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Movie Review: Stylish ‘Snowpiercer’ is a post-apocalyptic dazzler

John Hurt (from left), Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in
John Hurt (from left), Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in "Snowpiercer."

‘Snowpiercer’
★★★ 1/2

The future is miserably dystopian as usual in this apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, but at least it’s thoughtful, stylishly crafted, high-speed misery that keeps on hurtling relentlessly forward — even though there’s nowhere to go.

Based on a French graphic novel and the film, his first in English, is by South Korea’s Joon-ho Bong, (best known for his monster movie rave-up “The Host,”). “Snowpiercer” takes place in 2031, 17 years after the world as we know it ended. Right about now, apparently.

A botched attempt to reverse the effects of global warming has resulted in a new, flash-freeze Ice Age. And the last remnants of mankind have boarded a very long, very fast bullet train that circles the world once a year, crashing through snow and ice on the tracks.

It’s not a bad situation for the wealthy passengers in First Class, who live a life of decadent luxury. Not so for the poor folks, however, jammed into squalid, windowless cars at the rear of the train like steerage passengers in the Titanic. They subsist on mysterious, gelatinous “protein blocks,” endure abuse at the hands of armed guards and every so often have their children taken from them by force. Revolutions have erupted, and failed, in the past and the time has come for another attempt.

“Captain America’s” Chris Evans (barely recognizable with beard, watch cap and grime) leads the attack as Curtis, helping the proletariat fight their way, car by car, toward the Eternal Engine — and control of the train.

There’s also a familiar supporting cast of heroes and villains including John Hurt as Curtis’s aged, one-armed mentor (many of the poorer passengers are missing a limb for nasty reasons), Octavia Spencer as a righteous mom hoping to find her missing son, Jamie Bell as Curtis’s hero-worshipping protégé and Ed Harris as the mostly unseen billionaire who designed the train and controls their fate.

There’s a standout performance from Tilda Swinton as the frumpy, buck-toothed, schoolmarmish bureaucratic bully who enforces the social order on “this train of life.” If this were a South Korean production, however, the extra-charismatic Kang-ho Song (a veteran of three previous Bong films), here playing an imprisoned, drug-addicted security expert who joins the cause, most likely would have been leading the charge through the train.

It’s a grimly exhilarating charge, viscerally and intellectually, no matter who’s in the lead. The rolling rebellion is increasingly violent, increasingly surreal and shot through with radical political allegory — ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek. Bong’s films have always been dark, but they’ve also always had comic touches and “Snowpiercer” is no exception. Swinton makes that obvious as soon as she appears on screen.

That’s good news, but there’s something even better. Bong, above all, is a world-class visual stylist and he proves that again here with a few dazzling flourishes, despite “Snowpiercer’s” dismal gray palette and train-bound claustrophobia. I’m thinking of one scene in particular, when he takes time during a battle to observe a single snowflake drifting through a bullet hole in a window.

Taking time for an artful grace note in the middle of a full-tilt action movie? That’s really radical.

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