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Citizens concerned about income inequality can take solace in the fact that at least one leading American industry has their back: Hollywood. There have been a glut of movies that address class divisions in recent years (Elysium, Les Miserables, Beasts of the Southern Wild), but no film dramatizes these issues as well as Snowpiercer, a stylish and urgent work of science-fiction from Korean director Bong Joon Ho.
Some opening text and an aural montage of fake news clips give us the backstory: After a failed global response to climate change, the planet has become a frozen tundra. Nearly all life has been extinguished, and the few people that were saved now permanently live on a bullet train that traverses the planet on a closed loop every year.
The train is a traveling microcosm of our society, a self-sustaining organism that—its leaders claim—requires an equal number of the poor and rich to achieve balance. Our heroes are the poor folk at the back of the train, who live at the mercy of the 1 percenters at the front. Led by Curtis (Chris Evans), the crew is a series of stock movie characters: a wise mentor figure (John Hurt), a young, plucky sidekick (Jamie Bell), and a tough-as-nails woman (Octavia Spencer). They may be archetypes, but the cast of seasoned pros imbue them with enough feeling that they are able to keep the story grounded, despite the fantastic events surrounding them. Deserving special mention is Tilda Swinton, who, buried under buck teeth and old lady makeup, plays the nervous liaison between the rich and the poor like some sort of socialite on acid.
You will need to suspend plenty of disbelief to accept the film’s premise; it helps that Ho rests it on a solid foundation. The suffering of the poor is neatly characterized with universal symbols of oppression. Curtis and his crew are crammed into bunk beds that evoke concentration camps, children are randomly taken by armed guards and are never seen again, and, worst of all to some, they are forced to eat the same mystery protein brick for every meal.
These early scenes feel a bit too rote, but Snowpiercer really picks up momentum when the poor folk overpower their armed guards and start their journey to the front of the train. The action unfolds like a video game; when the sliding door of each subsequent car lifts, it is like entering a completely new world with its own rules. Sometimes it’s horrifying (like when we learn where those protein bars come from), and sometimes it’s beautiful (a garden car offers glimpses of the natural world that has passed). The film’s deceptively simple structure device gives it a recurring sense of tension and drama, and Ho has the style and vision to reward our anticipation with beautiful, distinctive imagery and some cutting satire.
Like a train, Snowpiercer picks up steam as it goes, and its last half are commercial cinema at its best: thrilling, visually striking, and endlessly thought-provoking. Even if it becomes overly didactic in its final moments—a late scene evokes the worst elements of The Matrix sequels—you can’t help but appreciate the ride.