Rumor has it that when South Korean director Bong Joon Ho decided to adapt the graphic novel La Transperceneige, what attracted him most wasn't the potential for action or the text's overarching social commentary, but the setting. Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a transcontinental train. From car to car, tail to engine, we find society represented in miniature; the remaining population of a now frozen Earth bound to an extreme class structure. They circle the globe once a year, never disembarking. At the head, the engine's godlike creator shrouds himself in mystery. He's built an arc, and on it collected a traveling show of civilization's political nightmares.
In his wake, each car plays a role in an intricate, life-supporting system. The wealthy ride towards the front with their clubs, spas, and gardens. The unlucky bring up the rear, packed like sardines into a rolling tenement. Here they feed on gelatinous protein bars, bound together by circumstance as they're mercilessly controlled, counted, and picked off without reason. Many of them have missing limbs, some have been separated from their children, all are caked in dirt and on the verge of revolution.
The improbability of the self-sustaining engine is part of Snowpiercer's beauty, and one Bong Joon Ho clearly understands as a type of character; a true mechanical god for the characters on board. The fact of the train, of the constant forward momentum, the things it contains, the spaces it opens up and decisions it necessitates, are what makes the film a truly special work of dystopian science fiction. Rules matter more than they might in open spaces. Continuity matters, progress matters, and world-building becomes inseparable from the story.
So, Snowpiercer has Brazil in its blood, and as the contrivances of its opening minutes give way, the shape of what the film morphs. Injustice reads clearly in Snowpiercer, and the film has a way with cutting to the core of humanitarian tragedy in a way more startling than an war crime bit of realism. While we're provided with that gut-punching read of what's right and wrong, though, the ethics of the train are as gray as the cinematography.
When Kang-ho Song takes the screen with the last of the cigarettes, the characters around him breathe in deeply as though they'd all once been in need of a nicotine fix. The smell of the smoke is a kind of nostalgia, a reminder of past stupid trifles and self-destructive luxuries. This registers on screen. It's a sad moment, but a funny one too. In a cigarette, we feel a sense of communal loss, and as we push forward car after car, the real losses read all the more strongly. While the final act of Snowpiercer isn't perfect, what it attempts is something staggering. The fight isn't clear, the outcome isn't clear, the best case scenario isn't the best case, and we find ourselves face to face with the ways we're writing our own downfall. Humanity is to blame for everything in Snowpiercer, and though in a sense the film is a tragedy its triumphs make it something truly special.
This is what summer movies should be. This is what a blockbuster should look like. This is what happens when you have faith in your audience's ability to think. If you can see it in a theater: do it. Movies like this aren't made for streaming.