Snowpiercer delivers a steampunk thriller with a message

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Directed by Bong Joon-Ho. Starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. Rated 14A.

A train pushes through glacial terrain, its ceaseless circle containing all the human activity that remains on our postapocalyptic planet. In a last-ditch attempt to forestall global warming, you see, a chemical coolant has triggered another ice age, this one without Queen Latifah.

In Snowpiercer, based on a French graphic novel, survivors have been organized along Koch-brothers lines, with the superrich enjoying fast-dwindling resources up front, a frightened middle class hanging on for dear life, and everyone else crowded into a ratty cattle car at the back. If train-as-metaphor seems a bit Holocaust-y, that’s intentional for South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-Ho, making his first multicountry effort. Bong is known for such weirdly allegorical movies as Mother and The Host, and his frequent star Song Kang-Ho shows up here as a security expert who knows all the cars. (He only speaks Korean, while all others stick to English, conveniently.)

After murkily lit scenes establishing the nastiness of this new order, the day must be saved by Captain America—okay, by Chris Evans, channelling Keanu Reeves as stoical Curtis, a crew-cutted renegade who, after 17 years in the caboose, ain’t takin’ no more. He’s egged on by a peg-legged old-timer played by John Hurt, and assisted by Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell, as a more impetuous (but nondancing) revolutionary. There’s also The Help’s Octavia Spencer, whose little boy is taken away by storm troopers who bring them their Soylent Green–like “protein blocks”.

Eventually, Curtis and rebels grab a top-one-percenter played entertainingly by Tilda Swinton, with buck teeth and a Maggie Thatcher swagger. Their journey up the train allows the director and his excellent designers to create a different set piece for each car—some violent, some kitschy, and many in a steampunk vein. (Snowpiercer was shot on sound stages at Prague’s Barrandov Studios, except for exteriors in the Austrian Alps.)

The most colourful has Alison Pill as a bubbly schoolteacher spoon-feeding propaganda to rich children. “Old-world people are friggin’ morons who got turned into Popsicles,” answers one adorable tyke. Bong hits plenty of lines like that, with idiomatic help from coscreenwriter Kelly Masterson. But the acting, aside from Swinton and a certain A-lister we meet at the end, is too wooden to make their ideas fly.

Still, you won’t soon forget a soliloquy in which one character explains the inevitable outcome of capitalism at full throttle. “Babies taste best,” he explains, a single tear rolling down his stubbled cheek.

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