If you take away one message from Snowpiercer, let it be this: If we panic about global warming and rush forward with a half-thought-out solution, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all loaded onto a massive, world-circling locomotive and murdered by egg-delivering psychopaths on the orders of a mystery man in the thrall of a train engine.
That’s a short way of saying Bong Joon-ho’s latest film is chockfull of ideas. It has ideas coming out the wazoo: ideas about Malthusianism, ideas about global warming, ideas about structural inequality, ideas about filmmaking, and ideas about Omelas. The lack of answers wouldn’t be terribly problematic, were it not for the fact that the questions themselves are so all over the place.
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Snowpiercer opens 17 years after an experiment aimed at curbing global warming left the planet a barren ice ball. Nothing survives on the Earth’s surface; the planet’s sole living inhabitants exist on the Snowpiercer, a massive train constantly looping a globe-spanning track that takes one year to circuit.
A caste system has evolved on the train. Those who live in the rear have, for 17 years, survived on a protein-rich sludge. Those who live in the front of the train dine on steak and sushi. Tired of their treatment, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Edgar (Jamie Bell) plan a revolution. With the rest of the proles, they will storm the front of the train, free an imprisoned locksmith (Kang-ho Song), and overthrow the wicked ruling class.
Standing in their way is Mason (Tilda Swinton), an officious bureaucrat who believes wholeheartedly in the system she is enforcing. "This is Size Ten Chaos," she tells the masses after a man whose son has been taken to the front of the train tosses a wingtip at his oppressors. The shoe cannot be a hat, she says as she places the footwear on the head of its owner, who is about to undergo a horrific punishment for his disrespect. She is the hat. They are the shoes. Each person has a place, a location they should be happy to occupy.
Needless to say, the shoes are tired of shuffling through dirt, tired of being forced to choke down the horrific black paste that is their food, tired of having their children snatched from them for no discernible reason. With the aid of an unseen ally toward the train’s front, and with the mental support of the one-armed, one-legged Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and Edgar wage war, capturing the train one car at a time.
Snowpiercer’s 90-plus percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is utterly unsurprising, given that it falls firmly into the subgenre of "interesting cinema." It looks different than anything else at the multiplex: the set design is fantastic, with each car supporting a different aspect of life. The battles are expertly choreographed, if a bit claustrophobic, with edged weapons wielded in tight corridors doing most of the damage. The film contains just enough intellectual content to keep critics from dismissing it as an empty exercise in stylistic wankery. Whether or not it’s an exercise in intellectual wankery is another matter altogether, of course.
Excellent performances all around are a big boon. Chris Evans, a/k/a Captain America, has real star power, dominating the camera and making it clear just why his compatriots look up to him. And Tilda Swinton’s delightfully off-kilter performance as the dreadful Miss Mason is good—almost too good. Her demented paper-pusher unbalances the proceedings a bit. Not since Heath Ledger’s Joker has a supporting villain so dominated a film’s action.
The film’s something of a mess, trading swerve and style for cohesion and coherence. No matter: Nothing else at the multiplex right now is half as entertaining. And that has to count for something.