By 2032, a stratospherical aerosol injection deployed to stop global warming had gone tragically wrong and a new ice age was in effect. The remnants of the human race ride a circumnavigating train called the Snowpiercer around and around the frozen world. It is run by the reclusive transportation magnate Wilford (Ed Harris), who rides in the lead car, followed by the upper-class passengers, and the poor are trapped in the tail cars, controlled by armed guards.
Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) and his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell), egged on by Gilliam (John Hurt), lead a revolt of the tail passengers when they realize the guards have no bullets in their guns, having used them all to quell a previous revolt. They free Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), the Korean security specialist who helped design the train. He insists that his clairvoyant daughter Yona (Ko Asung) be freed too. The revolutionaries press forward but face guards with melee weapons, led by the evil Minister Mason (a wonderful Tilda Swinton).
The train goes into a tunnel during the battle and is plunged into darkness. The guards have night vision technology and get the upper hand, but a counterattack comes from the tail with torches. Edgar is taken hostage, but Curtis abandons him to capture Minister Mason and forces her to order the guards to surrender. Edgar is fatally stabbed. The tail army holds the guards while Curtis takes Mason, Namgoong, Yona, a skilled fighter named Grey (Luke Pasqualino) and a couple named Tanya and Andrew (Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner), looking for their kidnapped children, all move on toward the front of the train. Namgoon and Yona notice a landmark outside and think the ice may be thawing.
The group travels through more opulent cars. In a schoolroom, the children are being taught about Wilford’s greatness. A bald man (Tomas Lemarquis) appears with eggs to celebrate the train’s 18th circumnavigation of the Earth. There are bullets hidden in the eggs and he arms the guards against the tail army. Minister Mason’s sadistic henchman Franco (Vlad Ivanov) is freed. The teacher (Alison Pill) kills Andrew and is killed by Grey. Franco kills Gilliam and Curtis kills Minister Mason, then Franco kills Grey and Tanya, who makes Curtis vow to rescue her son Timmy. Franco is taken out by Curtis and Namgoong. They move onward.
In the car before the engine, Namgoong reveals that the drug Kronole he has been demanding as payment is an explosive to be used in a plan to escape the train with Yona. Curtis stops them from destroying the train because he wants to confront Wilford, to demand why he created this heatless closed ecosystem. The engine door opens and Wilford’s assistant Claude (Emma Levie) wounds Namgoong and invites Curtis inside. Curtis meets Wilford and learns that his own rebellion was staged by Wilford to help Wilford reduce the population in the rear cars. Franco comes to, moves forward, and attacks Namgoong, but meets his end.
Wilford offers his job to Curtis, who is thinking about it when Yona overpowers Claude, rushes in, and reveals Andrew’s and Tanya’s children, Andy and Timmy, beneath the floorboards working the engine as slaves. Curtis is appalled and knocks out Wilford to rescue them. Andy crawls back into the engine, but Timmy is spirited away. Curtis gives Yona matches to light the fuse and she blows the side out of the car, causing an avalanche that wrecks the train. Yona escapes the wreckage with Timmy and they see a polar bear, indicating that life is returning to the world.
Snowpiercer was directed by Korean director Bong Joon-ho of The Host fame, written by him and Kelly Masterson, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. It was a South Korean-Czech coproduction. A little surprisingly, this bizarre film received critical acclaim and was on many film critics’ top ten lists. It was one of the most expensive Korean films of all time, and it did have a hell of a cast. It was shot in the Czech Republic and Hungary and took seven years to get done. A hundred tons of train, 328 feet long, was mounted on gimbals to rock realistically, and the energy of the train’s movement kept the movie going forward at a fast pace. Costumes, set-design, and art-design were a triumph. Little CGI was used.
Harvey Weinstein insisted that 25 minutes be cut to make it less psychological and more action-oriented, and he wanted a voiceover at the end, because he thought American audiences were too stupid to understand it. I will admit that the USA was the only country in which it was not a hit. When Weinstein insisted on cutting the fish scene, director Bong lied and said it was to honor his fisherman father, and Weinstein let it stay because he was such a family man. Anyway, test audiences preferred the original cut, so that one was released. It still gets 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In contrast to the usual syndrome, Chris Evans had to hide his perfect physique to play a character who does not get enough food. John Hurt found it hard to act with one leg tied behind his back. Tilda Swinton prepared to play the villain by studying monstrous, clownish dictators throughout history. She said her character was a combination of Margaret Thatcher, Colonel Gaddafi, Adolf Hitler, and Silvio Berlusconi. The drawings in the tail section were made by Jean-Marc Rochette, who drew the original comic-book.