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.