As the film opens, we are informed that in response to the threat of global warming, countries around the world came together to release a cooling substance into the atmosphere in the hopes of stabilizing it. Unfortunately, they overdid it, and send the entire planet into a snow-covered deep freeze that has apparently extincted all life on Earth. Except for those aboard the Snowpiercer, a luxury liner train with a perpetual motion engine traversing a circle around the globe.
(More about Snowpiercer below the fold.)
This train, however, is not equal opportunity: while those wealthy enough to get a first-class ticket live in the lap of luxury in the last habitable place on the planet, the masses live in overcrowded squalor and filth in the train's rear cars—subsisting their entire lives on gelatinous protein bars of unknown provenance and being brutally oppressed by soldiers under the command of Wilford, the enigmatic captain of the train of state. When two children from the rear cars are seized for unknown reasons in an infrequent and yet routine occurrence, the second-class proletariat finally decides it has had enough, and the revolution is on.
To lead them, they turn to Curtis, a reluctant anti-hero played very well by Evans in a role that demands more depth, complexity and makeup than did his stints throwing a shield at Nazis. After enlisting the services of the drug-addled man who can unlock the doors between the cars, the revolution gets going. The objective? Fight, car by car, seat by seat, to the front of the train for a final confrontation with Wilford.
If that sounds like a video game setup, you're not wrong. The narrative arc of the movie definitely has that feel: the cars of the train resemble video game stages with each presenting a different challenge, some physical and some cerebral, with sub-bosses and character development piling up along the way until the showdown in car one. But the way the cinematography, directing and narrative take advantage of the seemingly confined opportunity is nothing short of astonishing.
To begin with, the action pieces feature creative, though not laughable, setups that resemble a combination of Tarantino's work in Kill Bill and that of the Wachowski siblings from The Matrix, but without going at all overboard. There are gunfights, hand-to-hand sequences, and one particularly brutal battle featuring two small armies in the confined space of a train car using nothing but edged weapons. In other words, if you could care less about cerebral elements and are just interested in memorable action sequences, this film delivers in an intense way. But even more impressive are the beautiful and creative visual elements in some of the luxury cars. I was particularly stunned by the aquarium car and the nightclub car, and the interspersing of these scenes provide some temporary relief for what is otherwise an unrelenting push toward the front of the train.
Eventually, of course, Curtis gets his final showdown with Wilford, but it isn't what you'd expect. It's bad form to spoil the big reveals in a film review, but the conclusion will challenges the traditional good-versus-evil dualism of the traditional action genre and superimposes a viewpoint that would intrigue those familiar with Eastern religious and philosophical themes. It's a beautiful exploration of how the spirit of capitalism intersects not just with Western ideas like Calvinism, but also the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Either way, your only disappointment will be that Ed Harris' gripping and charismatic depiction of Wilford gets so comparatively little screen time.
In conclusion: it doesn't matter why you go see movies. Snowpiercer will leave you satisfied and thinking about the nature of capitalism and revolution. Highly recommended.