July 16, 2014


In Snowpiercer, which takes place in the near future, the world has entered a new ice age, ushered in by a catastrophically misfired attempt to stop global warming. (By spraying a new kind of gas into the atmosphere to cool the earth: it works, all right.) As a result, the only surviving humans must remain inside a massive train built by a megalomaniac named Wilford, whom we gather fancies himself a modern-day Noah, building his indestructible ark as a safeguard against the coming doom despite widespread disbelief among the public. (The passengers--the ones not being subjected to constant tyranny--regard him as a kind of god, their savior in fact, and they chant his name with the wide-eyed glee of the most devoted Manson follower.)

This train--fortified to withstand the intense cold and supposedly designed to run forever--tugs along a circular track that orbits the earth and takes an entire year to do it. But inside the train, human beings haven't reformed their age-old class struggles, despite the dire circumstances. The haves are ensconced snugly in the front with all the comforts of prosperity, while the have-nots have been relegated to the back of the train where they sleep in dark, crowded cells, and subsist on these brown, gelatinous protein bars that look like Worcestershire Jello. (When we find out what these little slabs of blobby muck are made of, it's truly stomach-turning.) Naturally, there's insurrection afoot, and at the helm of this slowly building rebellion is an aging wise man-type named Gilliam who's played by John Hurt, and a young, strong type--played by Chris Evans--who's named Curtis.

Snowpiercer spends a good thirty minutes wallowing in the grim gloominess of the "coach" passengers as they live in the kind of misanthropic squalor you read about in a Charles Dickens novel. Every day they're lined up in rows by tough-talking soldiers who count them and keep them subservient. Then their nasty protein bars are dispensed. Occasionally they receive visitations from on high, mostly from the pompous "Minister"--one of Wilford's underlings--who is played by Tilda Swinton, ever the trooper. She's never been afraid to look ugly on camera, and not just aesthetically. Here she's a real hag, and especially ominous because her character affects a superficial benevolence that everyone sees through. She's like everyone's worst case scenario of a high school guidance counselor, inept and myopic in her devotion to authority, doing the bidding of the ruling class. Swinton invests a lot in nervous ticks and weird laughs, showing the Minister for the awkward, eccentric, naive phony she is. But other than Swinton's character, we never get to know the other villains. They're just grunts doing grunt work.

And as for the protagonists, Chris Evans makes an impression. He's got the right amount of power as an actor to be a forceful lead. But he doesn't have much to do as an actor, other than play a morally driven action hero leading the malnourished malcontents on their quest to take over the train. (And how is it that he alone looks so healthy? He may be dressed in dark, baggy clothes, but there's no hiding the fact that he's rather svelte for having spent 17 years on this dreary express.) Octavia Spencer also registers, playing another one of the have-nots. She's the tough mama bear whose son was snatched by the master of the train (for reasons that won't be made clear until the end of the movie).

The film is intermittently successful. I have to admit that once the rebels starting making their advance, I was glued to the screen. And yet, there's a darkness, a mean, violent streak, that makes this film unappealing. It's been suggested that the filmmakers were in part paying homage to Terry Gilliam's futuristic film Brazil, which many people seem to be quite fond of. I'm not fond of Brazil, and indeed that movie feels akin to Snowpiercer. This comes out particularly in the way many of the characters on board gleefully perform their assigned roles, totally divorced from the moral implications of keeping one group enslaved while other group eats fresh sushi and parties away in the disco-compartment. (There's also an interesting drug called Kronol, the meth of the future, that everyone's into.)

Snowpiercer does hold one's interest for most of the film, but two hours of watching people act nastily to each other starts to take a toll. There's a bizarre scene, near the end, when the surviving rebels pass through a classroom compartment where the Stepford-ish schoolteacher gives blissed out speeches on the goodness of Wilford and the evils of questioning authority, encouraging the children to repeat back various chants they've memorized. It's funny, but obvious. And it smacks of the familiar. There's a lot in Snowpiercer that has been appropriated from other futuristic movies. The director, Bong Joon-ho, adapted the screenplay (along with Kelly Masterson) from a graphic novel. But it's an amalgam of all the dark dystopian pop literature of the 20th century, from its dreary apocalyptic setting to its inherent distrust of machinery to its indictment of the not-so-invisible class systems at work in society. One of the friends with whom I was seeing the movie joked that the train should be described as a "microcosm of society". That's exactly what many reviewers will probably say--completely without irony--but that's just the trouble. My friend had hit the nail on the head: The film is full of carefully placed metaphors--all of them obvious, none of them particularly meaningful or innovative. You can spot them a mile away and label them like the parts of a skeleton.

And what of the ending? (Spoilers below)

The only surviving characters are people we barely get to know. After Curtis encounters Wilford--who turns out to be kind of charming (he's played by Ed Harris)--the train blows up (thanks to the rebel's efforts, using a bomb fashioned by that toxic drug Kronol) and derails (killing all the have-nots instantly, I might add). The survivors: a teenage girl who spends most of the movie tripped out on the drug, and a little boy who has maybe five minutes of screen time, and barely any lines. They're symbols, not characters, and as such they carry no feeling or genuine sympathy in them from us the audience. They emerge from the train and stomp out into the chilling but bright wintry air, crunching through the snow-capped mountains, and we're supposed to be hopeful. I felt like the movie had pommeled us over the head for two hours, killed off everyone we might have thought we cared about, and then asked us to tear up for the fresh hope for mankind that had been born. Somehow, that just didn't work for me.

(End of spoilers)

But the film has compelling moments, and the action does have a kick to it. A lot of people are quite sure that this is a great movie, or at the very least the next big thing in action-futuristic-science fiction thrillers. But it's really just the latest iteration of the heavy-handed stuff we've been producing for the last ten years. It pushes all your buttons, but there's essentially no humanity behind it. Perhaps some will feel content in arguing that this is the very point of a movie like Snowpiercer, that humanity has sunk to new lows. But simply showing us class inequities isn't humane or redeeming. And if people are so despicable, why are we then supposed to care about their survival at all?

With Jamie Bell, Song-Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, and Ewen Bremner. Music by Marco Beltrami. Filmed in Austria and South Korea, and completed in 2012.

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