Jul 7, 2014

One of the best science fiction films in years.


Grade: A-

Director: Joon-ho Bong (The Host)

Screenplay: Bong, Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), based on the French graphic novel.

Cast: Chris Evans (Chris Evans), Tilda Swinton (Moonrise Kingdom)

Rating: R

Runtime: 126 min.

by John DeSando

“Know your place. Accept your place. Be a shoe.” Mason (Tilda Swinton)

Social inequality (shoes are working class folk at the rear of the train; hats are front of the train for upper class) is one of the allegorical elements in the satisfying Snowpiercer. Here’s sci-fi for the thinking person, a thriller about the last train on earth with the last humans, a microcosm of humanity’s struggle to survive global warming.

Set in 2031,  the tale tells of the Metropolis-like lower life in the back of the perpetual-motion train revolting to get to the engine (thanks, Hunger Games, for that motif), which runs on perpetual motion, where the swells cavort like rejects from a Gatsby party. Life for this closed ecosystem must be in balance in order for humanity to survive, “balance” meaning the ruling class accelerating the natural selection by eliminating the weak.

Enter Curtis (Chris Evans) to lead the downtrodden against the militaristic forces of the train’s Oz-like ruler, Wilford (Ed Harris). Living conditions in the rear cars easily mirror the squalor and horror of Holocaust trains and concentration camps. The ragged revolutionaries move through each car, as if in a video game, while their world becomes incrementally more livable and more dangerous. As in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the lower orders live darkly while the lucky ones cavort in sun-dappled luxury.

Evans underplays as the stoic hero, while Harris, the pro, doesn’t ham it up as an autocrat who runs the train, and therefore the world. As much fun as it is to see Harris play a bad guy, Tilda Swinton as his lieutenant, Mason (think Margaret Thatcher gone wild), is over-the top eccentric. Her disdain for common humanity is trumped only by her desire to live a long life. With buck teeth and coke-bottle glasses, she’s the film’s most entertaining character, almost humorous, if you can even use that word for this post-apocalyptic parable about the haves and the have-nots.

The smart conceit is that we put ourselves into apocalyptic winter by spraying the land with a chemical that would mitigate the effects of global warming but freezes us out instead. While cannibalism has been a part of the good guys’ survival, and they’re not happy about it, this world-at-the-end brings up questions about how we really could survive and what our behavior might be.

So the conservatives have their day because the neo-liberals botched the remedy with a forbidding  winter. No one is blameless.

The audience may long for the simpler sci-fi of director Joon-ho Bong's The Host, but no one should complain that his Snowpiercer lacks intellectual challenges and allegories that stick.  Snowpiercer has many layers from action thriller to figurative drama.  It’s all good.

Consider Wilford’s advice to Curtis to be fitting for the film itself:

“Have you ever been alone on this train? When was the last time you were alone? You can't remember, can you? So please do. Take your time.” Take your time with this winner--it's worth it.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at