‘Snowpiercer,’ though moralizing, will thrill
If you took Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” shoved everyone onto a post-apocalyptic Noah’s Ark and added a heaping spoonful of slow-mo, you would get Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” (2013). The movie, based on the 1982 French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” is itself an ark of sorts that rescues audiences from the flood of cookie-cutter summer blockbusters like “The Expendables 3” and “Transformers 4,” which seem hell-bent on cashing in on formulaic premises. In “Snowpiercer,” Bong takes the overworked, steampunk, dystopic future tale and gives it an oil change.
Set in 2031, the film opens to an Al Gore wet dream: the world has been thrown into another ice age from humanity’s botched attempt to thwart global warming by using the cooling agent CW-7. Only the ingenious Wilford (Ed Harris), who invented an eternally circumnavigating train, along with a few hundred other humans, escape this “The Day After Tomorrow”-inspired wasteland.
Inside the train is your typical future-gone-inegalitarian fare: an extreme class system has been established, where the lowest class, fittingly deemed “economy,” wallows in filth, while the business and first class wine and dine, ignorant of the caboose’s plight. This is “Titanic” (1997), only the vehicle in question resembles the Coors Light train more than a luxe transcontinental liner, we do not get to delight in some steamy romance on a floating door, and the $39 million budget of “Snowpiercer” barely registers when compared to the $200 million James Cameron unloaded to drown a dusky Leonardo DiCaprio.
But out of the dregs arrives Curtis (Chris Evans), the indomitable leader of the rebellion against the first class, joined by the sagacious Gilliam (John Hurt), the drug-addicted engineer Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), his clairvoyant girlfriend Yona (Ko Ah-sung) and sympathetic mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer). Like in the myth of Hercules and his 12 labors, our heroic band must advance through the numerous train cars up to Wilford in the engine. Much of the suspense is created by the “Let’s Make a Deal”-style door openings to each train car.
They’re up against the guards, led by the bureaucrat Mason, played by a toothy, awkward, skittish and barely recognizable Tilda Swinton. As hateful and callous as she is, I never wanted her to die. She was like a car accident: no matter how bad she got, I couldn’t look away.
Fueling this disparate world is Wilford — Oz-like, revered as the merciful, divine God of this technological world of pistons and rails.
And this is where the social commentary becomes clearest. The film holds a carnival mirror up to society, exaggerating issues of class disparities, fate and God for our contemplative pleasure. The 1 percent is back under the microscope. While not completely subtle, Bong’s metaphors are delivered either humorously or during a plot twist, so they are decently camouflaged to avoid overt moralizing. Like a pill in applesauce, they go down rather gently.
For example, Mason’s cold-yet-comic speeches to economy are straight out of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or George Saunders’ “Pastoralia,” citing predetermination for the proles’ misery — how they were born to be the “shoes” for the upper class “hats.” Our shock or laughter permits these cruder, sartorial points.
The film’s numerous fight sequences are also fairly commonplace in their framing, but Bong adds finer strokes to create more artful episodes typical of Korean auteurs. There are the standoffs, the slow-mo killings and enough blood splashing to rival “Kill Bill” (2003). But once you add some night vision, a hazy sauna playing the song “Midnight, the Stars and You” that played during the end credits of “The Shining” (1980) or a nightmarishly lurid schoolroom, you’ve got something.
The film’s conclusion will make many roll their eyes, as Bong turns the moral knob up to 11. But underneath this banal bow lies a gift of a film, filled with shocking twists, battles to sate anyone’s bloodlust and a fairly nuanced allegory of society.
Whether you are a “shoe,” a “hat,” some “overalls” or maybe a “used sweater,” “Snowpiercer” should make for a thrill ride — even if it only takes place on a train.
“Snowpiercer” is playing daily at the Nugget at 6:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.