Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” is the apocalypse done right: a fascinating tale of humanity at the end of its rope, loaded with smart plotting, dark drama, offbeat humor and inventive action.
It’s 2031 and the world is a frozen wasteland, 17 years after a failed attempt to solve global warming went too far. Humankind’s last survivors live on a constantly moving train, with the rich up front eating steak and the rabble in back feeding on ill-defined “protein blocks.” At the very front, by the “Sacred Engine,” is the train’s master, the unseen Wilford.
“All things flow from the Sacred Engine,” intones the officious Minister (Tilda Swinton) when disciplining the oppressed tail-section residents. “Know your place, keep your place.”
In the tail, though, a revolt is brewing. It’s led by Curtis (played by Captain America himself, Chris Evans), who declines the title “leader” but defers to the tail section’s guru, Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis is the tactician, with his eager pal Edgar (Jamie Bell), and has a plan to free a jailed electronics expert, Namgoong Minsoo (played by the Korean star Song Kang-ho), who can open the gates between the tail and the front.
Soon, a motley band that includes Curtis, Edgar, Gilliam, Namgoong and his clairvoyant daughter Yona (Ko A-sung), and the maternal Tanya (Octavia Spencer) is making its way to the front. With every door opened, though, the obstacles and surprises get more deadly. They also get weirder, as when the group encounters a rich kids’ schoolroom where a cheery teacher (Alison Pill) teaches Wilford’s propaganda and prejudice against the tail section.
Bong Joon-ho, who directed the amazing Godzilla-like Korean thriller “The Host,” makes a powerful English-language debut. Bong and co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”), adapting a French graphic novel, masterfully shift between pulse-pounding action and thoughtful science-fiction drama. Bong also juggles a wide array of visual moods, from the dank quarters of the tail to the ridiculous opulence up front.
The international cast is wonderful, a smart mix of actors you wouldn’t imagine in the same movie. Some are scene-stealers, such as Swinton as the toothy Minister. Others, such as Song and Ko (who, incidentally, also played father and daughter in “The Host”), are nicely restrained. Best of all is Evans, whose quiet turn as the reluctant hero shows there’s more to the actor than Marvel superheroics.
“Snowpiercer” delivers tension, and surprises in ways that belie the conventional wisdom that blockbuster action movies must be brainless, soulless enterprises. This movie keeps you involved, engaging your brain and emotions, to the end of the line.
A train carries what’s left of humanity, in a rigid caste system, in this brilliant and moving post-apocalyptic thriller.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for violence, language and drug content.
Running time • 126 minutes.