Of the three Korean directors to have achieved international fame in the past decade, two made their English language debuts last year — Kim Jee-woon with the utterly pedestrian Schwarzenegger vehicle "The Last Stand," and Park Chan-wook with the utterly unpedestrian "Stoker," whose narrative style was unique (or close to it). Now, "Snowpiercer," from Bong Joon-ho, the third of this triumvirate, has finally opened in the U.S., eleven months after its Seoul release, having played almost everywhere else in the world.
Like the current "Transformers: Age of Extinction," "Snowpiercer" is an action movie, with the fate of the human race at stake — and there the similarities cease. The characters in Bong's film are vaguely human, and the action is almost all close-in; explosions and pyrotechnic special effects are used sparingly.
"Snowpiercer" takes place 17 years from now: An attempt to combat global warming has backfired; the earth is now buried in ice and snow; every plant and creature has perished, except for a small population of humans aboard a supertrain that endlessly circles the globe. The train was the brainstorm of an industrialist named Wilford (Ed Harris), who foresaw the coming disaster.
The front cars are occupied by the privileged; the further we go astern, the less posh things become. At the very back is a car that makes steerage on the Titanic look like first class. A throng of have-nots are jammed together in a filthy, overcrowded car, nourished by a disgusting protein gel, brought to them by armed guards. The emissary in charge of keeping the wretched alive — and under control — is Mason (Tilda Swinton, whose hilarious performance may be the film's greatest asset). She's an officious — and, when necessary, ruthless — bureaucrat, who preaches the gospel of the benevolent Wilford, to whom all should be grateful.
Of course, this underclass is not so much grateful as miserable and righteously furious. They are informally led by the aged cripple Gilliam (John Hurt), who has been grooming Curtis (Chris Evans) to lead the revolution when the time is right.
When that time comes, Curtis is aided by his own protege, Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as the hotheaded Andrew (Ewen Bremner) and the tough Tanya (Octavia Spencer). As the rebels make their way forward, they recruit Nam (song Kang-ho), a junkie who designed the train's security system, and his teenage daughter Yona (Ko A-sung), who has some valuable skills of her own.
"Snowpiercer" doesn't even slightly attempt to disguise its obvious metaphorical nature. Yes, it's blatantly a social allegory that applies to the U.S. — and quite possibly everywhere else — with the richest keeping the poorest in misery and expecting to be thanked for it. At one point, Mason uses a common right-wing phrase, denouncing these ingrates, and later Curtis says, "That's what people in the best place always say to people in the worst place." (One baffling point is that the explanation for why Wilford doesn't just kill them all is unconvincing; another is that the train's 1% appears to be more like 80%, and the 99% more like 20%.)
As in the "Hunger Games" trilogy, this is not subtext: It's all discussed openly. Unfortunately, toward the end "Snowpiercer" unnecessarily, even annoyingly, decides to make it yet more explicit, with long talky scenes that explain the obvious. The string of clever action concepts give way to speechifying: Wilford starts sounding like the Architect in "Matrix Reloaded."
Indeed there are many things wrong here, mostly in the final quarter: surprises that aren't surprising; surprises that are surprising, but only because they make very little sense; and an ending that violates the rules of science, even by the lax standards of allegory. More importantly, it seems to violate the film's internal science, which has been explained and referred to multiple times.
Nonetheless, the last act problems don't invalidate all the good stuff Bong does along the way. The film's plot setup provides constant forward motion, literally and figuratively. Evans — who finally gets to trade his usual clean-cut persona for a grizzled, deeply morally compromised character — soldiers on, even during those failing last act scenes, where his dialogue and predicament are essentially impossible to sell.
It's nice to see the versatile Song — who starred in two of Bong's four earlier films — reunited with Ko, who was unforgettable as his daughter in "The Host." Hurt does what Hurt often does: That is, his casting as the wise old man here is almost purely iconic. It's Swinton who walks away with the film; her portrayal of the craven Mason is utterly believable, even while being over-the-top eccentric.
Also deserving of mention are production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and his team, who get to cut loose as the settings gradually evolve from the dreary, filthy back car to Wilford's resplendent lair.