‘Snowpiercer’ is summer’s best-kept movie secret

WASHINGTON — Maybe it was the odd title. Maybe it was the bizarre concept. Or perhaps it was simply the limited U.S. release after premiering in the director’s home country of South Korea.

Whatever the reason, a hidden gem has quietly flown under the radar — or should we say, circled the frozen apocalyptic earth — overlooked by American audiences who are busy applauding awesome blockbusters such as “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and indie experiments such as “Boyhood.”

Ladies and gents, it’s time to tie yourself to the train tracks of “Snowpiercer,” a sci-fi action thriller that’s catching fire On Demand and still playing at five specialty theaters in the Washington area.

Based on a 1982 French graphic novel, the film’s futuristic premise is one of the wildest in recent movie memory.

A failed climate- change experiment has triggered another Ice Age, rendering planet Earth unlivable and putting mankind on the brink of extinction. Only about a thousand survivors remain on a long train known as The Snowpiercer, which circles the globe eternally using an unstoppable, high-tech engine.

A social class structure quickly emerges, where the wealthy live towards the front of the train and the poor live towards the back. But a rebellion is building, pushing its way forward one train car at a time.

The lack of a wider release is stunning considering the cast reads like a Hollywood A-Team.

Chris Evans (“Captain America”) plays Curtis, the reluctant rebel leader of the poor class. Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”) plays his young sidekick, Edgar, whom Curtis feels the need to protect, due to their personal history. John Hurt (“The Elephant Man”) plays a selfless, one-armed, one-legged elder named Gilliam, a clear nod to director Terry Gilliam (“Brazil”). Kang-ho Song (“The Host”) plays a gate- cracking hacker with an affinity for the powerful drug Kronol. And Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) is a poor mother trying to protect her son despite Rosa Parks-style oppression in the back of the train.

At the front of the train is the luxurious home of mysterious railroad tycoon Wilford, whose name is plastered all over the locomotive walls. The casting choice here is brilliant in Ed Harris, who can play both a brilliant transportation mind (“Apollo 13”) and a man with a God complex (“The Truman Show”). Doing his evil bidding is a toothy Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”), who steals the show by blending the zany humor of Effie Trinket (“The Hunger Games”) with the iron fist of Nurse Ratched (“Once Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest”). Her character is in charge of population control, commanding her armed minions with rigid hand gestures and monopolizing the truth with her trademark line: “And so it is.”

“We must occupy our preordained positions. I belong to the front, you belong to the tail,” she says.

Thus, the film becomes a poignant social commentary, not just regarding the effects of climate change, but also about the struggles between social classes. This concept has worked for sci- fi classics like Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece “Metropolis” (1927) and recent summer blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). Think of the peasants trapped below deck in James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997), only in this case, the train keeps chugging through the icebergs.

It’s easy to see why writer and director Joon-ho Bong is Quentin Tarantino’s favorite South Korean filmmaker. Bong has gained quite the international reputation after “The Host” (2006), about a monster in Seoul’s Han River, and “Mother” (2009), about a woman searching for the killer that framed her son for murder. “Snowpiercer” is his first English-language film, and the highly stylized action recalls the hammer-wielding sequence of Chan-Wook Park’s “Oldboy” (2003).

If you can stomach the violence — after all, this is an action movie about a bloody rebellion — you’ll revel in the visual surprises that await in each new train car. One features a beautiful aquarium. Another features a greenhouse. Another boasts a techno rave. And another yet serves as a candy-colored classroom, where kids sing odes to Wilford in a disturbing display of brainwashed allegiance.

Bong’s attention to detail in these futuristic sets is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). It’s so well envisioned that we want the rebels to keep advancing just so we can see what awaits in each new train car. Fittingly, the designs won best art direction at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival.

Of course, “Snowpiercer” is not for everyone. The premise may be too gimmicky for some. The images might be too bizarre. The calls for Evans to become a “leader” may be a little heavy-handed. And certain plot twists might be a little convenient. But just as Swinton says, “Everything requires the proper balance,” and somehow, the film’s elements weirdly work together for a most unique movie-going experience that is the best kept secret of the summer.

Is it really possible for a summer action blockbuster to pop with this level of artistic flair?

Maybe when hell freezes over.

Or in this case, Earth.

And so it is.

Video Review:

★ ★ ★ 1/2

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s Fraley Film Guide.

Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum, listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM and see a full list of his stories on our “Fraley on Film” page.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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