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Apocalypse express

Snowpiercer takes sci-fi, class warfare and environmentalism for a mind-blowing ride

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 4, 2014 at 2:05 a.m.


Tilda Swinton plays Mason in Snowpiercer.


88 Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, Ko Ah-sung

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Rating: R, for violence, language and drug content

Running time: 126 minutes

Snowpiercer is the first English-language film from Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director who achieved international success with the monster movie The Host in 2007 and the unsettling murder mystery Mother in 2009. It is a strange and ambitious project, an allegory about class warfare, environmental recklessness and possibly predestination that at times seems like it was written by a bright eighth-grader with attention deficit disorder and a fondness for kick-butt martial arts movies. It has about it a gorgeous incoherency that overwhelms any logical objections to its absurd premise.

It is set in the year 2031, 17 years after the nations of the world acted in concert to stop global warming (just the first of dozens of far-fetched propositions we're expected to accept) and inadvertently brought on a new Ice Age. Almost all life on earth was extinguished, and the only humans who survived were those who somehow managed to book passage on a high-speed train (powered by some sort of perpetual motion engine); a nonstop ark that circumnavigates the world once a year.

If that's not elaborate enough, the train itself is divided into a strict caste system -- those nearest the front live in remarkable luxury and want for nothing while those at the rear live in squalor, huddled together in the most claustrophobic dystopia imaginable. They are denied even windows, and only won the right to be fed gelatinous protein blocks (ask not what's in them) after violently rebelling against the front-of-the-train oligarchs. That hard-won concession at least cut back on the cannibalism in the caboose, though life at the back of the train is still nasty.

Among the rabble is a reluctant leader, Curtis (Chris Evans), who with his courageous second, Edgar (Jamie Bell), are plotting yet another revolution even as they suffer daily indignities promulgated by their betters, personified by the loathsome (and hilarious) apparatchik Mason (Tilda Swinton), who spells out the philosophy of the ruling class ("Know your place. Accept your place."). But this time, they know that they cannot be satisfied with half measures, with whatever concessions the 1-percenters are willing to make. This time, they have to go all the way to the front of the train, where mysterious Ozlike Wilford (Ed Harris), designer of the train and its horizontal hierarchy, has his lair. They have to overthrow Wilford so they can presumably install a new, egalitarian order.

That's the outline, and in practice the rebels proceed as though in a video game, with each new car representing a new level with new hazards and treasures. To open the gates between the cars they break into the prison car and rouse drug-addicted Namgoong Minsu (Korean action star Song Kang-ho), who agrees to help after freeing his clairvoyant daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung). Namgoong seems to agree to help simply because Curtis promises to keep him supplied with his drug of choice, but, as with most of the characters in the movie, he has a deeper motivation. Now they're on their way, determined to discover what lies behind the next door and whether bullets are really extinct.

Technically defined as a Korean-American-French-Czech co-production and shot mainly in the Czech Republic, Snowpiercer is based on French comic creator Jacques Lob's 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) invented several characters, including Namgoong, Yona and Curtis' mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), who was once Wilford's partner but was exiled to the back of the train. (If you're wondering, the name seems to be a nod to the former Monty Python member who went on to direct Brazil.)

While the philosophical underpinning of the film may be a little shaky -- yes, the train is a closed ecosystem, just like the planet itself -- Bong has crafted an incredibly entertaining and provocative film that shows little evidence of compromise. (A little compromise might not have done it much harm; Harvey Weinstein wanted to trim 20 minutes off its run time, but Bong objected.) The best big-budget action movie of the year (so far) feels like an independent art house feature, with a superb (and frankly overqualified) international cast. It's shot on increasingly rare 35mm film (by Hong Kyung-pyo, who also collaborated with Bong on Mother).

Maybe the best way to take Snowpiercer is as an exotic popcorn flick, and those who need the math and science to add up might be frustrated by the convenient in-universe physics of the film. Yet there's something dark and beautiful here, particularly in the ending, into which Bong allows a measure of hope to bleed. Nothing is easy, but after much noise, fury and sacrifice, the machine might be derailed.

MovieStyle on 07/04/2014

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