spIn the space of high concept French graphic novels adapted into fringy films by visionary directors, I’ll give this one the edge over 12 Monkeys.

What is Snowpiercer? It’s a train running on a round-the-world track, keeping the remainder of humanity alive after a human-engineered disaster. Way back in 2014, the world thought that global warming needed to be hit head-on, so they put this chemical into the atmosphere that cooled the planet, but it worked too well, and the planet froze. Thankfully, Wilford, a train enthusiast, had already built his contraption, and the people lucky enough to get on it before it began its eternal journey got to live.

But, as is the way of these kinds of films, the class system is enforced to a horrifying degree, leaving the dregs of humanity living in squalor at the back of the train while the privileged live in insane luxury in the front. As an aside, I have to ask, given that there is no indication that the masses perform any kind of work, why do the rich let the poor even live? Why not gas them all and toss them out of the train? That’s never satisfactorily explained, and kind of bugged me. Anyway.

Curtis (Chris Evans), one of the people in the back, has come to the conclusion that he has to change things and develops a plan of revolution. He needs nerves of steel, the help of his compatriots, and the technical genius of an incarcerated engineer, Nam (Kang-ho Song).

The visuals are surprising and evocative, particularly since they come in exactly two varieties: scenes on a stage the size and shape of a train car, or scenes of the exterior which are all CG. Apart from a literal shaky-cam sequence at the beginning that angered me, the combat scenes are excellent. The performances (which also include John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill and Ah-sung Ko) are uniformly great.

One downside for me is the number of coincidences: a convenient holiday, a convenient tunnel, a convenient clairvoyant, a really convenient section of spiral track. There are also some problems with the underlying science. (Where were the farm animals? What powered the engine? Why hasn’t the track degraded over the course of eighteen frozen years? Why do they need to keep the train moving? Can’t they let the engine idle and remove a huge danger?)

There were also a number of places they took a safer path than I expected. For example, the source of the protein bars the proles have to eat was not nearly as horrifying as the actors played it. But I suppose, with all the other horrors on display, it’s okay to throw us a bone. (I’m, of course, referring to Curtis’s haunting third act monologue.)

A few missteps aren’t enough to reduce film dramatically in my eyes. For anyone willing to stomach this kind of film, it’s worth seeing.


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