Snowpiercer is the absolute best thing.

Okay, so Snowpiercer isn't literally the absolute best, obviously, but it's the kind of film which exists on a plain of such energy and madness that it inspires such an all-in response even if it's stupid. Incidentally, the last movie I saw that made me feel the same "that's the absolute best thing" impulse, for mostly the same reasons, even though I knew that it of course wasn't the best, or even close to the best, was Cloud Atlas. So my take on the film should probably be taken with a hefty ol' grain of salt.

Basically, Snowpiercer is a great, giddy mess of a film, one that picks up as many ideas as it can manage to hold and runs with them as far and fast as it can until it completely blows out. It's the most blunt, anti-nuanced allegory that cinema has produced in years (allegories not being terribly much in fashion at the moment), and its commitment that allegory is so complete that for whatever failures of logic and storytelling structure the movie evinces - and there are failures on both fronts - it's really hard to argue that it ever wanted to succeed as a conventional piece of storytelling anyway. Which has nothing to do with anything, but when one bumps around on the internet and encounters the people raising issues about how the tracks were built, or whatever, one starts to get intensely crabby, in the "were you even slightly interested in actually watching the movie?" sense.

So anyway, Snowpiercer, which I don't think is actually the given name of the train which features so prominently in the plot, but we can still pretty clearly refer to the train as being the titular character, even so. The film sets out its backstory with such intense economy of language and image that I think it would be hard to blame somebody for not catching it: in 2014, an experiment to counteract global warming goes terribly wrong, and the entire surface of Earth is plunged into unlivable, demonic cold. All the remains of humanity is gathered on that train, going around the entire world in an endless loop, and the history of why this is so is doled out piecemeal throughout the film. The passengers are segmented in a rigid caste system: the closer to the back, the more of a nobody you are, and of course the train's engineer Wilford, in the very first car with the engine itself, is the biggest somebody of all, more a god than a human from the way people talking about it. In 2031, there comes a point at which 34-year-old Curtis Everette (Chris Evans) has gotten too sick of the miserable life of people in the far back, and so, encouraged by the cryptic messages received by the wily old Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and several of the other strongest members of their car begin a full-scale rebellion, pushing their way along the train, car by car, hunting for Wilford and the children that he stole away from them for God knows what reason.

I doubt very much that it's even possible to have such a lack of imagination that you can't see what this is all about: it's a parable of the 99% against the 1%, with several characters filling in as symbols for particular aspects of that conflict. More overtly and consistently Marxist movies have existed, but you have to go all the way back to Europe in the 1970s to find them. The huge difference between Snowpiercer and e.g. The Working Class Goes to Heaven is that Snowpiercer eschews anything that resembles even the most distorted version of realism. It is first and always a heightened genre film - and more specifically, a South Korean genre film, albeit one which is at least 90% in English and stars Captain America in the lead role. But Korean it is, and you don't need to have seen too many Korean films to understand what that implies in terms of the movie's kinetic energy, whiplash tonal shifts, and commitment to its own weird internal logic no matter how much that logic might start to feel like a liability in the immensely peculiar last act (which, after much reflection, I have decided to like).

So basically, we have here yet another Bong Joon-ho picture; the director's fifth feature and first project since 2009's Mother (which I think is still his best movie, which might really just mean that it's his most consistent), his first in English, and his first with American and British movie stars: Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Allison Pill (in a fucking magnificent one-scene performance) and Tilda Swinton are also in the cast. Though Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung are on-hand to play father and daughter (as they did in the director's 2006 Western breakthrough, The Host), a drugged-out lock-picker and drugged-out psychic, respectively, and it would be a lie to say that the film doesn't seem at least a little bit more comfortable when it's focused on them than when it's focused on anybody else.

But anyway, as I was saying: Bong Joon-ho. There's a certain "let's fucking go for it" energy to every one of his projects that I have seen, and none have ever been so ludicrous ebullient as this. Though it's the director's first adapted project - based on a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette - it fits smoothly into the rest of his career, or at least as smoothly as anything could fit into a stream of films defined mostly by their oblique angles and refusal to fit into clear, pre-ordained shapes. The film is equal parts left-wing agitprop, live-action cartoon (Swinton's high-wire performance as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Margaret Dumont, done up as a secular religious extremist, is one of the most transfixing things I have ever seen that most transfixing of actresses do; not necessarily because it is as-such "good acting", but because it holds absolutely nothing back, and serves to foreshadow the tonal developments of the second half in a way I fully approve of), balletic action film, and grand tour of Ondล™ej Nekvasil's outstanding production design, which feels like a Felliniesque romp through individually magical shadowboxes that all come from a completely different place, mixed the smooth lines of futurism, and always so linear and cramped that we never, ever forget that this all takes place on a train.

Not all of these things work all the time, and not all of them are as good as others: for all the obvious love and care that went into the film's big night-vision goggles fight showcase, there's no denying that the film suffers for coming out (in the States, anyway), the same year as the exhaustively inventive martial arts epic The Raid 2: Berendal. And while I do not agree with the criticism, I can't really argue against the complaint that the film goes from not making sense with brio and momentum, to not making sense in a kind of jerry-rigged, emotionally unsatisfying fashion (though I do think that Evans - a revelation here, even after the increasing soulfulness and complexity of his big-ass Marvel movie performances - helps to keep things hanging together through his responses to what happens, and as long as we stick with his perspective instead of trying to adopt some kind of third-person objectivity, I think the climactic revelations all flow reasonably well).

But the thing is, even if its failure were far more manifest and undeniable, Snowpiercer has a level of ambition that is simple not present in the vast majority of films, certainly not the vast majority of films that occupy the same generic territory. It has a level of visual creativity and thematic ambition and performative eccentricity that are much, much too rare, and even when it's not working in the worst way, it still felt more alive and vital than the bulk of movies are even in their best moments. Every moment of genius and every half-formed lump alike make this one of the completely essential films of the year.