South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho's first English language production is a bold, compelling, fantastical action thriller.
When global warming was finally acknowledged as a worldwide threat, scientists sent a missile into space to lower Earth's thermostat. Instead, the device triggered another Ice Age, killing everyone except those who managed to get on board an immense bullet train that's been circling the glacial planet for 17 years.
Passengers are strictly segregated by class, and compartmentalized order within the convoy is ruthlessly enforced by a grotesquely fascistic bureaucrat (Tilda Swinton) with her armed guards. When one of the impoverished dares to complain, his arm is inserted into a porthole, frozen and amputated.
But rebellion is brewing in the slums in the back of the train, where restless Curtis (bearded Chris Evans, a.k.a. "Captain America"), encouraged by elderly, peg-legged Gilliam (John Hurt), decides to lead a guerrilla force to the front, where the train's quasi-mythical inventor, enigmatic Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris) rules in Wizard of Oz-like mystery from the engine room.
Accompanied by his loyal friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and a determined mother (Olivia Spencer) whose child has been abducted, Curtis bribes a drug-addicted security expert (Song Kang-ho) and his drug-dazed daughter/apprentice (Ko Ah-sung) to open the locked "gates" separating the railway cars by giving them Kronole, the hallucinogen they crave. As the insurgents move forward car by car, examining the self-sustaining ecosystem, one of their more memorable encounters is with a creepily cheerful schoolmarm (Alison Pill), another depicts the various luxuries enjoyed by the elite.
Based on a 1982 French graphic novel, "La Transperceneige," it's propelled by Bong Joon-ho's imaginative visuality and gripping suspense, which more than compensate for the heavy-handed, dystopian allegory. Filmed on gimbals on interconnected soundstages at Prague's Barrandov Studios in the Czech Republic for an astonishing $40 million, it's not been widely distributed because Harvey Weinstein reportedly wanted to edit out 20 minutes and Bong refused.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Snowpiercer" hurtles by with an exciting, edge-of-your-seat 8 -- a wild ride that's one of the best of the year, so far.