The term "game changer" is thrown around way too frequently in just about every context imaginable, and particularly in reference to sci-fi films. Only rarely is the term applied without hyperbole. Metropolis was a game changer. 2001 was a game changer. Star Wars. The Matrix. Many critics referred to Avatar as a game changer (this one included) but aside from some definite technological advancement (particularly in the realm of 3-D) those labels have faded. Snowpiercer has certainly been the recipient of such effusive praise. This criminally under seen and barely distributed gem is hardly a game changer. It is, however, a great film, and one of the most exciting science fiction films in years.
In the near future, an attempt to combat climate change by dispersing chemicals in the upper atmosphere backfires, sending the world into a new ice age. With most life on Earth extinguished the small remaining remnant of humanity survives on a high tech train that constantly travels around the globe. The rich, affluent minority lives in the front of the train, while the majority live in squalor and constant hunger in the rear. An inevitable revolt begins, led by the stoic Curtis (Chris Evans). A reluctant leader, Curtis and a small group of freedom fighters fight their way forward through the train. Their goal is the engine, and the mysterious Wilford, the eccentric industrialist who built the train.
One might think that a film that takes place entirely in a train's interior would run out of steam (pardon the pun) rather quickly, but director Bong Joon-Ho makes strengths out of what might be limitations in the hands of less capable director. Using the limited space he crafts magnificently choreographed set pieces, particularly a battle in a cramped train car between the rebels and an army of blade wielding stormtroopers. It is violent, bloody, and one of the most exciting scenes in recent memory. The action is top notch, and more thrilling than anything Michael Bay has done in the last decade with unlimited budgets and computer animation.
There is much more to the film than action. The screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson creates layered and well drawn characters that resonate with the audience. We become deeply invested in these characters. This is also due in no small part to the actors. Chris Evans continues to prove he has levels of talent that go beyond Captain America. The rest of the cast is top notch, particularly John Hurt as the wise old spiritual leader of the resistance and Octavia Spencer as a mother trying to rescue her small child from the front of the train. Tilda Swinton has the most fun as Mason, the androgynous, bucktoothed mouthpiece for the totalitarian regime controlling the train; her character is a self-righteous fascist/Ayn Randian hybrid that steals every scene she's in.
The film wears it's sociopolitical heart on its sleeve; the parallels between today's conflict between the ninety-nine and one-percenters and this dystopic society's haves and have-nots is taken to their logical conclusion. Snowpiercer is an inspired and original piece of sci-fi cinema that contains echoes of all the greats that came before, both in film and other media. It reminded me of nothing more so in theme and aesthetic than Bioshock, arguable the greatest video game ever made. Snowpiercer pays homage without being derivative, and deals with issues both deeply personal and universal. It's a tremendous film.