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updated: 7/3/2014 8:15 AM

'Snowpiercer' a mind-blowing visual class struggle

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  • Mason (Tilda Swinton), center, is taken prisoner by rebel leader Curtis (Chris Evans), left, and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), right, in "Snowpiercer."

      Mason (Tilda Swinton), center, is taken prisoner by rebel leader Curtis (Chris Evans), left, and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), right, in "Snowpiercer."

  • Video: "Snowpiercer" trailer

 
 

Bong Joon-ho's bleakly futuristic drama "Snowpiercer" is a mindblower.

A cracked-out, constantly surprising visionary work of extraordinary power and intelligence, plus gut-wrenching violence of the first order.

The only movie that I can compare it to would be Peter Greenaway's once-X-rated 1989 masterpiece "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," a political allegory that takes place inside a French restaurant, a microcosm of the world ruled with impunity by a cultured thug.

The political allegory "Snowpiercer" takes place inside a super train, a microcosm of the world ruled by a never-seen Oz-like inventor named Wilford.

In a concise introduction, we witness how humanity has overreacted to global warming by seeding the planet with cooling chemical enzymes that wind up plunging Earth into another Ice Age.

Wilford, reportedly a billionaire industrialist, had the foresight to build an amazing super train powered by a perpetual energy engine that travels around the world over and over, smashing through ice and snow on the tracks.

Inside, the last remaining humans have been assigned cars according to their status: rich people at the head of the train, poor people in the back.

Among the destitute have-nots, Curtis ("Captain America" himself, Chris Evans, almost unrecognizable) appears to be the smartest and most rebellious.

After reading mysterious notes concealed in an icky food substance called "protein bars," Curtis, consulting with his wizened mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), leads a revolt to take the train from the ruling classes.

First, Curtis must free a Korean security expert named Minsu (Song Kang-ho) from the prison car so he can help break the locks between cars. He's fairly reliable for someone addicted to the powerful drug kronole, as is his daughter (Ko Asung).

Earlier revolts, we discover, have been met with disaster, but the have-nots are so desperate and angry they slowly make their way through one train car after another, encountering horrific bloodshed at the weapons of Wilford's fascist storm troopers, dedicated to keeping the upper classes safe.

Each train car is a production design Academy Award level world unto itself with its own custom colors and functions. (The swimming pool car is a gas, as is the engine room.) It's like "The Cook, the Thief," in which each room at the huge restaurant had its own decor and color scheme.

The wonderful Tilda Swinton appears to have great fun as a cartoony minion named Mason, Wilford's official spokeswoman with a cheap dental plan and big, dopey eye glasses.

Octavia Spencer plays a rear-car mother frantically searching for her son -- taken by the storm troopers for reasons we do not yet comprehend -- with soulful seriousness.

Alison Pill's polite and prim schoolteacher would fit perfectly in any movie based on a Stephen King story. Ed Harris caps the movie with a performance that is much better appreciated without knowing anything about it.

"Snowpiercer" represents a real jump for Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, whose earlier "The Host" resurrected the spirit of those classic monster movies from 1950s Hollywood.

Here, he uses a never-ending train to symbolize humanity's inability to move forward on matters of climate change and the treatment of people.

It's a bleak, shocker of a movie, but one laced with just enough black humor to make the harsher parts even bleaker.

"Snowpiercer" opens at the Music Box, Chicago. Rated R for drug use, language, violence. 126 minutes. ★ ★ ★ ★

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