In the near-future a failed attempt to stop global warming ends up unleashing a global ice age. Soon almost all life across planet Earth is extinct save for those survivors sheltered on board a high-tech super-train. Inside the train humanity has been segregated into a cruelly hierarchical class system. While wealthy first class passengers luxuriate in lavish surroundings and dine on fine food, impoverished third class passengers are herded, terrorized and brutalized by armed guards, forced to live on disgusting protein bars while children over the age of five are mysteriously removed from their parents. Curtis (Chris Evans), a resourceful third class survivor, has spent the few years planning a revolution aided by his ageing mentor Gilliam (John Hurt). Acting on a secret message from an anonymous ally in the front section, Curtis rallies his fellow third class passengers into a desperate fight for freedom.
Curtis, along with close friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), aggrieved mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and vengeful one-armed Andrew (Ewen Bremner) break out of third cast and take as hostage dodgily-dentured first class spokeswoman Mason (Tilda Swinton). Whereupon their mysterious benefactor leads them to a pair of prisoners in cryogenic storage: drug-addled bad-ass Namgoon Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and clairvoyant waif Yona (Ko Ah-sung). It happens this kooky yet enigmatic duo are the only ones that can help the freedom fighters confront the train's elusive creator, megalomaniac billionaire Wilford (Ed Harris).
Snowpiercer is the first English language film from Bong Joon-ho, the acclaimed South Korean director behind Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006) from which returning stars Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung spark brilliantly off a compelling, impassioned Chris Evans. The film broke box office records in Korea though, alas, its American release proved considerably more troubled. At first the film wound up in limbo after Bong refused to cut it down by twenty minutes at the behest of Harvey Weinstein. American fans then organized the "Free Snowpiercer" campaign that succeeded in getting the film into theatres, albeit on a limited art-house release on the same day as Transformers: Age of Extinction, a decision many put down to Weinstein. If true then, either through lack of faith or sheer vindictiveness, the film was unable to capitalize on the very real market for mature, idea-driven science fiction.
Adapted from the French graphic novel Les Transperceneige (co-creators Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand make cameos), Snowpiercer functions admirably as a taut action-adventure but operates at its most powerful as a sociopolitical satire. The film is very Asian in its use of colour, costume and production design to tell the story yet the central metaphor ("If the train stops running, we all die") is as much an indictment of capitalism as the key line ("Everyone has their preordained position") serves to critique the belief in a karmic hierarchy prevalent in the Far East. As Curtis and his friends move up through the train they literally fight their way up the social strata. Their eye-opening journey yields all sorts of surreal wonders: a greenhouse, aquarium with adjacent sushi bar (!), brightly coloured kindergarten where kids learn to venerate Wilford through sing-alongs and fun animated films before the perky schoolteacher (a scene-stealing Alison Pill) pulls a nasty surprise, and first class cabins swamped in decadent glamour with art deco ravers.
Despite a claustrophobic setting, Bong's dynamic direction yields epic action scenes with a tableaux like staging often reminiscent of Old Boy (2003). In fact the film was produced by Park Chan-wook. A massacre seen through night-vision goggles, the break-out staged like an Olympic rally complete with flaming torch bearer, the shootout between Curtis and an indestructible assassin when opposite cabins briefly encircle each other in a sequence worthy of Sergio Leone are all pretty memorable as are the quirkier scenes. Notably when combatants pause in mid-battle after the conductor announces the train is ploughing through a snow bank. With a character named Gilliam along with a streak of black Monty Python-esque humour, that includes Tilda Swinton with comedy teeth and a Yorkshire accent, the film undeniably tips its hat to that other dystopian social satire, Brazil (1985). Yet whereas there retreating into one's own imagination provides the only escape from totalitarianism, Boon has no patience with fatalism. Snowpiercer puts forth the case that the instinct to repress and revolt are a cyclical aspect of civilization. A wearying cycle that can only be broken by truly revolutionary, ergo selfless act of humanity. An outstanding multi-national cast lend this a certain credibility other surreal visions of the future lack and also bring some welcome warmth to counterbalance an otherwise chilly vision, no pun intended. Some found fault with the ending which will likely resonate best with those that favour ambiguity tinged with hope.