Snowpiercer may be the first dystopic film to explore the genre's requisite privations, violence, class struggles, lost humanity and flickering hope, all aboard a single train. Bong Joon-ho's action thriller is adapted from a French graphic novel, and marks his English-language debut. (Bong helmed 2007's superior monster movie The Host.)
The titular train holds the only humans left after a 2014 attempt to fix climate change went awry and plunged the planet into an ice age. Now, 17 years later, the train still circumnavigates the globe, propelled by a perpetual-motion engine, while the ragged underclass in the train's tail plans to storm to the front and gain control of the engine.
Most plots are linear, but perhaps no more so than here, in which the action begins at the rear of the train and moves forward car by car, in more or less real time. As each new car is breached, neither the rebels nor the viewers know what lies behind the door — an administrative car, like where the protein bars are made, or another glimpse at the life of leisure and even decadence that the privileged lead?
Normally, the distance between the have-nots and the haves is illustrated with a pyramid, as there are many more on the bottom and few on top. Snowpiercer plots this disparity on a line, where each class shares a similar amount of space, and it's also an effective visual: Hundreds of poor are crammed into one cage-like train car, while the man in charge is alone in his well-appointed carriage. Bong further underscores this with his palette: The rebels' journey begins in a washed-out monochrome murk and grows increasingly more colorful and light-filled.
Like the passengers, all the film's action is confined to the narrow space of a train, creating a visceral claustrophobia, even in the fancy cars. There are occasional shots from outside the train that show the breathtaking snowy horror that is our planet — from forbidding mountain ranges to former cities collapsed into icy piles.
Fans of Tilda Swinton's bizarre roles will not want to miss this train: A nearly unrecognizable Swinton portrays a matronly, propaganda-spewing liaison, and her performance is darkly funny as well as chilling.
Snowpiercer also proffers a lot of intriguing explorations of heroics, societal order and the usefulness of revolution, but at the risk of spoiling plot twists, you'll have to claw your way to the end of the film to fully appreciate them. It's a journey worth taking.