There's a reason why Snowpiercer — which could have, theoretically, easily been a centerpiece summer film for a major Hollywood studio — is getting handled by the industry with the timid kid gloves of an arthouse release. It has a lot to do with what the film has to say about human nature, hope, despotism and a revolutionary spirit that might want to counter that despotism. What Snowpiercer is about offers too harsh a condemnation of the powers that be, of which Hollywood is but one arm.
At first glance, Snowpiercer seems to bear a strong resemblance to plenty of other films in a genre popular and mainstream at the moment: an uprising in the science-fiction dystopia, including Divergent, V for Vendetta and especially The Hunger Games. Here, it's 2031, 17 years since the last remnants of humanity began huddling together for survival on a sort of supertrain that circumnavigates the world once a year, never stopping. Planet Earth is otherwise dead, rendered a frozen wasteland by an experiment to cool the atmosphere to fix global warming that did the job too well. The train — which literally pierces enormous snowdrifts on the tracks — is a closed ecosystem, providing air, water, food, shelter and warmth. Life is not possible outside the train.
In squalid rear cars, people are treated like cattle, subsisting on protein bars that look like molded feces, seemingly randomly abused by soldiers and swells visiting from the front, where it's clearly much nicer. Discontent always swirls, and it's reaching a head again. (There are allusions to failed past revolutions.) With the support of the rear cars' nominal leader, Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis (Chris Evans) has a new plan for revolt to get to the engine up front, because there's no political power on the train without, you know, controlling the power power that keeps it moving.
If that sounds familiar — the Western nations aren't actually occupying oil-producing lands out of a desire to bring schools and hospitals to poor brown people — that's not an accident. The train is a microcosm for our larger world of limited and contracting resources that has somehow resulted not in those resources being shared around evenly and fairly, but in striking class divisions and massive inequalities. You will be unsurprised to hear that Curtis' plan has some success, and that as he and his band of angry friends work their way forward on the train, they encounter an almost endless array of unimaginable luxuries the front-of-the-train people have been enjoying. You may be surprised, based on what mainstream versions of this story tell us, at how bitter the lessons are: about the high price of leadership, the appalling ironies of what it takes to fix an unfair system, and the awful truth of what happens to revolutionaries even if they win.
Screenwriter (with Kelly Masterson) and director Joon-ho Bong brings in bleak humor to lighten his tale: naming a main character Gilliam is almost certainly an homage to the filmmaker from whom Snowpiercer gets its visual inspiration and dark wit. (It's based on the early-'80s graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, but the film's plot and characters appear to be quite different.) And there's much to cheer in how this cast looks more like a cross-section of humanity than is typically seen in a big sci-fi flick: Among Curtis' soldiers are more white guys, including Jamie Bell and Ewen Bremner, but also Octavia Spencer and two Koreans, Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song. Among the villains is Tilda Swinton as a sniveling front-of-the-train monster.
In the end, the story's still hauntingly grim. If Snowpiercer goes about its sci-fi uprising more brutally than the usual fare — there's physical violence and psychological punches — we realize the rise of tween-friendly Hollywood dystopia is, in fact, a symptom of the sociopolitical mindset the film is criticizing. Abandon most hope, ye who enter Snowpiercer. This is most definitely not the feel-good movie of the summer.