Last week, a friend wanted to know if she should see Snowpiercer. The easy answer is “Yes.” The longer, glibber answer was, “Did you want a sci-fi movie about class warfare? Then yes.”
She replied, “Isn’t that what all sci-fi movies are really about?”
Oh, if only. For every Children of Men, we get a handful of movies that think not at all what the future might actually hold beyond laser pistols and bug-like aliens. We get a toothless Ender’s Game that doesn’t know whether it wants to be for kids or adults, or Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is enjoyable enough in the moment but evaporates into fluff and pretty faces the moment you step back into daylight.
And then we get Snowpiercer, which distills the ugliness of the world and packs it into one long train. Based on a French graphic novel, the film is directed by Bong Joon-ho, of the smart 2007 monster movie The Host. In Snowpiercer, Earth has sunk into a manmade ice age; punishment, on the train that carries the scraps of humanity, uses the bitter cold outside in gruesomely creative ways.
Curtis (Chris Evans), who lives in the filthy, overcrowded back of the train, has clearly been planning a revolt for some time. He’s a reluctant leader, but with the help of his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt, his character certainly named for the director of Brazil), and a handful of friends (including Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell), he releases from cryogenic storage the security expert they need to get through the train’s countless locked doors.
This expert, Namgoong Minsu, is played by The Host’s Song Kang-ho with cagey, wry old-warrior wisdom, in excellent contrast to everyone else’s battered fury or grandiose righteousness. Despite fancy translation tech, Minsu confides only in his wide-eyed clever daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung). Thus teamed up, our heroes make their bloody, violent and surreal way through the train. (Tilda Swinton, as the enigmatic train leader’s bonkers minion, is a glorious piece of work.)
The train sets make for stunning, compact, ingenious fight scenes, and one particular action sequence was so unsettling I was cringing in my seat. That’s a good thing in a movie like this: Something so brazen and beautifully made should make you uncomfortable, excited, shaken and maybe, in the end, optimistic. Or angry. Either will work.