Friday, July 3, 2015


Nothing says "Beat the Houston summer heat" like a snowpocalypse movie! Snowpiercer came out in 2013, and is one I'd hoped but didn't manage to see in the theater before it disappeared. Fortunately, it's not a movie that really requires a big screen, especially since 99% of the film takes place in the interior of a single train.

The movie, starring Chris Evans, starts with a heavy-handed and illogical voiceover explaining that humanity's attempts to "cure" global warming resulted in an instant freeze that killed everyone. Yes, the voice actually says that nobody survived, and then immediately explains that the few who did survive (!) did so by getting aboard a high-tech train that circles the world once each year.

The action itself begins at the back of the train, where people live in squalor and eat protein bars that are delivered at regular intervals by machine-gun-armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is biding his time and planning a revolt, advised by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and accompanied by his young friend Edgar (Jamie Bell). When a swanky representative from the front of the train arrives and takes two children away from tail-dwellers Tanya (Olivia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner) under the guise of a "medical examination," they too risk life and limb by joining the uprising instead of staying behind in relative "safety."

(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) As I'm sure is already obvious, the set-up of this movie is absolutely ludicrous and also quite grim. Yet it somehow worked for me, in exactly the same way as the highly illogical Looper (2012) did. Like most people, I like rooting for the oppressed underdog, and I also enjoy post-disaster set-ups and reluctant heroes with checkered pasts. It was also fun to move through the train with the rebels, seeing the surroundings gradually improve until the decadent opulence of the front-most cars is revealed. There were tons of moments in this movie when I thought "oh, no!" because I could see exactly what nastiness was about to happen, but there were also moments when the visuals caught me off guard and delighted me. The movie shows no embarrassment about going over the top; for instance there's a meat locker car with hanging carcasses, but no evidence where the live animals are kept until it's time to slaughter them. Since the train cars are in one straight line, well, the rebels would have to have go through the livestock cars too, so where are they? The greenhouse car is almost believable, but I feel like the aquarium car would require Tardis-like technology to exist as shown.

Similarly, some of the acting is over-the-top, particularly Tilda Swinton as Mason, the spokesperson for the reclusive creator of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris). Mason likes to make speeches, wearing ridiculous eyeglasses and prominent false teeth, yet it completely works, and in particular provides a nice contrast to Chris Evans' appropriately understated performance. Oh, and along the way the rebels pick up a man, Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), and his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko) from the prison car, which keeps its prisoners in morgue-like drawers (bathrooms? food?). Curtis bribes this drug-addicted pair to open the "gates," or doors between cars, along the way, but there is more to them than meets the eye. Another absolutely surreal moment is when they arrive at the classroom car, where every child on the train is about the same age, and is taught about the glorious history of Wilford by a Stepford-wife teacher.

(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Predictably, the rebels are gradually winnowed down, ultimately leaving Curtis to face Wilford alone. There'd been a bit of foreshadowing, when Gilliam advised Curtis to cut Wilford's tongue out rather than let him talk, but of course Curtis does let him talk. Wilford explains that he and Gilliam have been in regular communication between the front and back of the train, and that the only way anyone continues to survive is because Wilford allows semi-regular revolts to winnow the population when needed. (So maybe it made sense that all the children are the same age, if they're born in cycles?) This isn't an especially surprising reveal at this point, but audiences also like circular plots, and it's a satisfying revelation.

We also learn that the two seized children have been brought up to the front not as sexual playthings for Wilford, but rather because they're small enough to perform critical functions that keep the train's engine running. Furthermore, Wilford makes an almost unconscious hand motion mimicking what the kidnapped children are now required to do over and over in the bowels of the engine. Mason, too, had earlier made this motion, which implies that both Wilford and Mason's roots -- and their distinct brands of "Crazy" -- originated because they too had been co-opted as children and had spent years in solitary confinement and mind-numbing labor.

At first I thought this was a combination of a Matrix/Dread Pirate Roberts scenario, meaning that 1) the people have been on the train much longer than the 18 years they believe have elapsed, and 2) this Wilford is not the original Wilford, who could not have invented the train if he worked as a child inside its already-functional engine. On the other hand, Curtis specifically remembers that he's been on the train 18 years and knows he has seen the outside world, although he says he chooses not to remember it. On the other other hand, this could easily be a memory planted by Gilliam, and what the train dwellers believe is one "year" could actually be much longer. I myself like the idea that this has all been going on much longer than 18 years, but I'm not sure the movie managed to convincingly "sell" that idea.

The movie ends when Namgoong Minsoo and his daughter manage to blow open the door of the train, which also causes an avalanche that knocks the train off the tracks. I fully expected to see Curtis emerge from the wreckage, and have the movie end on one of those scenes where a few survivors are shown straggling out, implying that they will band together and somehow survive, like when we see people emerging from Manhattan buildings near the end of The Day After Tomorrow (2004). But we only see Yona and Tonya's little boy Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis) appear, wearing convenient Inuit furs (but no mittens). And then we see a polar bear look at them curiously from a distance. I took this as a "it's a new world and there's hope of survival" sign, whereas my husband interpreted this as "Yona and Timmy become polar bear food."

So all that made me start wondering: could they survive? On the one hand, there are lots of fresh dead bodies to provide food for a while. On the other hand, if they're really the only two survivors, well, that's bad. And I'm not sure they still have any means of generating fire -- a big deal is made out of their last match being used to light the fuse to blow the door, so if they can't find a way to ignite things to burn, that's going to be a problem. It's also not clear how many of the derailed train cars are still accessible to them, because some of the cars toppled off at various points on the track and could be down in unreachable mountain crevasses.

In the end, though, as ridiculous as this movie was, I couldn't help but like it. It horrified me, it surprised me at times, and it made me think about it for quite a while after it was over. Again, just like Looper, and also a bit like Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

Plus, you know, Chris Evans, showing that he can play roles quite different from the rigidly upright Captain America. I also recommend his movie Push (2009), in which an adorably tween-aged Dakota Fanning co-stars.

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