South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s first English language feature, adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, is the latest in a spate of recent ‘class-conscious’ sci-fi thrillers.

Like The Hunger Games and Elysium, Snowpiercer posits a post-apocalyptic future in which an amoral elite lives in outlandish luxury at the expense of a wretched underclass.

After a bungled attempt to halt global warming inadvertently triggers a new ice age, the last remnants of humanity are forced to live on a perpetually moving train that laps the globe on a high-altitude monorail.

Presided over by its designer, the enigmatic Mr Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s compartments are divided along strict class lines: while the inhabitants of the front carriages dine on steaks and sushi, those in the tail section huddle together in squalor, subsisting on protein blocks and routinely brutalised by armed guards.

Encouraged by his elder mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), reluctant revolutionary Curtis (Chris Evans) leads the ‘tail-dwellers’ in a violent revolt, storming carriage after carriage in a bid to reach the engine room and seize power from Mr Wilford.

As they push through the train in a series of brutal clashes with armed heavies, the Snowpiercer is revealed as a society in microcosm, complete with Orwellian indoctrination and its own elaborate ecosystem.

Once you’ve come to terms with the daft premise and the crudeness of its political allegory, Snowpiercer is an unhinged joy, its ultra-violent set pieces hurtling across the screen with an unstoppable momentum. It looks stunning – its dimly lit, graphite tones bursting into vibrant splashes of colour as we reach the surreal tableau of greenhouses and aquariums in the train’s upper tiers. With a retro-futurist aesthetic recalling the work of Jean-Pierre Juenet (Delicatessen, Micmacs), the film is steeped in the language of graphic novels and full of references to recent dystopian video games like Bioshock and Fallout 3.

Hanging up his Captain America costume, Evans gives a solid performance as the grizzled Curtis, with fine support from the ever-capable Jamie Bell and superb work from Korean actor Kang-ho Song as a drug-addled security officer charged with unlocking the doors between the carriages.

But it’s Tilda Swinton, almost unrecognizable as the sinister propagandist Minister Mason, who steals the show – a grotesquely comic pantomime monster sporting a prosthetic nose, dentures and bottle-rimmed glasses: “All things flow from the Sacred Engine,” she intones in her thick Yorkshire accent, exhorting the tail-dwellers to “Know your place, keep your place.”

Once the barricades have been stormed, Joon-ho steers the story into a meditation on the way power co-opts and diffuses revolutionary impulses.  While it may not be subtle, the metaphor is elastic enough to encompass contemporary concerns like child labour alongside conspicuous visual references to 20th century atrocities, from Holocaust cattle cars to Soviet Gulags.

Ultimately though, the political parable is secondary to the sheer verve and wit of Joon-ho’s direction, which combines the hyper-kinetic energy of East Asian cinema with a compelling human drama and audacious surrealist touches.

 

 

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