By a quirk of fate, “Snowpiercer” opened in American theaters on the same day as “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” A viewer with no outside knowledge of the two movies would assume they were on equal footing, both sci-fi spectacles with stories centered around awesome machines, and both featuring recognizable American stars with bankable faces. You can picture them playing side-by-side at your local multiplex.
Yet that isn’t the case. “Transformers,” distributed by Paramount, is playing in more than 4,200 theaters in the U.S.; “Snowpiercer,” from The Weinstein Company, is in eight, expanding soon to a couple hundred, with a Video-on-Demand release also planned. In other words, “Snowpiercer” is being handled like a low-budget art-house film even though it’s hardly discernible from a typical Hollywood summer blockbuster (except that it’s smart, but we get those too sometimes). From a business standpoint, the only difference between the two movies is that one is playing everywhere with a huge marketing push and will make several hundred million dollars, while the other is in limited release with minimal promotion and will be at best a minor hit Stateside.
I say this not to slam the new “Transformers” film, which I haven’t seen (The Weinstein Company made sure critics had access to “Snowpiercer”; Paramount generally did the opposite for “Transformers”). Nor is this a rant about how dumb audiences ignore good films while rewarding bad ones. (They don’t have much choice in this case.) I bring it up because it highlights the vagaries of the movie business, where a film that could be a blockbuster if it were given the blockbuster treatment is instead relegated to secondary status simply because it was made outside the Hollywood system and picked up for U.S. release by an indie distributor. Ah, capricious fate!
Based on a French graphic novel and directed (in English) by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”), “Snowpiercer” is set in 2031, when a new Ice Age has exterminated all of humanity except for a group of survivors who have been living on a high-speed train for 18 years. This train, a self-sustaining marvel of technology created by a billionaire industrialist named Wilford, runs on a giant continuous loop around the world (the geography is fuzzy) and never stops moving. Indeed, if it ever did stop, or lose power, all aboard would freeze to death.
Perhaps inevitably, a class system has evolved on the Snowpiercer. Those at the front of the train eat steak and have plenty of space (relatively speaking; it is still a train), while those at the back are crammed together like worms in a bait bucket and forced to subsist on gelatinous protein blocks. A strong military presence keeps the lower classes in check, though there is some question about how many bullets their guns still have after 18 years. The benevolent Wilford (peace be unto him) is still at the front of the train keeping the whole ecosystem running, but is seldom seen. His representative, a prim, heavily guarded Australian fussbudget named Mason (Tilda Swinton), visits the rear cars to give orders.
Over the years there have been occasional rebellions that Wilford’s goons have always quashed, but now there is hope in the form of rugged working-class hero Curtis (Chris Evans). Together with Gilliam (John Hurt), an elder statesman in the resistance movement, and Nam (Song Kang-ho), a drug-addicted prisoner, Curtis executes a plan to get to the front of the train and win justice and equality for all.
Co-writing with Kelly Masterson (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) and aided by an atmospheric production design that conveys cramped quarters without feeling claustrophobic, Bong expertly paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic society with parallels to our current condition. It’s sci-fi as social commentary — train as microcosm — but it’s free from blunt pronouncements or labored point-making.
Bong’s top priority is to deliver a meaty, satisfying action adventure, and he succeeds there like the world-class filmmaker he is. (If you haven’t seen his 2007 monster movie “The Host,” you must. If it had been in English and released on 3,000 screens, it would have been “Godzilla.”) Fight scenes zip along smoothly, the dialogue is strong, and there are intriguing minor characters who flesh out the peculiarities of this society. (Especially good: Alison Pill as a pregnant schoolteacher indoctrinating the train’s young people about “the sacred engine” that propels them forward.)
Not that the “Captain America” films left much doubt, but Chris Evans is a bona fide action star now, with sufficient acting chops to give a flashy hero some gravity as he struggles with the weightier aspects of this daring mission. Tilda Swinton’s performance as Mason is next-level insane, eminently quotable and unforgettable, while Ed Harris’ few scenes as Wilford help the film end on a classy note. By turns thrilling, horrific, satirical, and bloody, “Snowpiercer” is science-fiction for a wide audience that has been mistakenly confined to a narrow one. Seek it out! It’s more than meets the eye.
B+ (2 hrs., 6 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.