Review: ‘Snowpiercer’ is a bold and brilliant science-fiction vision

One of the things that has been fascinating during the last 15 years of writing about films has been watching the way various genres or movements or international scenes have had their moment. One of the most exciting of those was the emergence of the new Korean cinema, and there were so many good movies and so many exciting filmmakers working all at once that it felt like something very special.

I have a particular fondness for the work of Bong Joon-ho, and I think he's managed to avoid being pigeonholed because of the way he's never really repeated himself as a filmmaker. My first exposure to his work was at the Fantasia Film Festival, where I saw “Barking Dogs Never Bite.” Right away, I was drawn in by his kinetic sense and by the very human weaknesses of his characters. “Memories Of Murder,” his next film, positively destroyed me. It's as rich and rewarding a crime movie as Fincher's “Zodiac,” and it's also built on a foundation of frustration. When he made a monster movie with “The Host,” what made it special was the way he also took the opportunity to comment on the dissolution of the modern Korean family. His last film, “Mother,” defies any easy genre characterization, and it features maybe the strongest performance in any of his films so far.

His new film “Snowpiercer” is a fascinating science-fiction movie that feels to me like a throwback to the '70s, when science-fiction films would go for the big metaphor and they weren't terribly concerned with whether or not it was realistic. The movie's set in the year 2031, 17 years after a disaster that froze the world solid, killing almost everyone. A guy named Wilford had built a major railroad line designed to allow him to circumnavigate the entire globe without stopping, crossing the international date line once every year. The passengers who were onboard the train at the moment that everything froze survived, and there were others who forced their way on as well, creating a miniature society of sorts.

Now, almost two decades later, that society has become ossified into the haves and the have-nots, and the have-nots are ready to revolt. Curtis (Chris Evans) is old enough to remember the moment where the world froze and what he had to do in order to stay alive. He looks up to Gilliam (John Hurt), who tries to keep some sort of control of the back half of the train. It looks like a miserable lifestyle, everyone eating these disturbing protein bars, packed in on top of one another, and the way things are set up, life in the front of the train is a myth, a rumor, something they talk about but that no one has really experienced. There is no mixing between the cars, and things are carefully regulated to make sure there's no way for anyone to slip through the system.

When Curtis finally makes his plan, it all depends on mysterious notes he's been getting from someone who has access to the rest of the train, as well as the freedom of Minsoo Namgoong (the great Song Kang-ho), who can supposedly get them through any of the electronic gates that keep each car protected. Minsoo is in the prison car, so it's up to Curtis to get there and set him free if he wants the rest of the revolution to happen. I don't want to discuss plot beyond that because part of what made “Snowpiercer” such a thrill on first viewing was having no idea how they would pull off something as crazy as an entire movie set on a train that has become the whole world. The action sequences in the film are spectacular, and there's one in particular that I think is an all-timer, both in the way it's imagined and in the way it's accomplished on film, but this isn't a film about empty sensation. It's a richly realized science-fiction world, and the cast is just tremendous.

Take, for example, Tilda Swinton. She beams in her performance from Planet Tilda, and it is absolutely amazing work. Her first scene is so great that I worried there was no way the rest of the film could live up to it, but sure enough, she makes a strong impression in every single moment she's onscreen. I'd also say that this is the strongest overall performance that Chris Evans has ever given, culminating in a deranged monologue that changes the way I thought about everything we'd see up to that point in the film. I liked Jamie Bell's work in the film, although I'm baffled at the idea of casting him as a 17-year-old. There are great performances from Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and the amazing Alison Pill, who shows up in a sequence that is almost beyond description.

Marco Beltrami's score captures the various societal layers that we encounter as Curtis and his team push towards the front of the train, and the photography by Hong Kyung-pyo does a great job of not only making this feel like a real world, but also setting up just how different each of the cars truly is. Ondrej Nekvasil has designed a train that doesn't necessarily feel real, but it feels like it is a place that you could visit, and each new section we visit has its own identity, clearly created. Technically, this is a major accomplishment, and all of the collaborators do impressive work.

But pulling it all together is what matters, and Bong Joon-ho has done something here that I didn't expect, creating more visceral action than he's ever attempted, a more seamless use of effects than in his earlier work, and a metaphor that works on a many levels. It is a powerful film, one that could easily have been ridiculous in the wrong hands, and by the time it concludes, I feel like these characters have been put through the wringer. There are very few films this year that have lingered the way this one has with me. I've been thinking about it for weeks now, and I can't wait to see it again. More than that, though, this is the kind of science-fiction film that I wish they made more of, something big and bold and unafraid to reach for greatness.

“Snowpiercer” begins its roll-out in select cities on Friday. Don't miss it.