Virtuoso devisers of works of science fiction envision a reality that is both fantastical and palpable. They mold metaphoric manifestations of the coming times that are inevitable considering the current carryings-on of their fellow man.
Nowadays, none of these visions are utopian. Dystopian nightmares are plaguing our literary works and cinemas, reflecting the inoperativeness besetting our governmental institutions, the greed swathing our unassailable international corporations, and the zealous indifference of our neighbors.
But has it ever been any different? Metropolis (1926), The Time Machine (1960), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Soylent Green (1973), Blade Runner (1982) and Dark City (1998) all were forerunners of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and even the Transformer series.
Now the Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho, who's never perused humanity through rose-colored glasses (e.g. The Host (2006); Mother (2009)), has adapted the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, and the result is gleefully entertaining and conceptually refreshing.
In the year 2014, the world's leaders, to combat the rising temperatures caused by global warming, accidentally go too far and wind up freezing the planet. All life forms are seemingly scotched except for a few thousand folks who’ve boarded a ginormous train running on a perpetual track that continually circles a gelid United States; that train’s now been hurtling along for seventeen years.
The entrepreneur who built this train, Wilford (Ed Harris), a Howard-Hughes type, resides in the first car in tony splendor, playing God. As you leave his presence and maneuver your way to the caboose, you’ll pass through health spas, orgies, massive aquariums, kitchens, schoolrooms, and so forth until you reach the tortured masses near the caboose.
The 'dregs' of unwashed society are forcibly kept there under threat of dismemberment, beatings, and death. Their spiritual leader, Gilliam (John Hurt), is a one-armed, one-legged center of hope whose days seem numbered. His designated next-in-command is Curtis (Chris Evans), a hardened, guilt-ridden survivor who’s in anguish over the merciless deeds he's committed to still be alive.
What follows is sort of a horizontal Marxist revolution where the poor fight their way from car to car in hopes of eventually overthrowing the ruling class and establishing a people's democracy. But with each successful battle comes another unknown challenge, with a further dwindling of their ranks.
Always visually inventive, Snowpiercer's tone sometimes shifts uncomfortably from naturalistic to satirical to cartoonish, at times within the same scene. For instance, Tilda Swinton as Mason, a bloodthirsty, self-preserving disciple of Wilford, occasionally seems as if she's auditioning for the role of Natasha in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. However, here the whole is far greater is than its parts.
As for Mr. Evans, after giving a sterling, unforgettable performance as a drug-addicted, tattooed lawyer in Puncture (2011), he has scurried through his Captain America features with one expression per epic. He gets away with it again. But with a game supporting cast including Ewan Bremner (Julien Donkey-Boy), Jamie Bell, and Octavia Spencer, well-paced direction, superb cinematography, plus a gripping adventure story to boot, Snowpiercer rolls along at super speed, making any complaining seem like nitpicking. Here's an instant cult favorite that will bear countless viewings for years to come. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Theatre into Film" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.