By my math, this summer we’ll be treated to 11 sequels, several book and Broadway adaptations, and even a few Hail Mary reboots of long-in-the-tooth properties ranging from Hercules to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I wouldn’t say Hollywood’s taking the summer off, but it certainly isn’t breaking a sweat to come up with new ideas. So when a cinematic vision as boldly original and weirdly idiosyncratic as Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer arrives amid all the wheezy sameness, attention must be paid.
The film is set in the near future, after an attempt to counteract global warming has backfired, leaving the planet frozen over and all but a handful of humanity decimated. The entire movie takes place on a hurtling art-deco locomotive that, several football fields long, circumnavigates the globe at a rate of one revolution per year and holds all that remains of our population. Survivors are ruthlessly subdivided into warring classes in segregated compartments. The soot-covered 99 percent are penned in like steerage refugees in the tail of the train, where they subsist on gross, gelatinous protein blocks and are powerless when armed thugs confiscate their children. Closer to the front are the fat cats living in decadent comfort. They worship an Oz-like figure named Wilford who resides at the very head of the train and sets the Darwinian rules.
As visually audacious and inventively gonzo as this Ice Age ecosystem is, the film centers on a fairly routine prison-break scenario led by a reluctant proletarian hero named Curtis (Captain America’s Chris Evans), his fiery sidekick (Jamie Bell), their grizzled mentor (a peg-legged John Hurt), and a drug-addled engineer (Song Kang-ho). They violently hack and slash their way forward, car-by-car, to the train’s ”sacred engine.” Standing in their path is a freaky cast of villains, including a bonkers Tilda Swinton as a bucktoothed Kabuki fascist in coke-bottle glasses who looks like she just goose-stepped in from a Terry Gilliam movie.
There’s nothing particularly subtle about the film’s environmentalism and class-warfare themes. But if you think that Bong, the mad genre stylist behind 2006’s The Host and 2009’s Mother, felt pressure to play it safe in his English-language debut, guess again. He seems to have built his bizarre bullet-train world with total unfettered freedom. Watching it, I was reminded of the first time I experienced The Matrix or District 9. Snowpiercer sucks you into its strange, brave new world so completely, it leaves you with the all too rare sensation that you’ve just witnessed something you’ve never seen before…and need to see again and again. A