Movie Review: ‘Snowpiercer’ succeeds as thoughtful action film

It’s 2031, and misguided efforts to combat global warming have plunged the planet into permanent winter, wiping out virtually everything alive.

The only survivors live on a massive, self-sustaining train that circles the globe once a year. Those who run it – specifically its creator, the mysterious Wilford – have imposed a rigorous class system: The poor are cramped and miserable at the rear, while the affluent enjoy steaks, saunas and swimming pools at the front.

That’s the premise of “Snowpiercer,” a beautifully crafted and utterly unique piece of summer entertainment.

Focused on a rebellion in which peasants try to reach the engine, it’s one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films. I don’t read other reviews before penning my own, but I hope these aren’t the same writers who look down on big-budget blockbusters because of their silliness.

The science in “Snowpiercer” is frankly ludicrous. The train has an aquarium? It can ram its way through vast mounds of rock-like ice with impunity? Its massive infrastructure has survived 17 years of freezing cold with no repairs? And surely a few humans would have found some way to survive on the outside!

The film also shoves its caste-system allegory down your throat; yet like its titular subject, “Snowpiercer” plows right through the absurdity and occasional preachiness thanks to flawless production values in every category: A subtle and clever score by Marco Beltrami; spellbinding cinematography; meticulous sound design; careful alternation between chaos and quietude; fight scenes that are brilliantly choreographed, one in slow-motion, another in darkness (jarringly violent, these are nonetheless fairly restrained in terms of actual gore); and a superb cast.

Chris Evans plays rebel leader Curtis, the sort of down-and-dirty blue-collar bulldog patented by Bruce Willis; the clean-cut, twinkly-eyed star of “Captain America” vanishes so thoroughly into this brutal, charismatic hero that he’s virtually unrecognizable.

Excellent support is provided by John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung – the latter two as a father-daughter team that knows how to get past the train’s security system.

I must say, however, that I still can’t figure out why Tilda Swinton is held in such high regard by critics and film fans. I have yet to see a single performance from her that didn’t feel stiff and artificial – and this one is worse than most.

Ed Harris, however, is so perfectly cast that he elevates the final half-hour to almost classical brilliance. After an impressive career as the quintessential supporting actor, can someone please give the man an Oscar in that category? I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.

And speaking of the ending: “Snowpiercer’s” climax is another of its strengths, with keen suspense and nifty surprises playing up the class-struggle theme; but the very end is profoundly disappointing, failing to tie up a number of loose ends.

Nevertheless, this film is a true original – intelligent and exciting, a genuine “thinking-man’s action movie” along the lines of “The Matrix,” “District 9” and “Runaway Train.”

3 1/2 stars out of 4.

Rated R for violence, language and drug content.