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Going off the rails: “Snowpiercer”

December 10, 2013

snowpiercer-international-poster

If you dislike winter as much as I do—heralding as I do from a place that transforms into a frozen wasteland seven month out of the year where the wind howls like a soul in purgatory over a landscape of desolate snowdrifts—then the environmental cataclysm that forms the backdrop of the quirky new sci-fi parable Snowpiercer will likely strike a chord. If you’re one of those fortunate people who’ve never experienced sensation of feeling your hair freeze or don’t understand why you’d need to let your car run for a half an hour before driving it into the unforgiving elements…well, then Snowpiercer’s tale of social injustice will probably hook you. Because no matter what climate you were brought up in, no one wants a schoolmarmish Tilda Swinton lecturing you day in and day out.

Snowpiercer begins 17 years after a bold plan to reverse global warming caused the world to freeze (um, whoops?) and eradicated all life on Earth. Humanity survives only aboard a massive, super-sophisticated train which travels on a track around the world, traversing the globe once per year. Yeah, it’s pretty outlandish, but the movie never takes the concept all that seriously, so just go with it.

The train has been separated into two distinct classes—the upper crust, who live in the front of the train in hedonistic luxury, wanting for nothing, and the morlocky underclass who live in squalor in the rear. The upper crust are ticket-holders or their descendants. The Morlocks are descended from stowaways who clamored onboard to keep from becoming corpsicles.

Life for the underclass really sucks, as they live in cramped, filthy quarters, and eat naught but slimy protein bars. When they get out of line, thuggish security forces club them into submission and sometimes force them to stick a limb outside of the train until it freezes solid. To top it off, an officious functionary named Mason (Swinton) delivers classest, haranguing speeches about knowing one’s place in the tone of an exasperated headmistress. All in all, life sucks for the underclass.

As the film begins, the Morlocks are about to stage a revolution that, they hope, will carry them to the front of the train–the engine–where they can gain control of the train and possibly confront the train’s operator and builder, a man named Winston who is regarded in messianic terms by the train’s passengers.

Leading the revolution is Curtis (Chris Evans), a smart, tough survivor of the cataclysm, whose plan relies on springing the train’s security engineer from prison—an addict named Nam (Kanh-ho Song, from most of director Joon-ho Bong’s earlier films). Nam agrees to do so for a dose of the drug for every door he opens. Oh yeah, and he has his teenage daughter (also an addict) in tow.

Guiding Curtis along the way is a sage old man named Gilliam (John Hurt, showing up here after winning the Time War), a double amputee who has a history with Winston. It’s left unclear how the plan came about, but it’s been helped along by mysterious notes smuggled too Curtis in the slime bars. Who sent the notes and why is one of the mysteries Snowpiercer expertly sets up and answers.

The movie establishes all this with surprising speed and economy before hurtling us headlong into the action. From here the movie plays out like a glorious potpourri of The Raid: Redemption, Metropolis, and a little Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory thrown in for good measure. Curtis and his Morlocks must fight past the security forces through car after increasingly-surreal car of the great train.

As with Bong’s earlier films (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer’s tone is all over the place. The violence is stark and brutal—especially the omnipresent class-based repression, while Swinton and Engineer dude manage to be broadly comedic, yet also thoroughly effective in their roles. Similarly, the increasing surrealism of the train as the Morlocks move forward through it also feels like a part of Bong’s larger vision of social inequality up until the final, shattering reveal. Snowpiercer is a movie that always leaves you wondering if you’re supposed to be laughing along with it or not. Especially in scenes like the one where Curtis delivers a soul-baring speech that includes the line, “I hate myself because I know what people taste like.”

So, yeah, Snowpiercer is a weird movie, and not one that goes down easily. But it does hold you rapt with its great action choreography, distinctive characters, and imaginative visuals. It’s a genuinely creative, original movie—a rare thing in this movie climate when we just saw Thor do pretty much the same thing as damn near every other comic superhero we’ve been watching for the past decade. It’s a great genre entry, and one that deserves what I hope will be a wide audience.

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