Snowpiercer” is the film that takes a hammer to climate-change denial. A sometimes whimsical but mostly horrible sci-fi simulation of what could happen in the event of a global-warming catastrophe, the story of “Snowpiercer” kicks off in 2014. And now that the U.N. is reportedly preparing a warning that someone will have to come up with a device to suck up carbon dioxide emissions or else, it looks as though reality and fiction are marching shoulder to shoulder.
Directed by Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (“Memories of Murder,” “Mother”), it is based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” and at its heart is an indictment of first-world energy consumption lifestyles, particularly that of the United States. In spite of this or because of it, the overall tone of the film is set by its stars, Hollywood notables such as Chris “Captain America” Evans, Octavia Spencer of “The Help,” Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt.
Bong has worked only in Korea up to this point, and though he has bagged awards on the international film-festival circuit, his name doesn’t exactly turn heads in the West. Also, the film is an anti-first-world, feel-bad sci-fi film that no American superhero appears at the eleventh hour to fix. Worst of all, there are no bad guys — just humans being their greedy selves.
Perhaps it’s only to be expected that the film’s powerful U.S. distributor, Harvey Weinstein, is attempting to chop 20 minutes from the film before setting a release date over there, to the reported dismay of the director and cast. But hey, at least we get to see a film in Japan before the U.S. for once.
The action takes place almost exclusively on board an enormously long train, named Snowpiercer for its ability to penetrate through the thick walls of snow that have engulfed the world since 2014, when the U.S. blasted a chemical powder into the atmosphere to counteract global warming and inadvertently plunged the world into an Ice Age.
The few remaining survivors of humanity boarded Snowpiercer, built and operated by American industry magnate Wilford (Harris), who had seen the catastrophe coming and prepared for it. Wilford had even built a railway that connected Russia to Alasaka. In a dark, frozen landscape, Snowpiercer has been circling the Earth for 17 years, fueled by a “permanent engine” designed by Wilford himself.
There were several kinks in Wilfred’s master plan. Only 1 percent of the passengers could afford Snowpiercer’s first-class fees, and the rest of the masses were shoved inside windowless cattle cars way at the back of the train, controlled by Wilfred’s right-hand woman Mason (an unrecognizable and brilliant Swinton) and an army with license to execute just about anyone. The people’s sole source of sustenance is disgusting black protein blocks, manufactured by a slave in another car, while the privileged rich dine off sushi, while wrapped in luxurious furs.
Bong’s use of irony is scathing, but the film’s biggest payoff is its action scenes, with a rebellion led by reluctant leader Curtis (Evans). Curtis is compelling: corroded with guilt and empowered by rage. Though he sometimes ponders what brought about this fate and all this snow, he pushes that aside and the urge to get even takes over. You’re shivering already.