When Snowpiercer first hit American theaters two weeks ago, the critical consensus instantly jelled: “This is the year’s greatest science-fiction movie, and all of you who bought tickets to the Transformers sequel are idiots.” Without casting aspersions on the people who paid to see the Transformers sequel (though, why did you?), I will say that Snowpiercer is the most mind-blowingly original film of any kind that I’ve seen all year. Fittingly, the movie plays at AMC Grapevine Mills, the home of so many Korean films over the years, because while the film is mostly in English, it’s unmistakably the product of the mad Korean genius Bong Joon-ho.
The movie is loosely adapted from a series of French graphic novels that were first created in 1982 but only published in English earlier this year. The story takes place in 2031, 17 years after human efforts to counteract global warming plunged the Earth into an ice age. Now the only surviving humans live on a train that circles the globe without stopping, powered by a perpetual motion device. The people at the back live in Third World squalor while the people at the front live in luxury, so a man from the tail named Curtis (Chris Evans) is plotting a revolution. His plan involves busting the train’s former security chief Namgoong Min-soo (Song Kang-ho) out of the train’s prison, but the drug-addicted Namgoong will help only if Curtis agrees to take along his imprisoned teenage daughter (Ko Ah-sung).
Purely from a visual standpoint, this movie is a marvel. Bong and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil work wonders at making the train cars look different from one another, even as they all have the same basic shape. We see cars outfitted as a factory, a greenhouse, a nightclub, and a sushi restaurant inside an enormous aquarium. The beautifully presented sushi makes a pointed contrast with the gelatinous black protein bars that the poor usually eat. A shootout in a sauna takes advantage of the car’s honeycomb shape. Felicitous touches abound, like the artist (Clark Middleton) in Curtis’ band who draws sketches of slum life in the graphic novels’ style.
If you’ve seen Bong’s crazy Korean films The Host and Mother, you know that he’s going to cut the potentially grim subject matter with wacky, cartoonish comedy. This rears its head in every scene involving a government minister (Tilda Swinton) who lisps through her dentures as she lectures the unwashed masses about order. “A shoe doesn’t belong on someone’s head!” she says as she places a shoe atop a rule-breaker who’s being creatively tortured in front of everyone. “You are the shoe! I am the hat! Know your place! Be a shoe!” In another surreal interlude, Curtis’ revolutionaries find themselves in a brightly colored children’s classroom, where a manic teacher (Alison Pill) is educating the kids to worship the train’s engine as a god. Even during a bloody battle between the revolutionaries and a carful of hooded thugs armed with hatchets, there’s a slapstick gag when Curtis slips on a dead fish that the thugs have been using as a ceremonial object.
The film has the likes of Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Jamie Bell playing the revolutionaries. The young Ko (the little girl from The Host) gives a darkly funny performance as a perverse, foul-mouthed, booze-swilling teen with psychic powers. Still, the show belongs firmly to Evans, who looks much better as a tormented antihero than as Captain America. He impressively holds his own opposite the burly Song, one of the world’s greatest actors. A late scene has Curtis describing in English the horrific things he’s had to do to survive, which elicits a Korean speech by Namgoong speculating on what the world is like outside the train. Sustaining two lengthy monologues back-to-back is a mountainous task for any movie, but the two actors make it work.
I could go on about the movie’s social commentary, which turns chilling when the rich are shown to have an even more sinister agenda than just hanging onto their riches or the ingenious structure of the script co-written by Bong and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’s Kelly Masterson. However, it’s Bong’s fecund imagination and compelling weirdness that makes Snowpiercer so overwhelming. Like Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillermo Del Toro, this poet of the strange and threatening has managed to bring his unique sensibility to our shores without damaging it (and despite an attempted recut by Harvey Weinstein that was thwarted by fans and critics). We get to see his creation in its bizarre and wondrous glory, and it deserves and demands to be seen.
Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, and Tilda Swinton. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson, based on Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette’s graphic novels. Rated R.