'Snowpiercer' is killer train-sparring

Matt Pais movie review: 'Snowpiercer'

'Snowpiercer'

'Snowpiercer' (June 26, 2014)

***1/2 (out of four)

Though it sounds like a metal band, “Snowpiercer” is a riveting sci-fi adventure only a few steps down from “Dark City” or “Children of Men.” It pummels forward like the train on which the action is set, and you don’t particularly want to reach the end.

It’s 2031, 17 years after some bonehead thought an artificial cooling substance would cure global warming. Unfortunately, said bonehead failed to anticipate that the product would freeze the whole planet and wipe out all civilization not on a train set up to run across the globe. That unescapable vessel long has been forcefully compartmentalized by class. The unlucky passengers at the end exist in abysmal conditions, suppressed by leaders like Mason (an excellently odd but never cartoonish Tilda Swinton) who insist everyone must occupy their “pre-ordained, particular position.”

Curtis (a very good Chris Evans) has had enough, particularly considering the disgusting protein block provided as the only food and the upper class’ fondness for kidnapping children. The revolt is on (with assistance from Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer). This requires a certain degree of planning and an abundance of nerve from oppressed folks trying to storm the powers that be with a startling quantity of axes.

Sometimes quite funny, the English-language debut from South Korean director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho (2006’s monster bash “The Host”) obviously exists as more than a literally nonstop battle. The filmmaker nods to many topical notions of economic disparities, abuses of leadership, propaganda and genocide but handles them with a steady hand. Like the unauthorized, near-futuristic sequel to the horrendous “Noah,” “Snowpiercer” shows the rebirth of civilization as a return to the terrible lessons we should have put behind us, while history is remembered only through storytelling and drawings. Not until Joon-ho strains to reveal multiple secrets in a short span of time is he tripped up by the sheer quantity of characters and messages, lingering a little too long with an ending that goes soft.

Otherwise the movie’s a lit fuse, almost like a post-apocalyptic “Wizard of Oz” mixed with an inverted “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” focused on everyone who didn’t get a golden ticket. (Please ignore any temptation to make comparisons to “Under Siege 2.”) It’s also the year’s third impressive movie featuring a train, following “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and, in an unforgettable, hammer-focused sequence, “The Raid 2.” Coincidence? Yes. Problem? No.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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