Bong Joon-ho isn’t one for staying within the lines. Since making his debut with the bleakly funny Tarantino riff Barking Dogs Never Bite, the South Korean director has delivered a terrific streak of films that remain respectful to their chosen genres—crime procedurals for Memories of Murder, Hitchcockian suspense for Mother—while also somehow veering confoundingly askew of the flowcharts. For evidence, look no further than The Host, a thematically rich giant monster movie in which a somber wake suddenly turns into a Benny Hill routine.
Snowpiercer, Bong’s largest film, supersizes his proven kinetic and metaphoric strengths, while also allowing plenty of room for his unpredictable freak flag to fly. Working for the first time in the English language, the filmmaker takes one of the hoariest sci-fi scenarios imaginable—a post-apocalyptic throwdown between the haves and have-nots—and transforms it into something that feels both fresh and gloriously off.
Based on a French graphic novel, the script by Bong and Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) finds the world transformed into a frozen wasteland after an attempt to halt global warming. Those few humans left un-Popsicled remain in a gigantic train perpetually circling the continents, with the frontmost cars reserved for the elite. Back near the caboose, the starving lower caste (led by Chris Evans) hatch a scheme to escape their lockdown and sample the good life, with the reluctant aid of the train’s drug-addled engineer and his daughter (The Host veterans Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung).
Oldboy’s Park Chan-wook helped produce the film, which may explain the relentless forward motion, as well as the presence of many, many hammers and axes. As the group bloodily makes its way from compartment to compartment, a dedicated underling (Tilda Swinton) steps up her efforts to halt the revolution, by any means necessary.
Evans, an actor who has done interesting work both inside and outside of the Marvel Big Leagues—his performance as the most fiercely dedicated and no-nonsense crew member in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine remains the best element in that rather underappreciated film—plays the strong and silent type here with aplomb, with a whopper of a late-act monologue that brutally fills in the intentional characterization blanks. His holding back gives ample room to Swinton, who has long made a delightful habit of letting her weirdness fill any available space. Given what appears to be free rein by her director, she is at the hilarious top of her game here, delivering a performance that’s part Margaret Thatcher, part upper-management drone in every job you’ve ever hated; the story behind her teeth alone warrants a spin-off.
Both are backed by the presence of Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Jamie Bell and a number of other actors who zig in and out of the narrative unexpectedly; in the words of the immortal critic Joe Bob Briggs, this is one of those movies in which anybody can die at any time. The strength of the actors is only bolstered by the scuzzy neatness of the sets, which create a lived-in world that’s rich in detail—each section of the train features a separate design scheme—without unnecessary CGI flourishes. There’s always a sense of further strangeness just beyond the frame.
Ultimately, however, what makes Snowpiercer work so well is the presence of the guy in charge, who continues to develop the distinct brand of chaos theory that first put him on the map. Displaying hellacious confidence, Bong delivers a movie that knows when to stay tight to the narrative—most notably during a spatial shoot-out that should have engineers clutching their slide rules—and when to go out-the-window gonzo (e.g., a sequence featuring Alison Pill as a relentlessly cheery teacher and sporting the most twisted hymn to grace the screen since the bomb-worshipping mutants piped up in Beneath the Planet of the Apes).
At a time when most escapist films feel like the result of a committee linked via creaky speakerphone, this hugely entertaining movie demonstrates the benefits of having a singular, loopy vision calling the shots. While watching it, don’t be surprised if you’re already making plans to see it again.
* * *.5
Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt