The English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho is an exhilarating ride.
In the near future, mankind attempts to solve the growing problem of global warming by shooting a missile into space that will lower the planet’s thermostat. Instead, the device plunges Earth into another ice age, killing all life except for the people on a huge bullet train that has been circling the globe for 17 years (don’t ask, just go with it). In the rear cars dwell the lower-classes — the poor, the hungry, the sick, crammed into prison-like quarters patrolled by armed guards. They are lectured by an officious bureaucrat (Tilda Swinton, almost unrecognizable), who relishes reminding them of their place on the social strata. Children are taken from the arms of their parents for unknown purposes. The rest are fed black blocks of gelatinous protein three times a day, which they scarf down to avoid starvation, even though it tastes terrible and no one know what they’re actually eating.
After a man named Curtis (Chris Evans) notices the militia don’t have any bullets in their guns, he orchestrates a rebellion, intent on making his way to the front of the train and seizing control. He’s joined by the enthusiastic Edgar (Jamie Bell), a mysterious elder sage (John Hurt) and a drug-addicted martial-arts warrior (Kang-ho Song). But the train is huge, the journey is long and the perils increase with each new cabin the heroes fight their way into.
Snowpiercer marks the English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, who has made everything from giant monster movies (The Host) to police procedurals (Memories of Murder) to creepy psychodramas (Mother). For his biggest and most commercial picture to date, Bong decided to use Hollywood actors, even though the $40 million film was financed independently overseas. Snowpiercer still ran into distribution snags. Harvey Weinstein, who bought the rights to release the movie in the U.S., wanted 20 minutes chopped out, but Bong refused, and the film is going out exactly as he envisioned it, although on far fewer screens than it deserves.
This one is worth seeking out, though. You’ll need to get past the heavy-handed allegory of rich-versus-poor, which the movie makes easy once the action kicks in. Bong isn’t interested in making a social statement: He wants to put on a show for the audience unlike any you’ve seen before. Although the train’s quarters are cramped, the film feels huge and expansive, and the director comes up with predicaments that make ingenious use of the eponymous vessel (in one scene, a sniper riding in one of the rear cars tries to take out someone in the front while the train snakes its way through a huge curve, so the cars are parallel to each other).
The interior environment is constantly changing — each new train car serves a distinct purpose and provides a different scenario — and when hand-to-hand combat breaks out, the carnage is bloody but deliriously fun, with the cleaver-on-meat thwack! that today’s CGI-addled action pictures lack. The danger feels real, the deaths sting, and Bong, who has always had a sneaky love for the quick gross-out, takes a minute to show you what would happen to bare human skin if it were exposed to the sub-zero weather outside (the result is not pretty).
Snowpiercer keeps springing surprises as Evans and his crew fight their way through the train (wait until you meet the cheerful schoolteacher played by Alison Pill, redeeming herself from her annoying character on HBO’s The Newsroom). The film’s big climax is somewhat of a letdown, an overlong bit of business that could have used a slight trim (maybe Harvey was right). But that’s not enough to spoil the great fun and creativity that has come before. Snowpiercer doles out huge concepts and setpieces while staying true to its own inner logic. The movie answers all its questions, no matter how implausible the answers, because Bong not only wants to excite the audience but also respects them. In the thick of summer, while Hollywood is busy cranking out cookie-cutter superhero movies and giant robot sequels, along comes Snowpiercer to show everyone how it’s done. And by casting big stars, Bong pre-empts the otherwise inevitable American remake. Pay attention, Michael Bay: This is what thrilling summer movies look like.
Cast: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Kang-ho Song, Alison Pill, Ed Harris.
Director: Bong Joon-ho.
Screenwriters: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson.
A Radius-TWC release. Running time: 126 minutes. In English, Korean, Japanese and French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, heavy violence, gore, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.