Movie Review: Snowpiercer
Surviving the deadly chill of Harvey Weinstein‘s displeasure, South Korean blockbuster Snowpiercer finally broke through the ice into US wide release last week. (I promise to keep my use of cold metaphors to a minimum, though I cannot guarantee absolute zero. He he.) A collaboration between two excellent Korean directors, Bong Joon-Ho (The Host) and Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), Snowpiercer made a legendary amount of money in Korea, and delighted the independent circuit, which in turn forced the Weinstein Company to drop demands that the film be cut before a wider release. Critical response has been positively balmy, but does this train make hay?
Cogs in a Machine
Snowpiercer takes place on a devastated Earth, where human efforts to reverse climate change have gone horribly awry (is there any other type of awry than the horrible kind?) and caused a catastrophic ice age. The only place humanity still thrives is aboard the Snowpiercer, a re-purposed luxury train capable of perpetual motion (the “science” in the science fiction here is a bit dodgy, and therefore mostly glossed over by the film.) The train circumnavigates the globe once each year. Aboard the train, a rigid class structure exists where the elites live in abject luxury and the poor in the opposite. The nominal leader of the poors, Curtis (Chris Evans) has been biding his time, gathering resources in order to storm the engine room at the head of the train and force the rich to reorganize the train along more egalitarian lines. After the elites, represented by Mason (Tilda Swinton,) brutally crack down on the poors and make off with several of their children, the die is cast: there’s going to be a riot, and Curtis intends it to be last riot the train will ever see.
What follows is a glorious orgy of violence, stylishly presented and skillfully rendered. The journey from the rear of the train through water reclamation, food creation, hydroponics, and especially the aquarium and zoo, is gorgeous and well realized. The paroxysms of violence that mark nearly every leg of the trip are visceral and beautiful. Homages to iconic scenes from Park’s Oldboy (the hallway with the hammer, to be precise) are gloriously up-scaled to include dozens of combatants. When it comes to stylish action that feels gritty and real, Bong and Park are true artists. It is in the premise that launches these bouts of bloodshed that the movie falters.
No Way to Run a Train
The organization of the Snowpiercer is sheer insanity. Towards the end of the film, Wilford (the reclusive “genius” who created and runs the train, played by Ed Harris,) remarks that you have to be at least a little crazy to survive on the Snowpiercer. You have to be major league, face eating crazy to believe that train wouldn’t self destruct on its first circuit, given how poorly managed it is. The rich live in complete drug and alcohol addled indolence. The poor are so badly treated, they had to resort to cannibalism in just the first 6 months of the voyage. Why are they even on the train in the first place? People paid to get aboard, but what the hell do you use money on in a self-sufficient train? There’s no goddamn sky-mall, that’s for damn sure.
You have a set-up where nobody seems to be capable of actually running the show. The rich are so somnolent, you can hardly believe they have any of the required skill sets, outside of self-entitlement and robust livers. The poor are given nothing to do, except to occasionally entertain the wealthy. Who is maintaining this crazy tub? Wilford? He’s so batshit insane, he keeps poking the sleeping bear that is the poors, just because he has a stick, and well, there’s a bear back there. There’s no way this situation is going to end any way but poorly. And, well, it does just that.
Right Train, Wrong Tracks
There are plenty of plausible explanations for the ludicrous situation the Snowpiercer has become…but very few of them are given to the audience. In our hyper class-sensitive society, it is easy to hate the rich and pity the poor, but that’s no explanation why they still exist on this train. Is there any reason to keep people poor, desperate, and angry when any venting of their frustration could possibly destroy the ONLY REMAINING livable habitat around? Wilford mouths some silliness about keeping population down through intermittent class-warfare, but why not any other reasonable method? Condoms? Enforced sterility? Separation of genders? Eating the children as a delicacy for the rich? Not treating them like shit, and then politely asking them not to procreate the human species out of existence? Anything! Why are they on the train in the first damn place!? They do no work, consume resources, and are dangerously combustible.
Ultimately, the style and message of the film out-run the premise. Things exist so that situations may happen, and then we can watch those situations. That is, unfortunately, not acceptable. Many stories of stratified, post civilized humanity exist (the excellent Silo series by Hugh C. Howley comes immediately to mind) that manage to explore similar situations without straining disbelief. Brave New World and 1984 both manage to explore humanity at the extremes, and still remain logically consistent. Why can’t our movies? Why must every intriguing concept about humanity after the fall (Elysium and The Rover spring up as recent examples) crumble under its own weight?
Snowpiercer is lushly beautiful in places, contains excellent performances by a multinational cast, is well paced, imaginative, and genuinely entertaining…and it is not enough. It could have been more, and it makes you keenly aware of it. I enjoyed my time in the theater, watching the mayhem unfold, but afterwards, I must admit that the gaping holes in the movies logic left me…cold.