Bong Joon-ho's sci-fi allegory Snowpiercer is one weird and hilarious trip. At turns campy and amateurish (with issues of ADR synching and logical consistency throughout), at other turns brilliant and inspired, it's worth experiencing for Tilda Swinton's delirious send-up of Maggie Thatcher alone (right down to the prosthetic overbite).
The rest of the cast is pretty standard issue: John Hurt (1984) as the requisite Gandalf figure Gilliam (a ham-fisted tribute to director Terry Gilliam, from whose Brazil the film clearly borrows); Chris Evans (Captain America) -- looking a lot like U2's The Edge with hat pulled low -- as Curtis, the textbook reluctant leader of one of the perpetual, and, in an Adorno-like nod, planned and necessary, revolts against the train's ruling elite; and a bathrobed Ed Harris in a real snoozer as the hallowed train architect, and underwhelming Wizard of Oz figure, Wilford.
There could have been more wry intelligence baked into this child-like script about a post-apocalyptic world in which an attempt to stave off global warming has gone horribly wrong, leaving a frozen planet and a perpetually moving, self-sustaining, and cartoonishly careering train that smashes through ice and snow generating water and power for the planet's remaining survivors onboard. The inhabitants of this "Rattling Ark" allegedly represent a microcosm of the world left behind, in which Americans run the show, and dentally challenged Brits provide a simulacrum of wisdom and absurdist order, and South Koreans save the day on behalf of an Asian/African-American future. In a script less clever by half, the train could have better served as Matrix-like metaphor for conventional reality. But, instead, the screenplay by Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and Bong Joon-ho (Mother) -- based on French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette -- goes for tired Occupy Wall Street clichés about the haves and have-nots. Or, in this case, about the 1% at the pampered front of the nuclear-powered train -- which gains in speed and strength the longer it moves -- and the huddled masses in steerage, who must subsist at first on cannibalism and then, after their first revolt, on a gelatinous protein bar made from (oh, never mind).
However, if you can forgive the Titanic-like class war simplicity, there's lots to visually enjoy in this odd, and, dare I say, oddly auteur-like, genre work. Though the digitally crafted landscape looks too much like a Coors Light "frost filtered" ad at times, it does have its thrilling high-altitude beauty. As do many other aspects of Ondrej Nekvasil's steampunk-meets-Bladerunner design. Of particular interest are the various train compartments, which include a new wave-ish nightclub, an aquarium, and a high-end sushi bar. One particular compartment, a classroom where the children of the elite are educated, er, indoctrinated, is devilishly surreal. And the manic and twisted scene there ends in a way that will definitely remind you of the best of Tarrantino.
The plodding climactic showdown between Curtis and Wilford -- spoiler alert! -- could have been cut by ten minutes (not to make the film more "mainstream," as producer "Harvey Scissorhands" probably wanted, but because it just drags). And the ending - a shot of a twenty-something Korean clairvoyant/drug-addicted locksmith and a small black boy staring at a polar bear is supposed to have instant profundity -- is a leaden letdown. We are left to presume that these two will survive in this suddenly warming world, and the new human species will be a marriage of these two disparate ethnic groups, but not until the little boy is old enough to consummate the union. Yes, odd, and logically preposterous. And not the only place where absurdities abound.
Nevertheless, Snowpiercer is a thrilling, if extremely violent, train ride worth catching from an adventurous Korean director whose better work is clearly around the next bend.