Snowpiercer's opening titles quietly foreshadow the simmering class tensions that boil over during its most violent set pieces. In a significant departure from most films, the first names to appear on the screen are not the names of actors and actresses; the hair, make-up, and costume designers are given top billing instead, and the names of the casting directors, editors, cinematographers, and screenwriters follow.
But, as usual, the director's name appears last. With his first English-language feature, Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) and his aforementioned crew give this infernal machine plenty of juice to blast through the sociological, scientific, and allegorical snow drifts that occasionally threaten to derail it.
Snowpiercer is set in the year 2031, when, thanks to a dimwitted, Cat's Cradle-like deployment of a universal cooling agent, "the world is frozen" and "all life became extinct." Except, that is, for the folks onboard the eponymous train, which has been circling the globe on a continents-spanning railway for the past 17 years. A rigid social structure has emerged during that time; the higher-ups occasionally appear to mete out justice, abduct children, and sanctify their cruelty by reminding everyone of the unimaginable frozen hardships beyond the walls.
Chris Evans — that's right, Captain America himself — plays Curtis, the brooding, reluctant leader of a peasant revolt that aims to take over the train. As his multiple-amputee mentor Gilliam (John Hurt, the acting world's equivalent to a primary-growth forest) wheezes, "We control the engine, we control the world." To do that, though, they have to travel the entire length of the train. It should go without saying that many obstacles await them.
After they enlist an imprisoned safety engineer (Kang-ho Song) and his clairvoyant daughter (Ah-sung Ko) to help them open the manifold gates separating the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, Snowpiercer unfolds like a bellicose, Marx-versus-Ayn Rand version of Super Mario Bros., perfect for boys and men aching for crunchy-sounding cruelties topped with semi-coherent speechifying about determinism, the social order, and general human beastliness.
After a while, the film grows both more horrifying and more grotesque. Human depravity hangs from all the rungs of the social ladder, and the closer Curtis and company get to the front of the train, the more demented the people appear. Prolonged carnage erupts in an elementary school classroom and a golden-yellow steam room, but it's almost a shock when the distracted revelers from the 24-Hour Party People compartment wake up and try to reclaim their place at the front.
Through it all courses a campy humor that shows up in its dialogue and snappy editing; its broad, slashing satirical strokes repeatedly interrupt its crawling, unblinking horizontal progress. A claustrophobic battle with a gang of butchers in ski masks is set up by a winking cut from a panicked young girl to an old salt who's seen it all, and many of the expository asides ("If we ever go outside the train WE ALL FREEZE AND DIE!") are delivered with the stilted half-seriousness found in poorly dubbed martial-arts flicks. Overall, though, Snowpiercer is the kind of fully committed adult-themed nonsense that hardly stops to look at other summer blockbusters before running them down.