In a classic bit of sci-firony, it seems the human race, in an effort to stop global warming, has brought about a new ice age rendering every living thing on Earth extinct, except a train load of survivors hurtling continuously around the planet. If that sentence turns you off, you're not likely the intended audience for "Snowpiercer", Bong Joon-ho's ("Mother", "The Host") ambitious multi-national adaptation of the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige". If, on the other hand, you hear that gonzo premise and think, "finally some sci-fi I can sink my teeth into!", then this is the movie for you.
If the film's diverse cast and crew - French graphic novel, directed by a South Korean, co-written by an American, filmed in Eastern Europe - didn't give it away, this is not a Hollywood movie. Sure, there's plenty of action and a clear three-act journey, but don't expect a classic hero, a feel-good ending or, spoiler alert, a ton of survivors. The tone of the film is uneven, shifting from political satire to gritty violence to odd Terry Gilliam-lite. In fact, in an homage to the visionary helmer, the wizened sage (played somewhat inevitably by John Hurt) is named Gilliam.
The plot is simple: the 99% who live in squalor in the caboose organize a revolt against the elite towards the "sacred engine", fighting their way forward through the vast train car by car. The filmmakers have immense fun with the unique designs of each, successively gaudier carriage, from the "Mad Max" steampunk of the tail to the financial excesses of the head (saunas! discos! a sushi bar!), and everything in between.
If only that much effort was put into the characters. With the exception of the revolutionary leader, played in a nicely understated turn by Captain America himself, Chris Evans, most characters exist to have a moment and advance the plot. Only Kang-ho Song (star of "The Host"), speaking in Korean with the help of a nifty universal translator, manages to stand out as the reluctant locksmith.
But a film like "Snowpiercer" - steeped in allegory - isn't necessarily about the characters. It's about the future it creates, the journey it takes us on, and, in some cases, the various metaphors it hammers together (there's the obvious political angle as well as a bunch of Christian imagery).
In that way, "Snowpiercer" succeeds beautifully. At a time when sci-fi fans have to satiate themselves with dystopin YA fare like "The Hunger Games" or comicbook crowdpleasers like "X-men", it's nice to have something to chew on.
For all its flaws (the film goes, ahem, off the rails at the end), "Snowpiercer" is a wild ride. All aboard.