Bizarre "Snowpiercer" Packs Visceral, Metaphorical Punch

In an era when half-baked adaptations of derivative young adult dystopian novels rule the box office, South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong’s latest is a welcome reminder of the genre’s fertile – if often untilled – creative ground. “Snowpiercer” is an addled work that likely won’t appeal to mainstream moviegoers, but it’s redemptive in its creativity and reductive in its method. Few action films have ever done so much with so little – in this case, a relatively small budget and a claustrophobically linear narrative – to such memorable effect. Even when it falters – and it falters frequently – it remains interesting, right up until its head-scratcher of an ending that at least works as a conversation starter.

Chris Evans (“Captain America”) stars as Curtis, a steely, bearded mass of a man who lives in the steerage section of a lengthy bullet train. But the Snowpiercer isn’t just any train. Owned by a mysterious entrepreneur, it carries the remainders of the species, the rest wiped out by global warming, Earth submerged into an icy apocalypse. The survivors have been starkly divided into classes, with aristocrats living in luxury near the train’s engine and the poor wallowing in their own filth near its caboose. As Curtis becomes increasingly agitated with their living conditions, he quietly recruits friends and confidants to organize an uprising.

The film’s supporting cast is extensive – bordering on unwieldy – featuring Jamie Bell (“King Kong”), John Hurt (“Alien”), Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), Kang-ho Song (“The Host”), and others as Curtis’ shipmates, while Tilda Swinton (“Moonrise Kingdom”) naturally steals the show as the elite’s mousy liaison with the masses. As the passengers’ revolt takes shape, Curtis and company advance through the train’s cars like levels in a spectacularly bloody video game, Bong masterfully unearthing torrents of metaphor, suspense, and visceral thrills from a literally straightforward narrative.

Like a stick of flavor-changing gum, “Snowpiercer” moves from dour, hyper-violent post-apocalyptic action to laugh-out-loud political satire to Kubrickian visual poetry and back again, never settling into one groove long enough to afford its audience a moment of comfortability. Where some will see an incoherent mess, others will delight in the pic’s endless idiosyncrasies, an innate lunacy that’s as hard to come by as a stream of American movie stars in a South Korean production. It’s hard to fathom the mere existence of “Snowpiercer,” let alone that it’s such a compelling work.

Amidst the film’s pervasive political allegories, it somehow manages to become a metaphor for itself, barreling along hastily enough to ensure some close calls with derailment. In particularly, an extended fight scene that takes place mostly in the dark doesn’t make an ounce of sense, nor does Bong’s decision to turn his classically macho hero into something despicable – not through onscreen action, but through words. Yet, as silly as the story gets, it’s uniformly engaging and Evans’ mostly low-key performance allows him to deliver some of his finest acting to date in the film’s third act.

The downside of Bong’s high concept is that when his characters inevitably make it to the train’s engine, there’s nowhere left to go. Whatever’s behind that final gate is bound to be a letdown, and – surprise! – it’s a letdown. As far as anticlimaxes go, “Snowpiercer” is massive one, and even the most lenient audiences are likely to leave with pangs of disappointment. That the final shot is a tidy summary of the strangeness that preceded it shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it’s unfulfilling all the same.

While some of the pic’s exterior shots show its low budget, it’s ultimately a triumph of low-budget filmmaking and linear storytelling, working as a superlative example of what can happen when a talented filmmaker is given full creative control over a project. “Snowpiercer” is often confusing, occasionally offputting, and always antagonistic, but it’s as close as a surefire cult classic as anything released in years. And for its creativity alone, it’s worth a watch for film fanatics.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 27, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: RADiUS-TWC
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong, Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Brewmner, Alison Pill, John Hurt
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language and drug content)