Snowpiercer

I used to dress just like Chris Evans. Proud of those days, but not of my fashion sense.

Writing now, as the Internet’s dork and film-buff circles still tremble from the thundering impact of Mad Max: Fury Road, it can be easy to forget the slower-paced but far more transformative impact of its big brother, The Road Warrior.

In 1981, when the world was introduced to Max Rockatansky, his pet dog, and the post-civilized desert they wandered, it presented a view of the future exactly bleak enough to capture the popular consciousness. With the burgeoning environmentalist movement telling us that the world was doomed one way, the omnipresent threat of a mutual loss in the Cold War threatening another, and the (not actually very prescient) warnings of George Orwell and Ray Bradbury giving us an even more terrifying view of what what would happen if civilization did survive, the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction was just what the world needed.

Yes, civilization may be destroyed. Yea, the seven seals may be broken and the earth may be salted forever more, but people will persevere. Not everyone will survive (though I definitely will, each resident of the nascent “Me decade” said to themselves), but those that do will live out their dreams. They’ll live clean and free, making simple and happy lives for themselves despite the many obstacles in their way.

The point I’m getting at is there was a lot of crap that ripped off Mad Max, in the early Eighties. One of them was a graphic novel (a term I still despise despite enjoying quite a few of the things) called “Le Trainsperceneige”, or The Snow-Piercing Train. From what I’ve read of it, it feels like a very shallow and deliberate attempt to rip off Mad Max. I can picture the author, thinking to himself “What’s the furthest opposite of the desert?” Or, since he was French, “Quelle place est la plus oppossé du désért?”   (Oh man, now this review is gonna get all French. I should go take a shower or something.   “I know!” He thinks. “The Arctic! A snowbound tundra!” As he ponders the logistics of getting badass heavy metal cars to work in the snow, a further thought comes to him. “Wait, I can change that too! Instead of lots of little evil cars, how about one big evil train?”
Thus we have the premise for the adaptation, from acclaimed director and weirdo Bong Joon-Ho. Absurd premises like this are tricky things to get right – just look at Inception for an example of what happens when an otherwise excellent movie has a badly-implemented one. If you ask me, the key to it all is having a story that you couldn’t tell, either narratively or thematically, without the weird donnée of your story (Man, this French just isn’t washing off, is it?).
And Snowpiercer, sadly, doesn’t quite hit the mark. It tells a layered rich and thoughtful story, but it isn’t really a story that could only be told in a mile-long nuclear-powered globe-spanning bullet train that is also a post-apocalyptic ark for the remnants of humanity. This means the success of the thing will be down to the execution of the ideas. Luckily, it’s all so deftly executed that I think that the picture has a good shot at being a cult classic somewhere down the line.

A big part of it is the surprisingly star-studded cast, considering the indie cred-riding nature of the production. Ya gotcha Sir John Hurt (no, really, it’s official as of last year – and watch 1984 and tell me he didn’t earn it) and ya Octavia Spencer (Who really deserves better than being in Harry Potter ripoffs, Hunger Games ripoffs and Childrens Hospital ripoffs), both playing mentors who will probably die.

Gotcha Jamie Bell (who has the sort of big, expressive face that makes him just perfect for modern comic book-inspired roles) as the hero’s idealistic friend who will probably die. And Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris (who I’ve always had strange personal feelings toward since seeing The Truman Show as a child) are bad guys, who, being post-apocalyptic villains, will definitely die, no doubt about it.

About the only people who probably won’t die are a couple of children with various relations to the other characters, a grizzled lovable rogue played by the guy from Mr. Bong’s even weirder movies, and Chris Evans as the lead, who was a teenager when the world was plunged into nuclear winter, making him a perfect audience surrogate.

He brings a sort of unhinged, tortured feel to the entire production that prove he has range beyond “mean, dumb jock” and “Captain America”.

But the other main strength is that there’s actually a point behind all of it – not just all that silliness about trains, but about the whole anti-dystopian battle genre that inspired it. Snowpiercer’s central message is dozens of times more subversive than anything Cathy and Peter might say in between respectively crying and mugging soulfully: That sometimes, draconian and unfair government policies exist for very sensible and responsible reasons.

It’s a strange point to make, and it works because it leaves it until so late in the game. The first hour and forty minutes of this are completely straight about the whole fight-the-power thing, playing out the cliched hero’s journey story that people not only expect but demand from these kinds of things. But even that shows signs of self-awareness that could be snarky, fourth-wall breaking comedy in another context, but remains below the surface. The whole idea of a mile-long train as the film’s only setting is part of this – not only is the entire affair literally on rails, but the trip to the bad guys is just a straight line from the front to the back, meaning they’ll pass by literally every part of the tiny new world to see how evil and decadent the government has made it.

And it is – pun intended – a sweet ride. We travel with our hero(it’s the name of the train, you see) from the very end of the train, where John Hurt has his little Hurt-mitage. Along the way we see passengers getting tortured by throwing them out the train’s airlock (it’s essentially a fallout shelter on wheels), disgusting places for the people in the back, luxurious places for the people in the front, lots of grimy and vaguely steam-punk engine parts, dark storage rooms filled with supplies and even things like saunas and schoolrooms that show how much thought has been put into the Snowpiercer as a functioning society.

Luckily for people who aren’t dorks like myself, though, the same exhaustive thought has been put into making a gory, visceral action movie. There’s kung fu guys, hammer and axe guys, tech guys, military guys (who are pretty elite, since bullets are so scarce), and even a shirtless guy. Most of the first half consists of them going at it in various combinations and various locales, with Chris Evans and his thousand-yard stare at the center of it all.

This does exactly what a poster should do. It’s an excellent preview of the experience of watching the movie.

Of course, being the brutally realistic dystopian adventure that it is, the malnourished underdogs don’t so much “win” as “put up just enough of a fight to be worth capturing the leaders instead of executing them”. Oh, there’s still executions, though. Most notably, Jamie Bell and John Hurt, who in recent years has completed the life cycle of the classically trained, British-born Hollywood actor, from “Acclaimed independent leading man” to “Tongue-in-cheek B-movie headliner” to “Mentor/villain of big-budget genre movie”. He’s been here for a decade since he sacrificed himself to the dark overlord Neal Stephenson in 2004’s Hellboy, but on the other hand he barely had anything to do in Hellboy so forget that I guess.

As they push their way through the exquisitely realized train, the movie starts dragging. We get a few exposition scenes and some character moments that are meant to pay off later, but none of the exposition is done well and all the character moments become irrelevant when you remember the dozen or so people whose only character traits are “Can use guns” or “Played by an actor I recognize”.

There’s also all kinds of story details I’ve glossed over, like instant universal translators or perpetual-motion machines or goddamn clairvoyance. This is where the movie suffers – none of it justifies its existence within the story like I talked about at the beginning. It all just seems silly, which doesn’t help such a tightly plotted story.

But Chris Evans and his ever-dwindling party soldier on, making their way to the very front of the train, where they eventually barricade themselves in the perpetual motion engine-car. By this time all bets are off on who won’t die (I won’t say “will or won’t”, because you know Ed Harris is still toast). And, in fact, Chris Evans and his only remaining friend, the grizzled lovable rogue, both doom themselves for different dramatic reasons.

Chris talks about how when the train first started going, and it became apparent that the rest of the world really had suffered the apocalypse, things got anarchic before the repressive and evil government took over. He talks about how crazy he got back then, meaning he’s officially too evil to redeem himself without dying. Meanwhile, the lovable rogue becomes a great deal less lovable when we find out he’s spent most of the movie making a bomb. He believes that the apocalypse is preferable to the state of humanity now, and so the best solution is to blow everything up. Chris is spared from having to tell him what an idiot he is by the intercession of Ed Harris, the evil leader of the train (the conductor, I guess? Motorman?) who’s in a bathrobe, which is a pretty interesting look for your movie’s diabolical mastermind.

Not saying “good”, not saying “bad”, saying “baffling”. Just like the rest of the movie, come to think of it.

And this is when about five bucks’ worth of pennies come to drop. Some of the exposition from earlier was that the entire idea of a post-apocalyptic supertrain- i.e., the entire premise of the movie – was thought up by Ed Harris back when he was a little kid. And that’s when he explains the whole thesis I was talking about back at the beginning, that the entire premise of The Hunger Games, Titanic, Harry Potter and all those other movies are just so much childish, shortsighted optimism. No, the government doesn’t organize a brutal class system just because it hates the commoners, it’s just the most efficient way to run any civilization low on resources but high on ideas. And of course the latter means rebellion would be inevitable, no matter how much intimidation the people in charge display, but taking that fact into account from an actuarial standpoint is the best way to make sure the survivors don’t have it nearly as bad. That was John Hurt’s job, in fact – colluding with Ed Harris to plan the revolution from the very start, to thin out the population.

Like I said, ballsy. It doesn’t exactly justify all the weirdness (even discounting whether or not you agree with it, because only a certain fraction of it was setting up for this, but it does make the entire operation an overall success. It’s just a shame that the ending messes all that up. Like I said, pretty much everyone important to the plot has their fate sealed at this point, but the inevitable end for three characters fated by narrative convention to die on a train – i.e. a crash – isn’t handled very well.

I’m not talking about the bad CGI or the weird coda where the children who are the only survivors make their way into the frozen, post-apocalyptic landscape, but the fact that everyone on the train died, just like the bomb dude wanted. I can see why it would fit in with the message of the film, that any serious attempt to overthrow the brutal but necessary way of life will just result in complete death for everyone, but it’s not dramatically satisfying at all. I’m always one for artistic vision, but this is like the weird original ending to A Clockwork Orange – you can see why they changed it, and most kinds of editorial oversight would probably have demanded the change even if it wasn’t for American audiences.

This is why I say Snowpiercer feels like it’s going to be a cult classic. It isn’t anything close to perfect, and its deeper meaning might not be obvious on a first viewing, but it has a very auteur feel to it and it succeeds at most of what it sets out to do: Send you home with your adrenaline pumping and your neurons firing. I’m not prepared to put it in the echelons of Blade Runner or Rocky Horror, but it’s definitely up there with things like Army of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China or even -gasp- The Road Warrior.

TWO THUMBS UP: Subversive undercurrent, the parts of the premise that justify themselves

THUMBS UP: Action and casting

THUMBS DOWN: Parts of the premise that don’t justify themselves, the generally stilted dialogue

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The CGI and ending

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