Offering lovely production design, frankly only adequate action, and radical, vague ideology, I suppose Snowpiercer is worth your time, but maybe not your hard-earned protein bars.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Written by Kelly Masterson and Joon-ho Bong (based on the comic by Jaques Lob, Benjamin LeGrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette)
With Chris Evans (Curtis), John Hurt (Gilliam), Song Kang-ho (Namgoong Minoo), Ko Ah-Sung (Yona), Tilda Swinton (Mason), Jamie Bell (Edgar), and a secret super-actor cameo (unfortunately, not Tom Hanks, but we can't have everything)
Spoiler alert: moderate
It is A.D. 2031. The planet is a frozen wasteland in the wake of an oversuccessful attempt to reverse global warming. An ark on rails circumnavigates the Earth, containing the remnants of humanity. This train, the Snowpiercer, is divided into sections. At the front of the train is the unseen conductor, whose minions worship him—and his sacred Engine—as they would a deity. In the middle, the lucky ones survive and prosper, enjoying lives of leisure and plenty. At the tail of the train, with neither a ticket to ride nor essential skills, the unwanted barely subsist upon a dole of protein. (But relax, Soylent Green isn't made of people anymore.)
I only rented Snowpiercer, but if you purchase a copy, Bong Joon-ho will physically come to your house and watch it with you, explaining to you at length how it's a metaphor for capitalism, using various charts, graphs and a fancy translator machine that looks a lot like a birth control pill case with LEDs stuck in it. At least, he might, if that's what he or the comic book's French authors meant, though I'm not certain that's the case.
Also, he speaks fluent English.
Either way, it's a slightly terrible metaphor for capitalism, since the Snowpiercer, we eventually learn, is run not as an unfeeling marketplace—not even one leveraged so heavily as to be rendered unfree, unfair, and inadequate—but as a command economy instead (meaning, of course, that the most dreadful excesses are permitted one with command over the economy). Ultimately, it's one of those unsatisfying allegories about the psychology of power and the opposing human needs for hierarchy and autonomy and so on and so forth, where you can see whatever you damned well want to see in it.
It also has a problematic incidental message about environmentalism, with a premise that depends on the idea that combating global warming will cause the end of the world. More disturbingly, any notion that the carriage capacity of any closed ecology can be exceeded—whether it be as small and limited as a train or as large and bountiful as a planet—is unfortunately a thought considered only by its villains, and expressed only in the cruelest way it possibly could be. Those universal translators might look like birth control, but that technology obviously went extinct eighteen years ago, apparently right along with the facial.
And now I'm having terrible flashbacks to Battlestar Galactica's Very Special Episode, where morons outlawed abortion—in a space fleet that could barely feed itself—because it was Science Fiction That Took Its Premise Seriously.
Snowpiercer swings decisively in the other direction, proving that it's far less bothersome to be silly and dumb than pretentious and outright retarded. Rather than through careful consideration, this trippy post-apocalyptic fable is made worthwhile instead by Bong's go-for-broke energy—but anything deep or meaningful you get out of this fable, you'll have already brought in with you.
If nothing else, Snowpiercer does remain an exciting excuse for a class in Production Design 101, and I can get behind that. Designer Ondrej Nekvasil is permitted to go nuts, starting with a boring but effective Used Future that we've seen a hundred times in the tail of the train—with its grime and corroded-metal everything—but he goes on to design (or appropriate) a sequence of increasingly imaginative and beautiful sets, as our heroes from coach fight their way to the gleaming Things to Come glass and chrome of the front. Incidentally, do you feel like sushi?
Indeed, while presented (not incorrectly) as an action film, Snowpiercer becomes far better once its unwanted attempt to replicate The Raid gives way to feature-length design porn that is only occasionally punctuated by small-group combat amidst gorgeous sets.
The biggest action scenes are frontloaded, rendered with ineptly shaky—and bothersomely zoomy—handheld camerawork. Needless to say, it does not approach the grace of handheld maestro Gareth Evans. In fact, Bong's sequences of milling armies of men with axes and other handheld weaponry don't even hold a candle to fellow Korean filmmaker Park Hoon-jung's similar fight scenes in New World, either in terms of choreography or visceral impact or plain old gore. In Snowpiercer, the smaller the fights get, and the further away from the tail of the car they get, the better they're staged and filmed, and we'll leave it at that.
(Well, just to add one more thing, the big fights are at their best when they're trying and still not quite succeeding in being some kind of unholy hybrid of Park Chan-wook and Zack Snyder.)
In the spirit of charity, we won't take points off for the really obvious budget limitations that render Snowpiercer a train of far fewer cars than one expects it should be, given how little habitable space there is and how many people in its bourgeois section there seem to actually be. We shall pretend instead that we just didn't see the thirty or forty sleeping cars (even if long shots of the train indicate they simply aren't there).
I'd be very happy to stop asking stupid questions about a locomotive fantasia, certainly no more grounded in plausibility than its Robert Zemeckis double-feature mate. Snowpiercer's metaphorical load, though heavy, is hardly too much for this viewer to bear—what better way is there to represent the eternal return, than the last few thousand humans circling the planet endlessly and pointlessly? Unfortunately, Bong is far too enthusiastic in imputing a logical reality to his supertrain, despite the fact that pretty much every time he does so, that logic tends to break down immediately.
Sometimes it's intentionally shattered, to avoid the most obvious reveals; but Bong only winds up revealing something else that either doesn't make any sense or even actively contradicts what came before. Snowpiercer arrives on our shores with some controversy regarding the final cut. Did Weinstein demand Bong edit out the brainwashing car that apparently exists somewhere between the engine and the dance club?
Needs more OONTZ. Actually, does this movie even have a score?
Despite a general nonsensicality, the best Snowpiercer has to offer—and it's not nothing—are its mystery mechanics, and the surprises they entail. I wouldn't dare spoil them, so I'll say this and this only: Captain America gets to deliver one hell of a monologue.