With Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Jamie Bell; Written by Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson; Directed by Bong-Joon Ho; 126 minutes; Rated R (for violence, language, and drug content)
If a sci-fi movie like “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” were a 10-year-old kid on a school bus, it would be the averagely-handsome Pop Warner star who sits in the back, dazzling his slavish circle of minions with truely awesome displays of armpit farting, tales of the naked ladies he saw on HBO while staying up way past his bedtime on his bi-weekly weekend visit with his Dad, and oh-so-clever rhymes with the word “Nantucket.” SNOWPIERCER, however, would be the bell-curve-blowing smart kid who occasionally smells like broccoli, takes Harry Potter perhaps a wee bit too seriously, and sits all jittery in the front of the bus so he can quickly exit and hide in the A/V room from those other kids when they disembark and begin their daily wedgie crusade.
The story of “Snowpiercer” is this: in the not-too-distant future, mankind’s search for a scientific solution to global warming results in the seeding of the atmosphere with a chemical that oops-freezes to death all life on Earth. That is all life on Earth, save for a fortunate few who ride out the extreme weenie-shrinking apocalypse in varying degrees of comfort in a trans-global locomotive concieved and run by a mysterious and largely unseen mastermind known as Wilford (Ed Harris). Naturally, the grubby, traumatized steerage folk in the “Foot” of the train bemoan their lot in life, but find in Curtis (Chris Evans) a hero of the hopeful version of their future that would have them freely enjoying the unfathomable amenties enjoyed by those who live in the “Head” of the train. To get there, however, the brave Curtis and his dutiful lieutenant Edgar (Jamie Bell) must confront Wilford’s cold mouthpiece, Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her vicious henchman, Franco (Vlad Ivanov).
While the landscape and premise of “Snowpiercer” might be very similar to Disney’s “Frozen”–the movie that would be the girl on the bus whose hand the that the Prince of Pop Warner would hold while he later told his friends that he got to fifth base with her)–the scenario is far more complex and dire. The scenario is also better thought-out and presented than its way-cool classmates, made very real by writer-director Bong Joon-Ho, creator of such dark treats as the “Godzilla” one-upper “The Host” (2006) and the superb revenge fantasy “Mother” (2009). He crafts a tight, self-contained world that he matter-of-factly throws us into, with the only setup being a series of expository intertitles that violate the writer’s axiom of “show, don’t tell.” However, because the rest of the film is so precise in tying up all its ends, it is easy to forgive this shortcut or even rationalize it away entirely by citing masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) or Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) that used the same workaround.
Bong has a great, pedigreed cast helping him achieve this impressive synchronicity. Evans (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) proves a stoic man of action, and when it comes time for him to relate an unspeakable episode of brutality from his past, he doesn’t choke. Swinton, slightly more recognizable than she was in Wes Anderson’s recent hit “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is at her ham-tastic best, playing Mason as a weaselly cross between Mrs. Doubtfire and Dr. Smith from “Lost In Space.” Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) brings some maternal humanity to the mix as a mom in search of the young son who was taken to “The Head” for no apparent reason. John Hurt, himself no stranger to sci-fi, having starred in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) and being a veteran of the “Hellboy” and “Harry Potter” series, makes a perfect mentor for Curtis, more efficiently and with greater sympathy than Alec Guiness’s Obi-wan Kenobi offered to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker in George Lucas’s “Star Wars” (1977). And as the puppetmaster Wilford, man-of-few-words Ed Harris finally answers the question, “What happened to Christof when ‘The Truman Show’ went off the air?”
Not only is the revolt on the train a lesson in Sociology 101 that George Orwell might have taught if he had lived long enough to buddy-up with Rod Serling and write for “The Twilight Zone,” but it is also an experiment in story structure. By not wasting time on 20 minutes of set-up, Bong gives us credit to deduce the more obvious points of his tale while he focuses on beefing-up the individual characters’ backstories. He weaves them together skillfully, resolving them as satisfactorily as one can (considering that the world has already ended). He does this with style and restraint, taking great care to keep the violence from descending into all-out “Mad Max” bloodlust while preserving its impact, all the while keeping the next surprise under wraps until just the right time. The end result is that “Snowpiercer” satisfies as a Big Summer Movie. Despite the fact that movies like it live in constant fear of wet willies, purple nurples, and public depantsing at the hands of the “Transformers” of the world, they can defy those box office bullies with their staying power beyond the summer they drop and remain relevant for years to come, and not just another air-conditioned afternoon or fleeting footnote in a studio’s ledger.•••
Robert Newton is a former full-time film critic who opened the Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester, MA in 2008.