While its ingredients may suggest post-apocalyptic mishmash, “Snowpiercer” delivers vibrant, engrossing serio-pop entertainment as its climate-disaster and class-war stories play out on a hermetically sealed train. Writer-director Bong Joon-ho demonstrates his skills as both showman and auteur in this English-language debut.
Bong, whose Korean-language films include the monster-themed “The Host” and the madwoman melodrama “Mother,” makes expressionist pictures in which he embraces genres while also violating the recipes and going bonkers with the beaker. With “Snowpiercer,” which he and co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson adapted from a French graphic novel, he continues in that sometimes messy but often exhilarating groove.
On a globe-circling train in a near future where a climate-fix backfire has frozen the planet, an oppressive social order has divided passengers — the earth’s only human survivors — into first-class and tail-section categories. As such, they live in obscene luxury or inhuman squalor.
The action begins when a few have-nots — most prominently, leader Curtis (Chris Evans), loyal cohort Edgar (Jamie Bell) and mentorly Gilliam (John Hurt) — revolt.
Their plan involves advancing through brutally guarded cars and taking over the train’s engine. For assistance, they recruit Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), a security expert with a drug habit, a clairvoyant daughter (Ko Ah-sung), and a smidgen of hope for the icy outside world.
The rebels progress toward the front of the train, where a barely seen evil engineer called Wilford controls the engine. An authority-obsessed piece of work named Mason (Tilda Swinton) is Wilford’s mouthpiece and the chief antagonist.
For sure, themes of climate disaster, species extinction and class warfare are hardly new — at times the film suggests a mix of “Children of Men,” “District 9,” “1984” and Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” — and some scenarios are silly.
As Curtis, Evans (of “Captain America” fame) is credible in smudgy-faced reluctant-hero mode, but presented one-dimensionally. Octavia Spencer, as a mother looking for her missing son, is stuck in a stock role.
But overall, this is a solid, distinctive and sometimes exquisitely inspired thriller-and-beyond. Bong’s tendency to say yes rather than no — the movie has everything from Dickensian horror to contemplative monologues to outrageous social satire — translates into a stimulating canvas, and action scenes feel spontaneous, not injected at prescribed spots.
The depiction of life on the train as the heroes progress through the luxury cars — a candy-colored classroom where a teacher indoctrinates too-cheery students is particularly memorable — merits honors for design.
Swinton, whose Mason suggests a Margaret Thatcher cloning attempt that experienced complications, is herself ticket-worthy.
★★★ Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt
Written by Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes