Survival, when the odds are desperate, breeds a certain mania, a kill or be killed ethos that we’ve seen played out in countless post-apocalyptic movies. By their very nature, these are dark, depressing, violent affairs beset by plagues, pestilence and all manner of unnatural and otherworldly forces. Even the names echo of doomsday and despair: “Mad Max,” “Dredd,” “Waterworld,” “The Road,” “Battlefield Earth,” “The Hunger Games,” “Oblivion,” “Terminator.”
Now comes Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, his very distinctive apocalyptic angst tightly packed inside an unforgettable “Snowpiercer.” He combines a great cast, a gripping idea and a gorgeously grimy retro aesthetic to keep this eerie examination of the train wreck of humanity racing along.
Chris Evans, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Jamie Bell and Ko Ah-sung lead a cast top-heavy with international talent. The messengers and the material — Bong and Kelly Masterson adapt the chilling French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” in which society’s remnants survive on a train speeding through a frozen world — lend a kind of gravitas to what might otherwise have been mindless action fare.
But perhaps that was to be expected, given Bong’s pedigree. The writer-director is making a name for himself by upending convention through both story and style. Until now, the filmmaker is probably best known in this country for using a monster movie to talk about a family in crisis in 2006’s “The Host,” though I favor his poking into a murderous mind in “Mother” (2009).
In “Snowpiercer,” Bong’s first English-language film, nothing gets lost in translation.
The movie takes place in a new Ice Age brought on by global environmental abuse. Only a few hundred souls remain, and survival is very much at stake. Still, mankind brings along the same old emotional baggage. Social class, economic disparity, power, loyalty and petty jealousies play out with a fury that comes from being imprisoned by circumstance. This is year 17 on the train. A generation has never lived anywhere else. It proves an ideal vehicle for Bong to push people to the breaking point.
Lest that sound too dismal, buried inside the action is a story of hope hard won. It rests with one rebel, Curtis (Evans), a resident of the slums that have sprung up in the freight cars at the back of the train. The driving force is fairly simple: Curtis sets out for the engine with the idea of overtaking the Snowpiercer’s power-source, both human and mechanical. Evans, channeling a dark mood and an unstoppable determination, becomes the film’s all-important glue.
The train’s designer, Wilford (Harris), rules and keeps things running. With Earth’s temperature more than 100 degrees below zero, to stop means death. One frightening form of punishment is to stick a perpetrator’s arm or leg outside, where it freezes in minutes and can be broken off with ease.
Wilford’s polar opposite is Gilliam (Hurt), a sort of wizened shaman of the freight cars and the man Curtis wants to empower. As with all guerrilla warfare, the fighting is messy business. Between the imagery and the tight quarters, things get gruesome up close. The battling affords a way to weave in a series of societal stereotypes.
One of the more frightening is Teacher, “The Newsroom’s” Pill, using that guileless face to alarming effect to indoctrinate the young.
One of the more entertaining is Mason (Swinton). The train’s main talking head, she’s the public liaison between Wilford and the masses. It is a hoot to watch Swinton putting Mason through her paces, buck-toothed, cloying and twitchy, by turns insulting and soothing the restless throng as she moves through the train.
As Curtis fights his way from one car to the next, the landscape changes. The accommodations are slightly better for the security forces; the food production sections are surreal and serene. The luxury cars are a decadent cherry on top. As visually striking as it is, the film stays a bit too long in the fun house. And for an action film, “Snowpiercer” can be very talky.
As other survivors come into Curtis’ orbit, various ideas about what a better, braver world might look like begin to circulate. The temptation to try leaving the train is as strong as the armed struggle, even as glimpses of a frozen world flash by. Namgoong Minsu (Song), a mechanical whiz and a drug addict whom Curtis enlists, has some truly revolutionary ideas on that front. He becomes pivotal. Yona (Ko) is his drug-dazed daughter and apprentice; the future and the past live within Ko’s eyes.
Edgar (Bell) is the one who will follow Curtis into hell. Tanya (Spencer) represents the arguments for bringing children into a world like this. And Gilliam, a mesmerizing Hurt, is there to explain and inspire. If you have to be on a train bound for nowhere, Hurt makes a very good traveling companion.
Just as a train feels like a metaphorical throwback, the film’s look is distinctly marked by the past as well. Layers of urban grime coat the ragtag have-nots. The train’s food chain is pristine — lush produce tended in one car, an aquarium where fish are farmed in other. In a sense, Bong has created a flip book of current class divides.
The train is forever rocking, which keeps things always a little off balance, adding to the film’s unsettling quality. Shot in the Czech Republic, the key crew include cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, visual effects designer Eric Durst, costume designer Catherine George and set decorator Beata Brendtnerovà, with the sizable sound team ensuring that rumbling engine never ceases.
But the real engineer is Bong, and though there are bumps along the way, he knows how to drive this train.
MPAA rating: R for violence, language and drug content
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood; CGV Cinemas, Koreatown