Snowpiercer ★★★½

I remember when I was a little kid my dad used to tell me stories about how my grandmother and her siblings survived the Depression. I remember him repeating variations on a sentiment she'd imparted: "Either you laugh or you cry." Well, Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer plays like that same maxim expanded on an epic scale. Its outlook is bleak and its plotting unsentimental, even among the ranks of dystopian sci-fi, yet it's loaded with macabre comedy that makes its more polemic aspects easier to swallow, even if they still burn on the way down.

The metaphor here is direct and horizontally oriented, like a side-scrolling Marxist parable. The segmented train of the film's title stands in for class warfare, while a few extra-cynical twists turn that war into a nigh-eternal closed loop. The ensemble, a goulash of accents and acting styles, is led by a few soot-stained proletarians (Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Captain America) with nothing to lose but their chains. The resistance they encounter exemplifies Bong's penchant for the absurd: foot soldiers who gut a fish before battle, a pregnant schoolteacher who's handy with automatic weapons, a god-king who's wearing pajamas and frying a steak.

These and other stray details (like the most disturbing secret recipe since Soylent Green) supply the queasy chuckle in Snowpiercer's laugh-or-you-cry dynamic. The "cry," meanwhile, lies in the film's thesis, which characterizes the human condition as a choice between mass subjugation and mass death. This may not be too much gloomier than most dime-a-dozen near-future hellscapes, but Snowpiercer does commit to it with special intensity. It even provides a pair of drug-huffing tagalongs, a father/daughter duo familiar from Bong's The Host, to comment wryly on the action's futility like a Korean Statler and Waldorf.

The film is admittedly saddled with dollops of clunky dialogue and implausibilities that strain the suspension of disbelief. (I balked when characters exchanged gunfire through the windows of distant, moving cars.) But these hindrances don't diminish so much as complicate the film's perversely un-Hollywood flavor. Snowpiercer could've been merely hulking and generic, but instead it's clever, shaggy, berserk, pouring its nihilism down your throat like a shot of vodka chased with a protein bar.

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