Bong Joon-ho’s first English language film, based on a French graphic novel, is reminiscent of Jean Pierre-Jeunet and Terry Gilliam (indeed, John Hurt’s character is called Gilliam), and much like a train builds up momentum as it goes, peaking with about ten minutes to go before coming to a halt.
As the clunky exposition captions at the start of the movie inform us, the Earth is now a dead, frozen planet, the only survivors stuck on a train circumnavigating the world, the titular Snowpiercer is built to go forever, smashing through the ice that occasionally blocks its path.
In the rear carriages the lowest of the low plot rebellion amid dingy, almost monochrome surroundings. They’re led by Hurt’s Gilliam, Chris Evans’ Curtis and his loyal sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell, adopting an Irish accent here and generally emitting enough charisma to power a small town). They’re fed gelatinous protein bars, crammed into ramshackle bunks, and have their children taken by an enigmatic woman in yellow. Despite Curtis’ unwillingness to be a leader, he soon becomes a figurehead for the revolution.
While the film starts slowly, it later becomes apparent that time is being taken to slot a lot of backstory into place in order for it to have a huge pay off later on, culminating in Chris Evans doing sterling work with the darkest material he’s ever worked with.
Eventually, as the rebellion advances nearer the sacred engine room, there’s less fun to be had as a bleakness takes hold, and even the pitch black humour dissipates. You can and should watch this film again armed with the knowledge of a first viewing.
Tilda Swinton wins the film playing a Thatcherish monster, able to be hilarious, weaselly and dangerous as a representative of the upper classes on the train, who live in spacious luxury. There’s a lot of social commentary rife throughout, but the mix of action, comedy, and post-apocalyptic world building holds the audience’s attention without feeling preachy.
It’s not perfect, though. The comedy is jarringly broad at times, the fates of a few characters are signposted, and there are a couple of moments that seem to happen to illustrate a point rather than because they logically flow from the situation, including a fight scene near the end. The conclusion is open-ended, and those of a cynical persuasion will fail to take much joy from it, but you can’t deny that the film has an emotional heft at key moments.
Mixing up multiple genres to great effect, this is rollicking entertainment that deserves to be seen, and will almost certainly end up a cult classic. The lessons are harsher, the humour more bizarre, the edge sharper than most post-apocalyptic flicks.
A romp with teeth.
Released in UK cinemas later this year.