Directed and co-written by Bong Joon-Ho, "Snowpiercer" comes to the big screen after starting life as the French graphic novel, "Le Transperceneige." Set 14 years after a failed attempt to stop Global Warming instead coated the planet in a murderous shroud of freezing temperatures, the only humans left alive are on a train that endlessly circles a global track, powered by a perpetual-motion engine, with a microcosm of society hurtling through a ruined world...
One of the biggest differences between film and graphic novels -- or, for the less "sophisticated," comics -- is simple: a film has to be believable, while a graphic novel only has to be believed. On the page, "Le Transperceneige" and other comics work in no small part as theater of the mind -- you imagine the voices, the motion, the action, and that effort brings you into its fable. On film, though, with live actors and sets and props, our minds don't have to labor to flesh out and fill out the story and its universe, and so our minds, less occupied, start to pick at them both.
While "Snowpiercer" and its world may be implausible, though, they're certainly both engaging, and helping matters even more is Bong's sprawling cast. At the back of the train, poor and subjugated but alive, the passengers are led by Gilliam (John Hurt), but their best and boldest is Curtis (Chris Evans), a would-be revolutionary with wary eyes and more patience than his right-hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell). Occasionally, a functionary or guard from the front of the train drops by to remind the third-class citizens in the fourth-class section of the train how lucky they are to be there, let alone alive. Mason (Tilda Swinton, channeling both Gollum and Margaret Thatcher) regularly reminds all and sundry how only the genius of the great engineer Wilford keeps them all alive before issuing demands -- for labor, for obedience, for children to work at the front of the train.
Bong's control of action and space are just as evident here as they've been in his prior works like "The Host" or "Memories of Murder." Yet as Curtis and his followers boldly break out of their back-of-the-train status and fight their way towards the seat and sanctum of Wilford's power, the cast of characters gets increasingly spread out while the action gets more and more repetitive -- staged and shot with invention and power, to be sure, but still repetitive.
If the film has one element that never flags or falters, it's Evans. While Marvel's plans have made Evans a global action star, he's always been more interesting than that -- willing to take chances with talented directors ("Sunshine"), willing to take small parts in interesting films ("The Iceman") -- and it's hard to imagine any of his peers being willing to show up to play the brutal believer behind a violent revolution, never mind playing it so well.
You can see the film's nods to "Brazil" and other similar, less mobile dystopias -- the secret of the food supply for the back-of-the-train passengers evokes "The Matrix," while the need for the young to serve the state touches on everything from "Logan's Run" to the tale of Minos of Crete. The film's finale is more frustrating and curiously inert than it is lyrical and quietly powerful, though, and the scenes of the world outside the train have the too-much-CGI, pixel-plastic look of a videogame's cutscenes.
"Snowpiercer" is bold and brutal and committed, but no setting, no matter how inventive or beautiful, can compensate for storytelling that strains plausibility even as it batters your senses and sensibilities. "Snowpiercer' is the work of a singular director, but isn't a singular film. As it rattles and rolls and rockets towards its finale on rails -- literally and figuratively -- you can see the ultimate final destination pretty swiftly after leaving the station, which is a shame, no matter how stunning and strange the journey there may be.
SCORE: 7.4 / 10