Chris Evans struck box-office gold with his latest Captain America film this year, but his other recent comic book film is equally entertaining. Based on an obscure French graphic novel, Snowpiercer imagines a post-apocalyptic world that has frozen over, trapping all human survivors on a huge train on a perpetual voyage around the world. Much like Speed, if their transport drops below a certain speed, they’ll all die, but in this case it’s due to the extreme cold outside rather than any explosives. The train has a rigid class system, with the poor huddled masses in the rear and the aristocrats up front, leading to occasional class strife. The leader and creator of the train is a shadowy man named Wallace that none of the lower class have ever seen, but all believe he has the power to change their destinies, much like the mythical Wizard of Oz.
Evans is a scruffy rebel named Curtis, tired of life in the dismal rear and ready to storm the cushy front cars. With the help of his friends and key assistance from a drugged-out lock builder, their revolution gains some traction as they battle their way to the front. Along the way, they encounter resistance in the form of a deliriously batty government rep named Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her armed goons, but there’s never any doubt that Curtis and his gang will successfully reach their destination. As directed by Bong Joon Ho (The Host), the film successfully mines the concept of a doomed humanity that somehow finds the hope to keep up their daily struggle to survive.
The plot of the original comic is largely intact, albeit with additional and better-defined characters. The only major deviation is in the final act, as the film version jettisons the original Twilight Zone-esque encounter with the creator in favor of a new rumination on the nature of power that finds Curtis questioning the very foundation of his beliefs. Both endings are effective, but the film version by Ho and co-writer Kelly Masterson is a deft expansion of the original concept that is clearly a better choice for the format. Overall, where the comic at times felt as hollow as its cylindrical namesake, the film narrative expertly improves on its source material, making it a rare case of the movie that is better than its book.
While most of the film is confined to the dreary rear cars and the pristine engine compartment, it’s worth noting the film’s exquisitely crafted production design that allows the ragtag crew to venture through ornate cars that are only glimpsed momentarily but leave lasting impressions, such as aquarium, garden, sauna, classroom, and even dance club cars. The level of detail drives home the concept of a successful self-contained ecosystem, as well as the distinct class divisions between compartments.
The Blu-ray package is stuffed with so many bonus features that they’re compiled on a second disc, making for a Criterion level of goodness. The key feature is an insightful hour-long documentary that tracks the genesis of the project from its earliest comic book days through to the filming of the movie, including interviews with surviving comic book artist Jean-Marc Rochette and the film’s key players. There’s also an intriguing animated prologue to the film that explains the origins of the Earth’s apocalypse and the train, a welcome addition for viewers interested in how the survivors ended up in their predicament. Elsewhere, Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton discuss their involvement with the film, and lush concept art galleries reveal the origins of the film’s winning production design. Finally, a throwaway feature tracks a promotional outdoor screening of the film by Alamo Drafthouse theaters that shuttled Texas viewers to the film via train.