Snowpiercer (2014)


Nice casting. It’s a gritty, gray, dystopian future, right, and we need someone to play the saddled architect of the revolution. So why not the actor who played Winston Smith, the most saddled character from the greatest dystopian story of all, “1984”? Welcome, John Hurt.

And to lead the revolution? Why not Captain America? Nice to see you, Chris Evans.

Written byJoon-ho Bong
Kelly Masterson
Directed byJoon-ho Bong
StarringChris Evans
Kang-ho Song
Ed Harris
John Hurt
Tilda Swinton

And as the overconfident, grand manipulator of this mad dreamscape? Why not Ed Harris, the overconfident, grand manipulator of “The Truman Show”?

Welcome, all. And actors? Know your place.

Nice going, scientists

Quick question: What’s the most unthinkable thing that happens in “Snowpiercer”? That we inadvertently cause another Ice Age? That the remnants of humanity are forced onto a train that is divided not only into cars but classes, with the majority, dirty faced and Dickensian, stuffed into the tail section without rights, or, for a time, food? So that they are forced to eat the weak? Including babies?

No. The most unthinkable thing that happens in “Snowpiercer” is that somehow humanity gets together and enacts a scientific solution to global warming this year. That’s optimistic. May I introduce Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”) to our do-nothing GOP-led U.S. Congress? Most of those guys don’t even believe in global warming.

But in the movie, sure, we do it. We all get together and seed the clouds with CW-7 to counteract global warming. And ... Oops. Instead of a slight correction we plunge the Earth into a new Ice Age, during which everything on the planet dies. Nice going, scientists. The only ones left are the people on the supertrain. Is it called the Snowpiercer? Either way, it was started by a man named Wilford before the whole CW-7 experiment as a self-sustaining, global train ride, and now, 17 years later, it’s our last, best hope. But of course it’s been turned into an awful, dystopian nightmare: haves and have nots. A metaphor for our time.

We begin in the tail section, where armed cops show up and count off the rabble. Once your row is called you’re supposed to take a knee, but one man doesn’t: Curtis (Evans). He’s not being heroically rebellious but simply counting how long it takes for the traincar doors to close—so how much time they’ll need when they foment their revolution. But now isn’t the time. “When is the time?” Edgar (Jamie Bell), his right-hand man, asks. “Soon,” Curtis replies.

He’s a reluctant leader. He thinks everyone should follow Gilliam (John Hurt) instead. Because he was named for Terry Gilliam? Because Hurt once played Winston Smith? Mostly because Curtis feels unworthy. We’ll get to that later.

First some draconian violence. In the first-class cars, they need a violinist, and a man offers he and his wife. But they only need one, so they take him and break her nose. Because they can. They also need kids, and they take two: one from Tanya (Octavia Spencer), who gets a black eye, and one from Andrew (Ewen Bremner), who, in the struggle, manages to throw a shoe at the departing, yellow-clad official, Claude (Emma Levie). For that, amidst a long, drawn-out metaphor from Mason (a marvelous Tilda Swinton, channeling Margaret Thatcher) on how everything has its place, both shoes and people—“I belong to the front, you belong to the tail”—Andrew’s arm is forced outside the train and into the lifeless cold. Seven minutes later, when it’s brought back, it’s frozen solid. Then the police take turns bashing it off with sledgehammers.

So you see the need for revolution.

It starts sooner than I’d anticipated. Claude calls the guns “useless,” Curtis surmises they no longer have bullets in them, and he proves his theory. Boom. Now the men and Octavia Spencer are moving car to car. What’s in the other cars? First, there’s solitary confinement chamber where they pick up Namgoong Minsoo (celebrated Korean actor, and star of “The Host,” Song Kang-ho), an engineer who knows how to open the train doors. He’s also got a bit of a drug problem—Krongle, industrial waste—but that’s how the revolutionaries control him. Meanwhile, his daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung), is a bit psychic. She can anticipate what’s behind a door before her father opens it. They don’t take advantage of this talent nearly enough, do they? They should rely on her more.

They also go through a kitchen—where their food, black, gelatinous “protein blocks,” are made from insects—a greenhouse, an aquarium, a sushi bar, a meat locker, and a kindergarten. They fight for every other car. They take Mason hostage, and eventually she’s killed. Edgar is killed and Gilliam summarily executed. Apparently they haven’t run out of bullets. Curtis doesn’t stop to consider this. Neither did I. The momentum is forward. It’s all leading to the car with the big “W” on it.

Babies taste best

To be honest, “Snowpiercer” is better and more engaging than I thought it would be. Some of the cars get silly—expensive dining with linen tablecloths, discos for the young—but we get some good heart-to-hearts. Or a heart-to-Hurt? Before he dies, Curtis confesses to Gilliam: “How can I lead if I have two good arms?” Gilliam has only one arm, and a peg leg. I assumed he lost others in the cold, or in battles, and that’s why Curtis feels unworthy. It’s worse than that. On the precipice of the W car, the sacred engine, the sustainer of all life on Earth, Curtis finally, tearfully confesses his crime. He tells Minsoo about when they all first got on the train, how Wilford’s soldiers took everything, and after a month they began to eat the weak.

“You know what I hate about myself?” he says. “I know what people taste like. I know babies taste best.”

That’s not the worst of it, either. Curtis talks about Gilliam’s heroic nature: how, when others were set to eat another baby, Gilliam stepped up, cut off his arm, and gave it to the crowd. Then others did the same with their arms. That’s reason #1 why Curtis feels bad that he has two good arms. Reason #2? He was the guy about to eat the baby. And the baby was Edgar.

Question, and not of the quick variety: Does what we learn inside the “W” car undercut this story? Because of course we get the big confrontation. It’s a movie, after all. Curtis bursts in, the last of the revolutionaries, and it’s just Wilford in there, good ol’ Ed Harris acting all Ed Harris-y, eating steak, drinking wine, complaining about how he’s a prisoner, too. And he has his own story to tell. Seems Gilliam was in on it. The whole thing. He was working with Wilford to cull the herd. The train is a delicate ecosystem and it needs balance, so every few years they have a revolution. Fewer folks, fewer mouths to feed, everyone’s happy. (Well, not everyone.) More, he, Wilford, wants Curtis to take over. It’s a dark, dystopian Willie Wonka moment. It doesn’t help that the missing kids are used to keep the engine running—replacing a small part that can’t otherwise be replaced. So Curtis is understandably torn. He bursts in as a man-of-action but is spun around and stupefied by a man of engineering. Because we all know that happens.

Actually, at this point, it becomes two stories: Curtis’ in the W car and Minsoo’s outside it. While Curtis is losing a hand trying to save Octavia Spencer’s boy, Minsoo and Yona are trying to blow off the door to the outside. Others have tried this in the past and frozen to death within sight of the train. Ah, but Minsoo has a theory. He sees a downed airplane every year, and every year he sees more of it. The world is finally warming up again. So why wait? Why not take drastic action now? He does. And the explosion triggers an avalanche that knocks the train off the tracks and kills everyone but Yona and Octavia Spencer’s boy. They walk out into the snow, in parkas, blinking in the sun. And atop the mountain they see a polar bear. Who runs down and eats them.

No. The polar bear is a sign: life continues. I guess it’s a sign that life has always continued, since I doubt Nature could’ve create a polar bear from scratch after 17 only years. But you get the idea. After all that dirt and dystopia, we get pure snow and ... I guess two people wandering around in it.

Again, “Snowpiercer” is better than I thought it would be, but what’s it all about, Alfie? What’s it saying? Don’t trust scientists? Don’t trust the 1% but don’t trust the revolutionaries, either? (Cf. “The Hunger Games.”) Don’t trust heroes, those baby eaters, but trust polar bears? It’s a fun story that stands on thin ice. Below it, there’s nothing there.

—July 30, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard