To paraphrase Jon Stewart, the end of humanity won’t come because of an asteroid or the apocalypse but because of the moment when a brilliant scientist declares, “It works!”
In the dystopian, sci-fi action movie “Snowpiercer,” humanity has agreed to release an experimental gas into the air to scale back the effects of global warming. The process works too well, and the world is plunged into an ice age unfit for life on Earth. 17 years later, the only remaining humans on Earth live on a perpetually moving train, one that circles the Earth each year.
Given these conditions, how quickly would you imagine humanity would slip back to its basest nature? How soon would the world start devouring itself? When would martial law be declared? When would society deteriorate?
“Snowpiercer” is a bleak, violent and surreal look at the broad, caricature of the human condition. Director Joon-ho Bong’s film makes a bold and blunt allegory about the way the world works, and amid the beautifully photographed action sequences and garish, even humorous depictions of the human class system, he finds little worth liking.
All the way at the rear of the train, humans live in cramped squalor, confined by ruthless guards and forced to ration jiggling black protein squares as their only allotted nourishment. Bong spares us the “greater good” platitudes and trots out none other than Tilda Swinton as a nearly unrecognizable liaison for the wealthy, privileged individuals at the front of the train. She calls them a “shoe” and says they hardly belong on a person’s head but on the foot. “Know your place” is all the class system metaphor Bong needs to make an impression.
Yet leading the charge on a revolt is Curtis (Chris Evans), a grizzled, bearded hero barely able to contain his rage and disgust with the world he now lives in compared to the one he had to leave behind. He breaks a security expert (Kang-ho Song) out of a hypersleep prison and marches his way forward through gates of the train cars and slaughtering all those who stand in his way.
Curtis’s goal lies at the front of the train with the engine room and the train’s leader and inventor, Wilford. But what are they fighting for? What life aboard this God-forsaken train are they seeking? In a world where humans are extinct, how many lives are they willing to end to get their way?
“Snowpierecer’s” murky ethics only add to its sinister stakes. This is a movie of human nature as driven by the ugliest of emotions. In this world, there is no compassion. The movie nor the characters never philosophize as to what it all means, and they have no clue what lies beyond the next literal gate, with no goal in mind or what to do when they arrive. It’s one more wrinkle in the worldly allegory across every section of this train.
The opening scenes as observed through Curtis’s eyes are a fairly fun, if impractical, absurd and familiar movie vision of a dystopian future. The cast of rebels including Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and John Hurt is a rich assortment of fighters, and Bong gives them each a moment to showcase their vigor. The film is photographed with surprisingly kinetic action despite the train’s narrow corridors. The camera careens over pipes and through gates, glides through crowds in bloody and swift tracking shots and edits feverishly.
But “Snowpiercer” becomes suddenly layered and frankly amazing just as Curtis and company approach the wealthier portions of the train. They come across a teacher (Alison Pill) spewing religious propaganda about their leader Wilford to kindergarten kids in a classroom. They’re led through a shimmering, curving aquarium of surviving fish and offered the chance to sample sushi. And those in the front rave and celebrate in rapturous, garish colors.
“Snowpiercer” shows its depth as not just a stylish sci-fi action but a grim human drama and allegory in all its set pieces one by one along the train cars. The violence is stylized, exotic and surreal in an unholy blend of Quentin Tarantino and Terry Gilliam. Deaths of serious characters come suddenly and are discarded immediately. And the more thoughtful, critical and probing ideas about the cruel way the world operates come in the form of simmering, volatile plot decisions and not grand gestures in the dialogue.
Credit for Evans and Swinton is also due. Swinton is chewing the scenery here with a performance teetering on cartoonish. Her bulging eyes, ugly bowl cut falling over her forehead, frumpy pant suits and hideous teeth are just part of the character’s phlegmy, pretentious charms. But Evans reveals the darkness we don’t see in the Captain America performances and makes for a powerful anti-hero.
“Snowpiercer” is disturbing and challenging enough that audiences will debate Bong’s themes and his unapologetic way of expressing them for years. It’s ending is a controversial, polarizing look at human life, but then this film spares no sympathy for the meek anyway.