Snowpiercer, by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host), is certainly one of the most dazzlingly unconventional movies that will be released this year. Call it dystopian or apocalyptic (a strong case can be made for both): the film keeps subverting the expectations of both genres.
A backfired attempt to stop global warming has left the planet a frozen wasteland, bereft of all life but that aboard the Snowpiercer—a super-fast train powered by a perpetual motion device called the Eternal Engine. The train circles the continents while remaining insulated from the cold, protecting all the life within.
The movie sets up this backstory within its first five minutes through your standard sci-fi collage of reporters talking and handheld-camera visuals (a technique that, even after so many uses, I still find pretty chilling). But it uses its premise as a jumping-off point, rather than a target of fixation: the real star here isn't the train, but those within it, like Curtis (Chris Evans), the de-facto leader of the train's caboose-bound proletariat, or his mentor-figure Gilliam (John Hurt), or his protege Edgar (Jamie Bell).
They all live in poverty at the end of the train, while the rich party it up towards the front; the film begins with Curtis deciding to lead a revolt all the way to the front of the train and seize the engine room, the nexus of all the train's life-giving operations. In the way stands Mason (Tilda Swinton), who reads like a cross between the rigidly classist Downton Abbey grand dame Violet Crawley and Inglourious Basterd's Hans Landa.
Snowpiercer operates as both an apocalyptic and a dystopian movie, and that means it addresses the fundamental questions of both genres. For apocalyptic movies, the question is simple: "Are we worth saving?" Whether you consult 2012 or Deep Impact or Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow or The Day The Earth Stood Still—or if you go and look at Genesis 6 (God "regretting" the very creation of man) or Genesis 18, in which Abraham pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if he can find just ten good men, or Exodus 32, where Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites—through all these different examples, the consistent question is "Is it better for people to be around than to not be around? Is existing better than not?"
The solution proposed by most Hollywood movies is to find the answer in people's response to tragedy. Movies usually tell us that in showing acts of heroism and bravery, we can justify our own existence (the Apocalypse being a sort of tax audit, morally speaking). We see this not just in our movies, but in our responses to national tragedies; the line that got picked up last April, circa the bombing of the Boston Marathon, was "there were always more people running towards the explosions than away from them," and "Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping."