John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer, Promotional still.

Despite the Built-in Claustrophobia, Snowpiercer is Exhilarating

Bong Joon-ho makes his English-language directorial debut with an apocalyptic, class-warfare, train epic.

While there’s not much groundbreaking about Snowpiercer, it manages to wrap a series of familiar elements into a stylish science-fiction thrill ride.

Along the way, the English language debut of Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) is both provocative and suspenseful, establishing a sense of tension that resembles a runaway train.

That’s the setting for this dystopian nail-biter set after an experimental answer to global warming backfired, leading to an uninhabitable frozen planet. The only survivors have spent that past 17 years aboard a train with a perpetually recharging engine in which classes are divided from front to back.

Those in the back are segregated and forced to live in poverty by a dictator (Tilda Swinton) who refuses to allow them access to the more upscale cars. What those in charge don’t realize, however, is that a revolution is in the works, led by the cunning Curtis (Chris Evans), his sidekick (Jamie Bell), and a one-armed sage (John Hurt). Their intent is to take control of the locomotive — segment by segment — by whatever means necessary.

Gradually, the film reveals details about the passengers and their plight. Who’s driving the train? How long is it? Where did it come from and where is it going?

As the revolutionaries make their way from tail to engine on a desperate fight for survival, we discover some of the truths about their sheltered existence just as they do, including glimpses of the destruction outside the windows.

As the train speeds along, travelers both rich and poor are dispatched through a series of brutally violent confrontations that include everything from impaled torsos to severed limbs.

The film’s bleak futuristic scenario is simple yet effective, due in part to its claustrophobic setting that essentially traps its heroes and villains in the same tight quarters. The concept also provides a launching point for a study of socioeconomic class and commoners rising up against an oppressive capitalist regime.

The taut script by Bong and Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) — based on a French graphic novel — manages to find humor amid the despair. It also keeps the pace lively enough to allow viewers to overlook the logical gaps, the convoluted climax, and the unanswered questions within the allegorical plot.

With a sharp international ensemble cast and a visually ambitious scope, the result is an exhilarating journey that will leave the viewer welcomely spent.