Snowpiercer is what you get when a studio isn't trying to force a PG-13 rating or overly concerned with setting up spin-offs. In other words, it's a summer blockbuster done right.
Adapted from a French graphic novel by South Korean raconteur Bong Joon-ho (The Host), it's a violent, blackly comic vision of a dystopia that just so happens to be the best of the summer's big action/sci-fi movies.
In the future, a new Ice Age has killed off most of humanity. The only survivors are stuck on the train Snowpiercer, with the obscenely wealthy passengers at the front and the dirt-poor stowaways in the back. Chris Evans, free from the nobility of Captain America, plays Curtis, the reluctant leader of the rear car. He defers not just to his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) but also waits for the right moment to start the revolt, knowing he could be at the front of yet another failed overthrow.
Snowpiercer is even less subtle than last summer's Elysium "“ which I still like quite a bit "“ yet has more style and substance than that film. Its satire of actual class warfare is as cutting as the axes the rebels and guards use. (It's hard to come by bullets when you haven't been able to make a stop in 18 years.)
The cast is uniformly excellent, and it's especially great to see Octavia Spencer get her revenge by beating a guy senseless instead of serving a pie filled with poop. (Someone cast her in another action movie pronto.) Song Kang-ho "“ equally terrific in this year's The Attorney "“ also shines as the drug addict helping the rebels break the locks on every car. His motivations are murky but not in a way that would betray weak writing. The script is strong, another thing that sets it apart from other blockbusters.
Great sequence after great sequence fills up Snowpiercer, yet it's more than the sum of its parts. While its structure sometimes mimics video games, it never feels repetitive. It does occasionally dive head-first into cliché "“ yeah, there's going to be a slo-mo fight while someone tries to catch a valuable object that's falling to the ground "“ and it's social commentary is sometimes too on-the-nose, but this is still a popcorn film that has it all.