently 24-hour rave car (has the same mix been playing for 17 years?), its political subtext becomes harder to take straight.
Snowpiercer is a bloody, limb-severing action film with a bitterly malevolent view of the species and a firebrand’s disdain of class distinctions and the type of deterministic capitalism that believes the poor are meant to be poor and the rich meant to be rich. There’s even a warning here that Thomas Piketty would appreciate: as the grubby-faced plebs hack through the ruling class’s serried ranks of goons, there is one thing they don’t come across: a middle class.