126 min., rated R.
Pleasingly and excitingly different from any genre picture this year or most years, politically charged futuristic sci-fi action satire "Snowpiercer" is both an uncommonly intelligent, spectacular entertainment and an uncompromising, bitingly provocative allegory for class warfare. It's strange, inventive, audacious, and meaty in the ways most summer studio releases usually are not, so hooray for creativity when it comes around. With such an alternately vast and intimate scope, a staggeringly unique vision, and lofty ambitions to imagine a cold, harsh world and exaggerate the idea of the haves and have-nots, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's (2007's genre-hopping monster movie "The Host" and 2010's beautifully shocking "Mother") first English-language film is unclassifiable, too, in its smallest oddball details and grimly offbeat sense of humor to comment on the horrors of hierarchy and mankind's existence. This is anything but a throwaway actioner or an embroidered message movie, but rather one of those visionary cinematic rarities that leaves one with the refreshing desire to catch a repeated viewing as soon as it's over.
In 2014, all life became extinct after the world suffered an Ice Age from the dispersing of a cooling agent called CW-7 to avoid global warming. 17 years later, A.D. 2031, the new world is a frozen, uninhabitable tundra, where a bullet locomotive—the "Ark" made by wealthy, supposedly "divine" industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris)—spans the globe, carrying passengers who are humanity's last remaining survivors. On board, a class system has inevitably formed. Fed disgusting gelatinous protein blocks, the lower class is packed like sardines into the grimy, soot- and sweat-ingrained tail section and kept in check by gun-wielding, fear-mongering military personnel. At the front, powerful but vulnerable bureaucratic leader Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) calls all the shots, until Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) is determined to get to the front of the train, especially the engine room. But first, he will have to kick off a much-needed revolt with the help of two prisoners in hypersleep, cantankerous Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and clairvoyant 17-year-old daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) who are both addicted to an industrial-waste drug called "Kronol" and have the power to unlock the train doors. Will Curtis' uprising affect the status quo and bring about a new order?
Based on the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" and adapted for the screen by the director and co-writer Kelly Masterson ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), "Snowpiercer" has been made with a bona fide artist's eye and brain, deftly juggling everything from top to bottom. Ostensibly, the film is structured as a videogame-like prison break with the freedom of humanity at stake, and it's certainly thrilling as that, with intensely visceral, blood-spurting action sequences (one between Curtis and his group against Mason's night-vision goggle-wearing henchmen during a long, dark tunnel is a stunner). Simultaneously, it's a film that is about more than what it's about, operating on a higher, more intellectually stimulating level that of a parable with new-world relevance and a multi-person journey of character moments that bring forth emotional heft. Constantly moving forward like the Ark itself, the film is a harrowing, tautly placed stroll to the front of the train. With every new compartment—a greenhouse car, a school classroom, an aquarium and sushi bar—there is a chilling and downright fun danger that the viewer shares with one sympathetic half of the social class. As Curtis and "the tail" make their way to the front, all bets are off on who will make it; without compromise, any character could be put in harm's way at a moment's notice. Finally, everything builds to a logical, albeit not predictable or traditionally satisfying, endgame.
Tightly scripted, rewardingly unpredictable and satisfyingly realized, "Snowpiercer" introduces the viewer to a newfound dystopian nightmare on a moving vessel that is never once envious but terrifyingly oppressive. (Just wait until the ingredients of the protein bars are revealed.) Seen through Kyung-pyo Hong's elegant cinematography, Ondrej Nekvasil's production design and Stefan Kovacik's art direction are extraordinary, both eye-popping and richly textured, in creating this beautifully bleak world from top to bottom. The effects work is top-drawer, including the digitally sleek exteriors of the frozen wasteland. With such a diverse, impressive cast, it would be easy for some of the actors to not get their fill onscreen, but the filmmakers make sure no parts are too small with a specificity for each character. More flawed and compellingly weary here as Curtis than he ever was as Captain America, Chris Evans is steely and worth following as a physical leader, even though he doesn't subjectively see himself as one. His third-act monologue concerning a darkly tragic backstory is deeply felt. Right behind him are Jamie Bell, as Curtis' best friend and second-in-command Edgar; Octavia Spencer, as single mother Tanya who watches her son be taken from her for mysterious reasons to the front; John Hurt, as gray resistance leader Gilliam (not coincidentally a nod to director Terry Gilliam); Song Kang-ho and Ah-sung Ko, as father and daughter Nam and Yona, and they all bring intriguing layers and color to spare. Alison Pill also makes a memorable imprint as a pregnant, ecstatically cheerful schoolmarm who drills propaganda into her young students' heads, as does Ed Harris whose calm demeanor as the mysterious Wilford is more intimidating than had the actor gone over-the-top. Last but far from least, Tilda Swinton is so transformative in coke-bottle glasses and horse dentures, going full-swing in another one of her watchably brave, inspiredly bizarro performances. In a role originally written for a man, the nebbish Minister Mason is as insane as she is insanely pathetic, particularly when "the tail" turns the tables.
If "Snowpiercer" sets the standard for the most equally accessible and challenging blockbuster that has more going on upstairs than the norm and still knows how to thrill, then why haven't many heard of it? Thanks to The Weinstein Company, it only opened in eight theaters the same day as Paramount's "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and now it has expanded into other theaters, with a video-on-demand release as well. How this slice of cinema heaven doesn't receive a nationwide release due to distributor Harvey Weinstein's truce of allowing director Bong Joon-ho to release his full vision without any cuts is ridiculous when the latest "Transformers" movie is of the lowest-common-denominator quality and runs an unnecessary two-and-a-half hours. Perhaps "Snowpiercer" is too downbeat and disturbing to find a wider audience, but it certainly deserves its due, stat, for those hoping to catch the grandest, most brilliantly executed sci-fi opus in recent years. Existing on the same plane as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Blade Runner," "Children of Men," and, most recently, "Cloud Atlas," and capable of standing the test of time, too, it's an original masterwork that should not be missed.