Sprung from a 1982 French graphic novel and bearing its era’s trickle-down tensions, Snowpiercer is a headlong rush into conceptual lunacy—but you’ll love it anyway. Silly doesn’t even begin to describe a perpetually cruising luxury rail, teetering around high-altitude curves and pounding through the ice of a dead world. Hollywood rarely goes quite this nuts, and the foreign-made production, helmed by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (The Host), gets at a kind of daring, giddy excitement that plays like something our movies have lost.
In a prologue, we see jets taking to blue skies, deploying a miracle spray that’s supposed to cure global warming. But this being darkly comic sci-fi (Snowpiercer is the best fix of it in years), it only brings on an instant planet-killing freeze. Cut to nearly two decades later, and human nature is still up to its old games, only now we all live sealed off from endless winter on a speeding train, where smudgy unfortunates like Curtis (Captain America’s Chris Evans) occupy the rear and plan revolt. Other passengers have it better up front, it’s rumored. Worst of all, smug middle management has survived like the cockroach, in the form of toothy Mason (Tilda Swinton, a burbling, Thatcheresque delight), reminding everyone of their proper place.
Working in English for the first time with no noticeable lapse of his perverse sense of humor, Bong grabs on to the grungy conventions of postapocalyptic adventure with relish. He serves up claustrophobic action scenes (one largely shot in the dark) and ominous, messianic overtones as the band of rebels makes its way forward. But his real genius here is for establishing a sickening future psychology where every new compartment contains a haves-and-have-nots surprise: a fully equipped sushi bar, a brightly colored schoolroom filled with happy kids, a bumping dance club. The film has the same symmetry of The Grand Budapest Hotel and a whiff of its doomed nostalgia, too. Try it.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf