I was in Paris for a few days over the winter holidays and made a point of seeking out Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” still playing in a few theaters around the city (read: this is the non-Weinstein cut of the film). The short story is that I’m glad I did: It’s fantastic. But here are some more details (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD):
Bong has made this sci-fi action thriller stylishly poetic and badass simultaneously. Based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” it centers on a group of post-apocalyptic survivors stuffed like rotting and forgotten sardines into the final few cars of a train looping endless circles around a frozen Earth. Only some get the sardine treatment: the upper classes live in luxury in the train’s front compartments.
But we’re introduced to the less fortunate (Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt and Octavia Spencer among them), who are plotting to revolt and fight their way through each train car and take over the engine, the key to ruling the locomotive society. Their steady if dangerous march through the train is where Bong gets to flex his directorial muscles, establishing each train car as a hypnotic new set piece, with its own lethal aspects to navigate. One car holds an army of hatchet-wielding ninjas (this is the most breathtaking sequence in the film; Bong then ups the ante by having the train lights go out -- suddenly our heroes are up against hatchet-wielding ninjas with night vision). This is all set to the terrific synthy score by Marco Beltrami.
Another train car is a bright, cheery and somewhat horrific Kindergarten classroom, overseen by a maniacally upbeat Allison Pill. She gives one of the many strong supporting turns in the film (Bell, Hurt and Spencer are all very good, as well as Ed Harris as the silk-robed Prince of Darkness waiting at the head of the train), but none surpass a hilarious Tilda Swinton, sporting a bizarre Scottish brogue and buck teeth, as the spokesperson for the upper classes. Evans, a charismatic presence if not a strong actor, gets the job done as the leader of the rebellion, while Korean stars Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung are delightful as a father-daughter duo, hooked on drugs, who may just hold the key to a successful revolution.
The snowpocalypsed world outside the train will polarize viewers. Some will find it overly animated (as my viewing partner did), a casualty of too much CG. But I found the icy wilderness rather haunting, with its whited-out relics of cities, cavernous ice cliffs and even a few perished civilians, frozen like statues into the barren, brutal landscape. It does indeed look animated, but in a way that’s in keeping with the film’s graphic novel elements. Everything happening inside the train is larger than life -- and yet all about life -- and the outside world is that way too: Horrific, hyperbolic, yet maybe containing the faintest glimmer of hope.