(2014) Science Fiction (Radius) Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ah-Sung Ko, Alison Pill, Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov, Adnan Haskovic, Emma Levie, Stephen Park, Clark Middleton, Marcanthonee Jon Reis, Paul Lazar, Tomas Lemarquis, Kenny Doughty, Robert Russell, Magda Weigertova. Directed by Joon-Hoo Bong
It is an illusion of humanity that we have control of anything. Control of our environment, control of each other – the only thing we really have control over is our own actions. Still, that doesn’t keep us from trying to make everyone and everything around us conform to our own needs.
In the near future, the reality of climate change has finally been accepted universally and the governments of the planet have decided to do something about it. Sadly, they’ve waited so long that all they can do is the environmental equivalent of a Hail Mary end zone pass on the last play of the game. A gas, released into the atmosphere simultaneously all over the globe, should reduce global temperatures significantly and give us a chance to clean the carbons out of the atmosphere.
As with most things governments undertake, things go completely, horribly wrong. The temperature does reduce down to the levels that we need them to – and then keep falling, and falling, and falling. In a matter of hours, the planet is frozen solid and all life on it has ceased to be.
That is, except for the life on a kind of Supertrain. Those aboard the Snowpiercer at the time of the freeze all survived, along with a few stragglers who made their way on board before the end came. The train circles the globe on a specially built track, taking roughly a year to make each circumference.
Instead of being powered by nuclear energy, it’s powered by a perpetual motion engine. It’s the brain child of Wilford (Harris), a mysterious industrialist who now lives a reclusive existence in the engine room of the train. In the rear of the train are the half-starving lower class, barely able to eke out a living and subsisting on gelatinous protein bars that keep them alive (although you really don’t want to know what they’re made out of). In between is the upper class, living with a bounty of food and clean water and in excessive luxury. From time to time, representatives of the upper class – and by representatives I mean armed guards – come to the back with spokesman Mason (Swinton) to cart off children from the back, to distribute the meager supplies that the front gives out, or to perform all manner of humiliations and torture on the back-dwellers.
Well, Curtis (Evans) has had enough. He is brewing revolution, aided by his mentor Gilliam (Hurt) who has been through several of these. They are waiting for the right time to make their move, although many of the tail end inhabitants grow restless, particularly Edgar (Bell) who looks up to Curtis with something like hero worship, Tanya (Spencer) whose son Timmy (Reis) has been taken by Mason and her goons, and Fuyu (Park) who just wants to kick some ass.
Their plan hinges on springing the drug-addicted Namgoong Minsoo (Song) who designed the train’s security system and would be able to deactivate the gates that separate the back of the train from the front. However, even if they spring him (with the promise of plenty of the drug Kronole as reward) and his perky daughter Yona (Ko), getting to the front of the train and taking over the speeding missile on rails will be no easy feat, if it can be done at all.
This is based on a French graphic novel written back in the ’70s although the climate change element (among others) has been added on by the filmmakers. Like much art from that era, there is a decidedly grim and dark element to the movie. It carries very much a 70s vibe, although there is a 21st century Looney Tunes element to it as well.
Evans, better known as Captain America in the Marvel movies, is as grim and gravelly voiced as a poor man’s Clint Eastwood here. The All-American Cap would be absolutely horrified by some of the things Curtis must do to survive and he certainly wouldn’t approve of the class system on the train. In many ways this is Evan’s most complete role to date – this isn’t the Chris Evans you’re used to seeing and that’s a good thing. Not that the Chris Evans you’re used to seeing isn’t worth seeing.
Swinton is so over-the-top that you half expect a giant hammer to suddenly materialize out of the screen and smash your pointy little noggin like so many nails in a board. Her Mason comes off as a cross between Dolores Umbridge, Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand with emphasis on the latter. Her fake overbite reminds me of one of those “Stay Calm” memes come to life.
Bong, who previously directed the comic horror film The Host, brings from that film the broad comedy with a dark edge while adding some fairly serious social commentary as well. Certainly this is about the sharp divide between the privileged wealthy class and the desperate poverty class but it’s also about the economics of survival and the folly of human arrogance. Some conservatives see liberals as the villains here while liberals will likewise see conservatives as being the targets of Bong’s criticism. I’m not sure he had American politics in mind when he wrote and directed this but I suppose we all see what we want to see.
A few words of caution. First, as to the dialogue – it’s atrocious, especially as the film winds down. There’s a confrontation between Wilford and Curtis in which the two say things that sound like they came out of a middle school book report on Atlas Shrugged. Actors the caliber of Ed Harris shouldn’t have to say dialogue like this.
Second, the violence. There’s a lot of it and it ranges from brutal axe attacks to some silly shoot-outs. While you will get somewhat numb to it by the end of the movie, those who are sensitive to such things should have a care about seeing this.
Finally, the ending. It’s a humdinger in terms of visuals but when it hits it’s both coal-black grim and to be honest, ludicrous. Again, think 70s cinema when you watch it and it may make more sense to you but even with that in mind you might end up tearing out your hair, assuming you have any.
The set design here is amazing. Each train car is its own world and as you move from the bleak and monochromatic rear, the cars become more colorful and decadent. Some are downright beautiful. This is a world both familiar and alien to us and while the imagery has elements of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the French sci-fi graphic magazine Metal Hurlant and the art deco of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it is a world unique to itself and completely imaginative.
I ended up being quite entertained, although many of my friends ended up disappointed by the film with some outright despising it. All I can say about that is that it is likely this will affect you in unexpected ways and will draw out of you your own individual reaction which is to me something that is the mark of a good movie. You may not agree with me in terms of my admiration for the movie, but you won’t walk away from this with an indifferent point of view.
Speaking of view, Snowpiercer is taking something of an unusual release strategy for movies that are in national release. Unlike most limited releases which don’t make it to every market, this film is in nearly every market although on a limited number of screens. It is likely playing somewhere near you. If you can’t find it, it is available on most major Video On Demand systems, including DirecTV, iTunes and most digital cable systems.
REASONS TO GO: A different kind of role for Chris Evans. Class warfare in a dystopian society done with some really dark humor.
REASONS TO STAY: Piss-poor dialogue. The ending is disappointing albeit spectacular.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and foul language and quite a bit of drug use (although it is a nonexistent drug).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The drawings in the tail section of the train are by Jean-Marc Rochette, original artist of the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the work that this movie is based on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Colony
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Deliver Us From Evil