By Eleanor Ringel Cater
As post-apocalyptic films go, “Snowpiercer” has several things going for it.
First, the director is South Korean Bong Joon-ho, working in English for the first time. A few years ago, he made a stunning and original film called “The Host,” — a monster movie unlike anything you’ve seen before, partly a straight-on yum-yum-eat-‘em-up saga of a Nasty Thing that comes from a river and starts killing everyone in sight, it’s also an eerily tender story of family and loss.
Second, “Snowpiercer’s” concept is strikingly simple. An attempt to curb global warming has backfired — badly — and now the planet is blanketed in a 21st-century Ice Age. What’s left of humanity has been gathered onto one very long train, with the have-nots in the caboose and the haves riding along in varying degrees of comfort. The closer you are to the front — and the mysterious Wilford (Ed Harris in a variation of his godlike role in “The Truman Show”) — the better your lot.
Third, there’s the fascinating and decidedly eclectic cast. Our hero, Chris Evans, has traded his foursquare Captain America persona for stubble and a revolutionary’s truculence. Tilda Swinton is virtually unrecognizable in Margaret Thatcher drag and prosthetic teeth (they look like the ones Mickey Rooney wore…did we really think like this…as Audrey Hepburn’s “Japanese” upstairs neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”)
Because it’s based on a French graphic novel, “Snowpiercer” speeds along with sledgehammer bluntness. Subtlety and wit are beside the point. Rather a certain brutal playfulness best characterizes the film’s feel. Evans and assorted others (including Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer and a heroically sunken John Hurt) are in the back. They want to get to the front.
Doing so takes them through assorted railroad cars. One is a maddeningly dreamy greenhouse where an older woman sits peacefully knitting. Another is a spic-n-span classroom where a beatific Alison Pill indoctrinates privileged little ones into the train’s class-conscious social structure. Yet another is the party car that pulls a lot from Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” decadence and a little from “Midnight Cowboy’s” view of the Beautiful People circa 1969.
Oh, and you’ll love this; one of the privileged’s, well, privileges is a sushi bar.
All this is silhouetted against the passing landscape — icy and barren. This is not Gstaad at Christmas-time.
One could question the movie’s simplistic approach or its coolly spasmodic violence. Does it add up to anything we don’t already know? Of course not. But in this case, it’s absolutely the journey that matters, not the destination. This train ain’t bound for glory. Promise.