Troubled Train

Snowpiercer's bleak look at a frozen future demonstrates that director Bong Joon-Ho is here to stay

Who is Bong Joon-Ho, and why should you get to know him? Well, for starters, he made The Host, a monster movie with more guts, brains, and polish than any of its American contemporaries (Cloverfield and the remakes of The Thing and Godzilla immediately jump to mind).

Bong changed gears in 2010, opting for the disturbing family tension of Mother, a horror movie that, again, outpaced its stateside competition. With his credentials established, Bong Joon-Ho now goes international with Snowpiercer, an action film with a big-name Western cast, lots of suggested bloodshed, and more evidence that this is a director who's not going away anytime soon.

At some point this year, according to the movie's chronology, governments of the world release a revolutionary cooling agent into the clouds to combat climate change. There's only problem: The world freezes and almost everyone and everything on it dies.

Thankfully, the benevolent Wilford (actor's name withheld to avoid spoiling something) has a bullet train that could circumnavigate the world in perpetuity. As long as there's a water source, his train could run. Now that the world is covered with ice and snow, a small number of passengers could indefinitely live safely, if not comfortably.

Snowpiercer may be a critique of capitalism writ large. It's certainly a critique of corporatism. The passengers are relegated to certain cars on the train, with the plebeians in the back, forced to eat generic protein blocks for every meal every day. They are the 99 percent.

Curtis (Chris Evans aka Captain America) can't stand it any longer. He's been in the back of this train for 17 years, and now it's time for a revolution. He plots with Gilliam (John Hurt) and Edgar (Jamie Bell) to take over the train, waiting until the time is right to make his move. From that point on, the action literally moves forward, from the back of the train to the front, and in each car, there's a different kind of obstacle or spectacle to overcome or endure.

The real runaway train in Snowpiercer is Tilda Swinton. She's been this way for years, of course, but there aren't many among the world's greatest actors who will perform any task in any project, no matter how bizarre. (Last year, in fact, Swinton was part of an art installation in New York, showing up each day and sleeping in a glass box in front of museum patrons.) Because of her bona fides, the second Swinton walks on screen in something, you're forced—and eager—to see what kind of punches she's throwing. There's almost no way you could be disappointed in what she delivers here, a weird, funny, anachronistic characterization as Wilford's stern second-in-command that lifts everything that surrounds it.

But that's not to say Snowpiercer is a bad flick otherwise. Far from it. It's actually just odd and serious and relatable enough to get over the limitations of its concept and the free-for-all nature of its execution. However, this is one of those movies where you do find yourself trying to compare it to something else, because you can't really explain what it is to someone so much as what it might resemble. So: The Hunger Games meets The Raid: Redemption in a Terry Gilliam Nyquil dream. If that in any way sounds like something you'd see, then see this.

For fans of straight-ahead action flicks, Snowpiercer isn't dipping its cup in the ol' mainstream. It's violent and rough, sure, but it's pretty esoteric and probably has an axe to grind with the way we fat Americans look at the world. But that's perfectly fine, because the way Bong Joon-Ho looks at the world is worth seeing, too.

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