Snowpiercer stands out in our determinedly pointless hit-movie climate, in which preordained blockbusters have been scrubbed clean of any potential resonances to sell more toys. This is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence. The premise also has an inviting bluntness: A few years into the future, global warming slips out of control, and humankind inadvertently initiates an ice age in its attempt to correct it. Soon after, all that remains of humanity are the passengers of an ultra-equipped, self-sustaining train that suggests Noah’s Arc as a speeding elevated bullet. Having predictably learned nothing from their travails, the train’s passengers quickly assume the flawed social structure of the first world that’s recently ended, with the entitled haves exploiting the enraged have-nots.
There’s an obvious bitter joke here: Liberals and roughly 99 percent of the world’s scientists are unsurprisingly revealed to be right about global warming, and the conservatives respond to the ensuing catastrophe by scrambling to re-establish an even more insanely brutal “free market” society. Our empathy resides, obviously, with the have-nots, who live in the back of the train in cobbled-together dwellings that suggest images from both the Great Depression and the Holocaust. They’re fed disgusting tofu-like bricks called “protein blocks,” which they pass among one another with their cracked, muddy bare hands (one of the film’s most evocative touches: hygiene’s a luxury when you’re starving to death). The prisoners are routinely harassed by soldiers who beat them up and torture them and occasionally steal their children for reasons that will eventually figure into the climax. Unsurprisingly, a rebellion is afoot: A sensitive stud, Curtis (Chris Evans), has surmised that the troopers have long ago run out of ammunition for their assault rifles. The plan is to storm the gates and eventually capture the train’s engine, negotiating a shift in political capital.
The film, then, sports a video-game structure that’s superficially similar to The Raid: Redemption. Each train car is a different stage with a different surprise that takes Curtis and his not-so-merry men and women a step closer to presumed freedom, though director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t emphasize the usual action-movie details. The filmmaker routinely elides the physical specifics of the set pieces in order to savor grace notes that are meant to reaffirm the plight of the poverty-stricken heroes, such as a stray snow flake or a fleeting frozen vista. The action scenes awkwardly stop and start, often resolving themselves with unexpectedly curt anticlimactic finality after a few representative slow-motion stanzas. Bong is drawn to this narrative structure more for its metaphoric, rather than physically cathartic, heft. The train allows us to see people of great need who’re housed literally feet away from people who have entire cars to themselves to garden or go clubbing.
Snowpiercer has a wonderful evolving visual concept: Each car takes one closer to a representation of the world as it presently works. The first few cars are rendered in the distancing apocalyptic hobo ax-and-sword aesthetic that’s been a cinema standard since at least the Mad Max films. But the latter cars are lit in expressionistically beautiful club-rave rainbow colors that reflect the escalating social privilege of a lost generation. There’s a subversive shoot-out in an elementary-school car that reveals that the privileged are taught to regard the exploited as terrorists who need to be quashed. And there’s a haunting recurring image that serves as the film’s leitmotif: of the privileged passengers watching in stunned silence as the “terrorists” walk by them toward the head of the train.
The film has enough thematic resonance for three George A. Romero movies, but Romero, despite his reputation as a hippy purveyor of social-protest horror films, played fair: He allowed his conservative bad guys to make occasional sense, and his liberal heroes to succumb to periodic foolishness. Snowpiercer preaches resolutely to the choir, and cinephiles in sync with the film’s politics may still blanch at how snugly their interests are courted. Though they smite plenty of their enemies, the exploited are condescendingly and un-ironically positioned by Bong as saints who are only looking for their children, and so the anarchy is largely drained of its potential sting or tension. As in most red-meat movies of right or left ideology, the film’s massive carnage isn’t informed with much sense of ambiguity or revulsion, which reduces it to yet another preachy, Matrix-y sci-fi movie in which people stand around in bad outfits sounding out against the Man in fashions you’re signaled to congratulate yourself for seconding. Snowpiercer concludes on a irritatingly reassuring high note that suggests, per usual, that killing one bad man will allow all of falsely indoctrinated society to magically correct itself. The film could be a conservative parody of naïve liberal piety, if conservatives were known to exhibit a sense of humor.