By on July 8, 2014

Every now and then a film comes along that’s a game-changer in its respective genre. “Snowpiercer” is certainly one of those films. Post-apocalyptic/dystopian future-themed films and television shows are all the rage right now, with a reboot/continuation of the classic “Mad Max” on the way from the original’s creator George Miller and another installment in the massively-successful “Hunger Games” series due later this year; and shows like “The 100,” “Defiance,” Dominion” and “Revolution” achieving varying degrees of success with the theme on the small screen.

Just last month, I reviewed another, admittedly only so-so thriller of this ilk, “The Rover,” and the magazine Entertainment Weekly just did a massive 22-page spread cover story on the subgenre. If anything, we’re dangerously approaching the tipping point with such things, a la zombies and vampires as of late.

Be that as it may, nothing should make you miss out on the dazzling “Snowpiercer,” which is truly an apocalyptic film like no other. For one thing, it takes place entirely on a train, which is novel in and of itself. I can only think of a few movies, period, that fit that bill off the top of my head: the cult classic slasher flick “Terror Train” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” There’s also “Strangers on a Train,” but it doesn’t entirely take place on said train- ditto “Throw Mama from the Train.” That’s about it, though feel free to add your suggestions below.

Even those films have nothing on “Snowpiercer,” though, which boasts an entire class system on its particular choo-choo. To wit: after an effort to combat climate change disastrously ends in the world literally freezing over, the only survivors are those onboard a non-stop train that circumvents the globe. Over time, a class system evolves, with the have-nots in the back and the haves up front, living it up, comparatively speaking. As the film unfolds, the people in the back stage a rebellion in order to make it to the front and overthrow those in charge.

Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ewen Bremner and Octavia Spencer explore the wild world of "Snowpiercer." Courtesy of

Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ewen Bremner and Octavia Spencer explore the wild world of “Snowpiercer.”
Courtesy of

That’s really about it, plot-wise, but the beauty of the film is in the staging. As the group of rebels- led by “Captain America” himself, Chris Evans- make their way up front, the grungy, industrial confines of the back give way to the luxurious spaces of the front, complete with a disco, hot tubs, a school, a posh dining car, and so on.

It’s kind of reminiscent of the Poe story “The Masque of Red Death,” only instead of each room being a different color, each train car instead has a different theme. As such, what starts as a depressing look at cringe-inducing poverty, all gloom and doom and rot, eventually gives way to light and color, as the survivors of the rebellion reach ever-further along the seemingly-endless corridors of the train, one section at a time. Along the way, they run into various teams of security, equipped with all sorts of nasty methods at their disposal to stifle the rebellion.

In addition to Evans, the film features an impressive cast that also includes Ed Harris (“The Truman Show,” in what likely made him the perfect choice for this role) as the leader Wilford; Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”), and Ewen Bremner (“Trainspotting”) as members of the rebellion; and John Hurt as Gilliam, who helped plan the rebellion. Song Kang-Ho (“The Good, The Bad, and The Weird”) co-stars as the man who designed the doors that separate each car, who was being held prisoner in order to help stifle any rebellions, as he is the only one who knows how to open them. In exchange for bringing along his daughter, Yona (Go Ah-Sung) and a steady supply of the drug he’s addicted to, he agrees to help the rebels.

Also cropping up are a near-unrecognizable Tilda Swinton (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) as Mason, the go-between for the front and the back, who the rebels take hostage in order to help them get that much further along the train; and Alison Pill (“The Newsroom”) as a teacher who might be more than she seems on the decidedly docile surface.

Non-stop trains in the apocalypse need schools, too!  Courtesy of

Non-stop trains in the post-apocalypse need schools, too!
Courtesy of

The film is based on a French graphic novel, and directed by the visionary South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho, who previously re-invented the monster movie with the excellent “The Host” (not to be confused with the more recent American film of the same name, from author Stephenie Meyer) and also got international critical acclaim for his works “Memories of Murder” and “Mother,” all of which are well-worth seeing as well. It’s worth mentioning that two of his stars here, Kang-Ho and Ah-Sung, also starred in some of Bong’s previous efforts, so he’s loyal as well. This is his first film primarily in English, and if this is the sort of thing we can expect from Bong, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Honestly, I’ve never quite seen anything like this before and I highly doubt I ever will again. It manages to be gritty, raw and real; but also visually arresting and unique in every way to look at. Dystopian thrillers may be in vogue, but “Snowpiercer” is a cut above most films of this type, and in a league of its own, both in its unique vision and in its overall execution. Bong is definitely a filmmaker to watch, and it makes me happy that he was able to get so many well-known stars to take a cut in their usual paychecks to participate in something so left-of-center.

You won’t soon forget it, so see it while you can, as films of this stripe don’t typically last long in theaters, least of all around here. It gets an easy “A+”- the easiest I’ve given all year, in fact. This is one train you’re going to want to buy a ticket to ride, even if the journey isn’t always an easy one to watch.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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