Fueled by implausibility, and for a good portion of the ride much better for it, Bong-Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer posits a nonstop, Earth-encircling train containing the microcosmic survivors of a society killed off by a global warming–induced deep freeze. Paced like a bullet fired round the world for its first half, the action soon flags, unable to withstand the mutinous crawl Chris Evans and Jamie Bell engineer from their dystopian steerage compartment to a first-class utopia modeled in hindsight on the past.
Half the fun of watching the film consists in counting the references to other films, none moreso than a blatant nod to the director’s own The Host, a tale of a narcoleptic, slightly addlepated father who must save his child and all of Korea from a biologically engineered monster. (It’s one of the boldest, most strikingly compassionate horror films since The Bride of Frankenstein.) The film’s stars, Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung, return as if frozen in time to play the plum roles of a drug-addict who designed the security system and his grungy daughter.
As Mason, a right-wing conductor of sorts bent on keeping those in coach from ever upgrading, Tilda Swinton merits a prequel of her own. Speaking through a set of Nutty Professor buckteeth, her chops-licking, phlegm-stalled delivery coughs up the most uniquely pitched dialect in a career defined by its vast array of unfaltering accents.
Much of the ingenuity is housed in the first half. If you’re wondering what film most influenced production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, take a hint from John Hurt, whose “Gilliam” is a nod to Brazil director Terry. The film never tops a first-act armrest-wresting spot of torture that brings together, for the first time, a frozen limb and a hammer-wielding goon. But like a fish past its expiration date, this train stinks from the head, and the closer the rebels get to the “Sacred Engine,” the more excess baggage — in the form of backstory, watered-down satire, and a predictable third-act reveal — gets thrown on the tracks.
This was almost another case of Harvey Weinstein taking a bushido blade to a film’s structure, as he did with other Asian heavyweights Tsui Hark (Zu Warriors), Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer), Zhang Yimou (Hero), and most recently Wong Kar-Wai (The Grandmaster). When TWC acquired the rights to Snowpiercer, Harvey insisted on trimming 20 minutes, leaving only the action sequences. Ho stood firm, and by way of punishment, his film will play uncut, but on only 100 screens — approximately 10 percent less than it would have, had Harvey’s editorial will been done.