Snowpiercer feels like a response to that oft-repeated, tricky-to-source leftist refrain that "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." The film, based on a French graphic novel and co-written and directed by South Korea's Bong Joon-ho (making his English-language debut), imagines an end-of-the-world scenario where the scaffolding of capitalism remains perfectly intact, without even actual capitalism bunging up the works.
In 2014, a last-ditch attempt to forestall global warming by releasing a concentrated coolant into the atmosphere backfires, leaving the earth trapped under ice. What few survivors remain rocket around the planet on the Snowpiercer: an enormous locomotive initially developed by an eccentric engineer as a luxury holiday alternative, repurposed post-apocalypse as a "rattling ark," forever circumnavigating the globe, powered by a perpetual motion engine that's worshipped like a god.
And, as it was apparently impossible to envision an alternative, the train is separated, head-to-tail, cabin-by-cabin, by class.
The wealthy snack on sushi and laze about in saunas in the front, while the teeming stowaways in steerage subsist on jelly-like protein slabs and slowly plot their insurrection. Their leader is Curtis (Chris Evans, Captain America himself), who snatches the glowering upper-crust emissary Mason (Tilda Swinton, splitting the difference between Margaret Thatcher and The Simpsons' Mr. Burns) and leads the charge toward the front of the train to capture the engine.
Because there's no wealth (and very little labour) produced aboard the train, its class hierarchies exist only for themselves, propagated by the chugging forward momentum of convention. With its astonishingly unembellished capitalist parable – if it even makes sense to call it that; it's more text than subtext – in which the train serves, literally, as both a narrative and thematic vehicle, Snowpiercer is almost bracingly simple. And better for it.
Kneading ripped-from-today's-headlines relevance into blockbusters has become boringly de rigueur. The Avengers acknowledged the surveillance state; The Dark Knight Rises brought simmering class tension in America to full boil; Star Trek Into Darkness and Captain America: The Winter Soldier tried to pinch some residual resonance by dallying in stories about drone warfare. Any time something with an engine hits something assertively erect it is, intentionally or not, about 9/11.
It'd be passably interesting, if the messaging weren't so consistently muddied. Time and again, these superhero sci-fi spectacles acknowledge the machinery of the contemporary politics of power only to reassert the basic premises that bogusly authorize them in the first place. There are good guys and bad guys, and as long as the self-ennobled good guys are around, the bad guys will rue the day. Basically: Hovering remote controlled gunships don't kill people; people kill people.
Hooey. And Snowpiercer knows it.
In this movie, it's the system – the machinery itself – that's faulty. The rallying revolutionaries aren't uncomplicated good guys, their rank-and-file dominated by thugs, inebriates, cannibals and junkies (South Korean superstar Song Kang-ho). Likewise, Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson (Before The Devil Knows Your Dead) even manage to make Swinton's bitter gargoyle briefly sympathetic, just another pitiable human playing her role within perverted system of inequality and disorder. A particularly gripping (and violent) mid-train melee recesses as radicals and black-shirted police forces take a breather to countdown the New Year, as if, even amid their bloody antagonism, they are collectively bound by circumstance.
This is powerful stuff, and all the more so for its straightforwardness. (Again: literally, the story moves in a straight line.) As with John Carpenter's They Live (about magical sunglasses that reduce the corporate upholstery of billboards and ads into simple edicts to "OBEY") and Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan's Josie And The Pussycats (about record company honchos conspiring with the U.S. government to drive teenage consumption via subliminal messaging), Snowpiercer's howling obviousness is its greatest asset. It's a reassertion of basic premises, as artless and elegant as a graffiti scrawl across a bank reading "CAPITALISM STINKS!"
It's only when Snowpiercer gets too clever for its own good that it lolls. Toward the climax, the train's "benevolent" conductor (Ed Harris) applauds Curtis's bloody revolution as "a blockbuster production," a not-so-sly joke on the film's own precarious status within the popcorn flick pantheon. And the casting of a hunched, browbeaten John Hurt as the tail-end's radical paterfamilias, Gilliam, works as a dystopian cinema twofer joke: at once suggesting Hurt's performance as Winston in Michael Radford's adaptation of 1984, as well as director Terry Gilliam, whose Brazil is the Citizen Kane of this strain of dorky downer sci-fi. But these are minor movie geek distractions in a film that otherwise moves with the effective, impressive chug-a-lug swiftness of its namesake locomotive.
As its curtain drops, Snowpiercer offers an alternative to the existing order that such films seem so often incapable of conceiving, the future of humanity shouldered on perhaps the unlikeliest survivors of revolutionary uprising. Without "spoiling" it, it's a film that at least opens up a possibility for change, instead of providing another rote reshuffling of power from the Black Hats back to the White Hats.
Or maybe such sunny, optimistic readings are just a product of what Swinton's character terms, early in the film, "the misplaced optimism of the doomed."