Snowpiercer is a movie about an apocalyptic dystopia set on a train. As fundamentally ridiculous as the idea sounds, the film works fairly well, both as a science fiction thriller and a modern parable about the dangers of runaway capitalism. Set at a time after an attempt to counteract global climate change has triggered a Snowball Earth phenomenon that kills all life, the surviving humans have been packed onto a supertrain that is unaffected by the weather. It was designed to perpetually operate in all conditions, from the Sahara to Siberia. A rigid class system keeps the deprived poor passengers in the back of the train separated from the privileged wealthy passengers in the front.
Chris Evans (Captain America) stars as Curtis Everett, a poor passenger with a plan to take over the train by capturing the engine, and the mysterious Wilford (Ed Harris), who designed the train and keeps it running. When two children are taken from his group, and the father of one of those children is punished for throwing a shoe (by having his arm frozen through exposure to the 100 below zero environment and shattered with a giant mallet) the group accelerates the plan for their revolution. The key to reaching the front of the train is a prisoner named Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who has specialized knowledge of the locked gates between train cars. Breaking through far enough on their own to rescue him and his daughter, he helps the group advance in exchange for an addictive narcotic.
Snowpiercer is more than a little heavy handed and ‘on the nose’ about its depiction of an oppressive class system. The train clearly symbolizes a capitalist economy, chugging along without regard for the people who are chewed up by the processes that keep it moving. The rich ‘one percenters,’ who live in luxury and are free to indulge themselves in all kinds perverse pleasure, practically worship the ‘engine’ and Wilford. Like many with blind faith in capitalism, Wilford thinks he is in control, even of Everett’s revolution, but can’t see the disaster that is coming right at him. The film features solid direction, interesting visuals and strong performances (particularly Evans, Harris, John Hurt as Gilliam, Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason and Alison Pill in a brief but brilliant role as Teacher). Snowpeircer is one of those rare science fiction films that manages to balance action and violence with a thoughtful commentary on human society, potentially giving it a broader appeal than big budget noisemakers like Transformers: Age of Extinction.