Building a ship in a bottle is tricky. In last years’s Snowpiercer
, director/writer Bong Joon-ho
(in his English-language debut) and writer Kelly Masterson
built a society in a bottle. Bong is known for his obsession with detail, and it's the little things that make this movie click. Getting an audience to believe in a setting as contrived as this is not easy, but thanks to attention to detail and a stunning cast, Bong and Masterson pull it off.
is based on a 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige
, written by Jacques Lob
and Jean-Marc Rochette
. To fight global warming, the government flooded the atmosphere with a chemical compound called CW-7. The plan worked too well — everything on the planet froze, and life was wiped out. When we join the few surviving humans, they’ve spent the last 17 years on Snowpiercer, a massive train on a looping track powered by a miraculous engine.
But what's a post-apocalypse society without an autocracy and class warfare? Wilfred (Ed Harris
) designed the train, the track and the system and rules from the engine cab, unseen. Those who bought first-class tickets live in luxury. Behind them are the working people who bought economy tickets. The last-minute riders – refugees with no tickets – live in the slum-like tail section on protein rations. Armed guards and security doors block them from the rest of the train.
Nuance and sub-plots aside, this movie is about a revolt. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans
, under two pounds of beard and 20 pounds of jacket) leads a group of tail section passengers up the train as they try to take control of the engine. This isn't the first attempt at revolt, but Curtis has the right people. Besides his young second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell
), wise, old Gilliam (John Hurt
) stands by his side.
Their plan is centered on finding the train's security designer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho
), held prisoner in a morgue-like car. Curtis plans to free him and enlist his help with a bribe of uncut Kronole — processed industrial waste turned addictive hallucinogen. Nam's only condition? They have to bring his daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung
Vibrant as the cast is, the most memorable character is Minister Mason, played by Tilda Swinton
. Under a fake nose and snaggletooth, Swinton turns Mason into a petty bureaucrat. Her condescending Yorkshire accent evokes a private school teacher, and she's not shy with corporal punishment. She's fun to hate. When Curtis and crew catch up to her, it makes watching her snivel and beg all the more satisfying.
As noted, Bong's attention to detail is second to none. When the guards take a child, Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis
), and beat his mother, Tanya (Octavia Spencer
), it's shot to suggest the beating of Rodney King. The back of the train is to the left with everything sentimental, the engine and things to come are on the right. And fight scenes happen over the longer, more fluid cuts typical of southeast Asian action films. Even the language sells the setting; if something is gone, it's extinct, whether it's cows or cigarettes.
r’s social commentary is smart. Wilfred's actions are understandable, if brutal, while those on the good side of the status quo do whatever it takes to maintain it. The tail passengers just want to get out of scum class and save their kids.
In any case, this movie is great for fans of everything from Aliens
to The Hunger Games
is good dark sci-fi, good action, and good dystopian fiction. There's no catch – Snowpiercer
Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.