Radius — The Weinstein Co.
Rated R for violence, language and drug content.
Running time: 126 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
It’s so hard to describe how amazing “Snowpiercer” is without giving away everything that makes it amazing. I’ve actually been putting off writing about the film for that very reason, even though it totally wowed me. But I shall try. I am a professional, dammit.
Suffice it to say, the latest from Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose work includes the thrilling and darkly funny monster movie “The Host”) is constantly inspired and full of surprises. Its structure and its socioeconomic allgeory may call to mind other great cultural works but it’s a true original. And it’s nothing short of wondrous to look at in varied, detailed ways.
As director and co-writer (with playwright Kelly Masterson), working from the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” Bong finds a clever way into the overplayed premise of survival within a post-apocalyptic future. A failed climate-control experiment plunges the planet into a new ice age. The remaining stragglers are piled into an enormous train that makes a loop around the globe annually. By the time we join up with these passengers, they’ve been circling for more than 17 years.
At the tail end are the have-nots: the dirty, hungry and oppressed who are crammed together, doing whatever they must to live another day. For the most part, these are decent folks who’ve learned to co-exist peacefully, if miserably — but desperation does scary things to people, and the recounted examples of sacrifice are chilling. Their reluctant leader is Curtis, played by a quietly powerful Chris Evans. He’s almost unrecognizable here as a darkly brooding anti-hero in a thick beard and knit cap; it’s the farthest thing from the shiny Captain America persona that made him a superstar.
Curtis and the young, irreverent Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead a group in an ambush against the train’s heavily-armed security force and its prim, persnickety administrator, played by Tilda Swinton in garish hair and makeup that makes her almost as hard to recognize as Evans is in his role. Swinton is a hoot playing a truly awful human being, but being the thoughtful and versatile actress that she is, she finds a way into this cruel and condescending figure without devolving into caricature.
And so Curtis, Edgar and their team force themselves forward, from one car to the next, evenutally with the help of the drugged-out security expert (Song Kang-ho) and his equally spacey daughter (Ko Ah-sung). They’re ultimately aiming for the front and for the man who not only invented the train but placed everyone inside of it: the wealthy and powerful Willard, who’s regarded with equal amounts of admiration and contempt, depending on whom you’re asking. Seeing who plays him is one of the film’s many exciting discoveries.
From here, talking about “Snowpiercer” gets tricky. Opening the doors to each new car provides a rush of possibility, with Marcos Beltrami’s propulsive score underneath. Each represents a beautifully realized, self-contained world. Each is impeccable in its production and costume design. And while several of these cars — which cater to the wealthy among the survivors — offer abundance and pleasure, an inescapable sense of peril lurks underneath.
Bong does dazzling things with lighting to differentiate not just between all these miniature universes but also between the indoor and outdoor worlds and between light and dark. As Curtis and his crew press on toward the front — moving from the bleak and monochromatic to the lush and colorful — they realize that these fancier cars have windows providing a glimpse of the specactularly snowed-in world all around them. One sequence over a towering bridge is especially thrilling, as is a later moment when the train is rounding a giant curve and the front and back ends are tantalizingly visible to each other.
The director also makes dramatic use of night-vision goggles when the train enters a long tunnel, as well as the equally powerful way the masses respond with fire — concocting an impromptu torch relay from the back of the train that’s so joyous in its rebellion and visual purity, it made me want to cry. Other moments are striking because they’re just so surreal — an uneasy dinner, or a perky classroom full of children.
But in a way that’s reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now” and even “The Wizard of Oz,” things get stranger and more dangerous the closer Curtis gets to his destination. Dark humor is disrupted with blasts of bloody gunfire, the product of longtime, simmering class tension. There’s also more than a little bit of Ayn Rand in here: A wealthy industrialist dreamed of building a great train line, and the result is a place of economic disparity where the inhabitants are expected to fend for themselves.
The intentionally cryptic conclusion suggests that something better may be out there — for everyone — after all.