Director: Joon-ho Bong
Cast: Chris Evans,
MPAA Rating: (for violence, language and drug content)
Running Time: 2:06
Release Date: 6/27/14 (limited); 7/4/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 3, 2014
The joke that opens Snowpiercer is a doozy. It begins in the present (as of this writing, the past, which should give one an idea of how relevant the movie desperately wants to be), and everyone has accepted that anthropogenic climate change is a reality. Humanity finally decides to do something about the increases in global temperature caused by an abundance of chemicals and greenhouse gases being introduced into Earth's atmosphere. The solution these alternate-history humans decide upon is to decrease the global temperature by introducing an abundance of a gaseous chemical into the planet's atmosphere. The punch line is that the movie is set in a near future in which Earth has become a frozen wasteland.
One could take the aforementioned scenario as a parable about the folly of humankind's attempts to control the environment. In a similar way, one could see the setup of the plot proper as an allegory about the folly of humanity's attempts to control society—specifically, a social order that divides people based on economic standings, place of birth, and the biases those in power possess for people who are not like them. One thing is for certain: The movie may want to be relevant, but even more than that, it wants to be allegorical.
One could and is expected to consider the movie as a social allegory, but there's another, rather unintentional way to see it: It's a fable about the limitless capacity for the collective stupidity of man. This is why the last survivors of our species have decided to save themselves from the icy wilderness they have created by building and boarding a train.
It's a dumb idea on its surface, and as we get deeper and deeper into the concept, at no point does the screenplay by director Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson make us believe it is anything more than that. Here, we have a preposterous setup (from a French graphic novel created by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette) and a movie that accepts it at face value. Considering it, the questions pour out: matters what far more likely alternatives would have been much better ideas to protect the last remnants of humanity, and why anyone would think that a train—containing countless moving parts that can fail at any moment and travelling along a track that spans the now-perilous globe—could survive this environment in perpetuity.
The answer, of course, is that the train needs only to work as a carrier of allegory, and the movie is as simple in that regard as the premise is foolish. It's a loaded setup. The train, with its compartments and classes, is a spot-on representation of a caste system. The poorer folks live in the rear cars, the owner of the train and leader of its society resides in the engine, and everyone else gets to enjoy first-class accommodations. The movie never provides a logical rationale for the presence of the third-class passengers, who—in the eyes of their social "betters"—would only be taking up precious space and resources (A climactic conversation with the owner tries and fails). They are there because, without them, there wouldn't be—you know—class conflict.
Within this Ayn Rand-inspired dystopia (the backdrop and the politics behind it), there is a rebellion a-brewing in the back. Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow third-class inhabitants are planning to storm the forward compartments and take over the engine. Curtis receives help from Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), who designed the train's security, and moral support from Gilliam (John Hurt), who united the lower class after a murderous early history. Tilda Swinton, in a performance that simultaneously is madly inspired and completely out of place, plays a government official who reluctantly guides them. The rest of the passengers exist as fodder for the class war ahead of them.
The movie's bigger picture may be a confused one, but its smaller pleasures are enticing. The train, as overseen by production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, is a marvel of design. Each new car presents some unexpected turn. There's the grotesque processing plant for the gelatinous foodstuff that is consumed by the poor. There's a surreal, pastel-painted classroom where a brainwashed teacher (a memorably off-balanced Alison Pill) indoctrinates her students. The first-class passengers party in a club and get high off industrial waste in a den of stone-laced pits. The engine compartment is Art Deco-influenced sparsity. Through the windows, the ravages of frost have ruined once-great human achievements.
Of course, there is also the intrinsically confined space, which Bong uses to his advantage in staging some nifty action sequences. Of particular note, we see a massacre with cleaving weapons in the dark through the night-vision goggles of the guards. Of less effective note, we get a pointless shootout with pistols between two distant cars as the train enters a curve on the tracks.
Snowpiercer is a movie of ambitious intentions undone by the hollowness of its central metaphor. Take the epilogue: It is intended to be a hopeful introduction to a new chapter of humanity, but a throwaway insert shot instead suggests that it is the beginning of the reign of a new dominant species in the ecosystem.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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