“Snowpiercer” is a full-throttle science fiction adventure and a resonant modern myth. Like “Metropolis,” “Avatar” and “Elysium,” it’s a wretches vs. riches parable. With Korean wild man Joon-ho Bong directing a mostly English-speaking cast (“Captain America’s” Chris Evans is the lead), this one has everything: frenetic thrills, a witty script, Tilda Swinton, and a runaway train rattling through a futuristic ice age.
Snowpiercer, as it’s called, consists of 26 cars, each corresponding to a different layer of society. The wealthy live in luxury compartments near the engine. The poor they call “freeloaders” occupy squalid quarters at the back. It’s Ayn Rand’s “Polar Express.”
The masters’ emissary to the masses is Mason (Swinton), a wickedly funny Margaret Thatcher caricature. One doesn’t wear a shoe on his head or hats on his feet, so everyone must know his place and stay there, Mason argues with impeccable talk-radio logic. But when she seizes a waif from the caboose for a mysterious fate up in first class, an uprising flares.
In two dozen gorgeously deranged action sequences, Curtis (Evans) leads a charge on the front compartments. The film takes a while to get its hooks into you. While the rabble have a certain moral authority, Bong doesn’t underplay their ratty garb, greasy hair and unsightly skin conditions.
Once they start breaching the barriers, however, the film becomes kaleidoscopically colorful. Like the raiders, we never know what’s beyond the next door, and when they break through we share their wonder. There’s a rolling seaquarium and sushi bar, a nutty propaganda kindergarten with a frighteningly cheerful teacher (Allison Pill), a sybaritic spa and a druggy disco. It’s a cleverly detailed schematic diagram of a decadent society. And behind the final door, the mysterious figure running the whole show.
Bong uses whimsy to balance the story’s Orwellian harshness. It’s sillier, sadder and more viscerally violent than Hollywood sci-fi. Bong gets surprisingly strong emotional effects by building up actors we like (“Billy Elliott’s” grown-up Jamie Bell, “The Help’s” Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer), then giving them fates we wouldn’t expect. Evans delivers a haymaker of a monologue near the end, revealing why he risked his life.
It’s been years since a science fiction movie put the fireballs on pause and asked me to care about the hero’s inner life. Overflowing with virtuosity, imagination and storytelling confidence, “Snowpiercer” is one hell of a ride.