I kept feeling like I was watching Brazil meets Under Siege 2: Dark Territory as I viewed Snowpiercer. That is certainly an upgrade for the Under Siege 2 appreciation society. Staring at the marquee to the theater I decided I would take a chance on this film which I knew nothing about. It was pride weekend in Seattle and nothing says gay pride more than sitting in a theater by yourself, about to watch a movie about a futuristic society that destroyed the environment and whose only survivors live on a fast paced train, traveling the world in a giant loop.
I sat in my chair and listened to a couple of nerds discuss the powerful abilities of some card in their Magic deck. “OOOH Man! This is just ridiculous. I’m going to have to keep this one.”
It was a strange weekend.
Based on French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film Snowpiercer is wildly entertaining stuff if you can get past the idea that everyone on the planet died except the people on this train, which is kind of ridiculous. But this movie isn’t playing subtle so accept that and you will be treated to a thought provoking, fun time. I was especially impressed by how writer/director Joon-ho Bong payed attention to the details. He answers most of the obvious questions. How does this train continue despite limited resources? What about population growth? Why does it travel so fast? Why do the have nots put up with the haves?
Oh yeah – there are two classes of people. The front of the train people who live in decadence and bought their tickets in advance and the back of the train people who hopped on like hobos when the world started ending. The latter live in dank, nasty refugee styled cars eating a black gelatinous bar of protein while the front of the train is full of color and beauty and eat eggs and food that grew somewhere.
What sets Snowpiercer apart from the crowd of these types of dystopian future movies is the unending progression of surprises that lead the movie forward towards it’s unexpectedly complicated message about the reality of morality. You think The Hunger Games had great design and unique characters… you haven’t seen anything until you’ve watched Tilda Swinton chew up the scenery and people’s self-worth as Mason, the crazy, classist emissary of Wilford, the recluse/genius who runs the train. Mason’s speech comparing humanity to a shoe, just before amputating someone’s arm is a bizarro piece of dark humor, punctuated by violence and a broad description of what we are about to experience.
In the back of the train, is natural born leader Curtis (Chris Evans) who takes his group of hobos on a full out offensive to get the to the engine and confront the ruler of everything, Wilford. Curtis is amazingly humble about his well groomed super beauty and leadership skills considering everyone around him is missing limbs and in desperate need of napkins. I feel like Curtis somehow has never seen himself in other movies like Captain America, The Fantastic Four, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Curtis has been motivated by secret messages coming inside the protein bars to free some drug addicted security expert, Fuyu, from the jail car up front. Using Fuyu’s help, the group can unlock all the doors, car by car, working their way to the front. And it’s here that the fun really begins. There’s plenty of bone breaking, bloody action as Curtis takes his band of refugees forward while the better equipped security forces kill off just the right number of people. We are treated to surreal images of the protein bar car where we learn to our dismay what actually is in the food they eat. We find the showers where they can clean themselves for the first time. There’s a dinner car. A sauna. A dance party car. It just keeps getting weirder and weirder. One of the better moments is the little detail of how all the fighting stops to commemorate the passing of the train at a specific location in the world. It seems time is measured by loops around the globe and not the sun/moon cycles because global warming kind of ruined all that.
The fight to the front leads to an intellectual and emotional crisis that places what we want at odds with what is possible. It’s a smart and depressing move that I should have seen coming but didn’t. There are enough clues pointing the way as well.
Snowpiercer is all the way entertaining. It never gets dull because it literally and figurative, like the train itself, keeps pressing forward. Little touches like how Fuyu and Curtis communicate because neither speaks the other’s native tongue is a nice touch. This is not a pretty film. There are some mean people inhabiting the train. The underlying message about the true nature of humanity is disturbing. There are some grizzly deaths. But there’s also a lot of bonkers zaniness that allows the sledgehammer message to do its work without complaint because you’ll be left wondering what’s behind the next door. The movie is a metaphor of life and of itself. Which is pretty good if not unsettling.
The actual ending is a mixed bag. Big ideas clash with an “I don’t know if that’s a good thing” feeling even though I think director/writer Joon-ho Bong is trying to make a case for it being a good thing. Judge for yourself but Snowpiercer is anything but dull, definitely not dumb, absolutely for adults, and something that’ll make you think for a while. I’m shocked it’s 126 minutes. It feels like 90.
And if you can’t get to the theater because it’s only in like 500 in the whole country, this film is experimenting with a new distribution style by already releasing it digitally only two weeks after it’s theatrical release.