Made Overseas: Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer is one of those movies that make me realize that 2014 was a long time ago.  I saw it on the back of a seat during a long overseas flight, right around the time we were getting close to the North Pole on the non-stop leg.  We were traveling with a couple that was sitting a row behind us.  One of them asked me if I was watching a zombie movie.  This made me realize how little privacy you have in an aviation setting, and it made me kinda glad that there weren’t kids seated behind me and I watch watching, say, The Big Lebowski.

This should get you the idea of the general aesthetics of the movie.  The corridors for most of the movie are dark and grimy.  People are dressed in post-apocalyptic rags.  Their opponents are grim and faceless, lumber about as if they were a horde of the undead.  In fact, when Train to Busan first came out, one of the criticisms was that it was too much like Snowpiercer.  Sure they’re both helmed by Korean directors and set on a train!  But the monsters in Snowpiercer aren’t actually zombies!  At least… not literally.

Anyway… remember 2014?  Or as I like to call them, the Before Times.  The net was neutral, Taylor Swift was trademarking “this sick beat,” and the AV Club was a bristling mecca of smart commenters and jovial writers.  And many of those folks were telling us that Snowpiercer was a must-see hidden gem.  They were not alone: the movie made many critics’ year-end top ten lists. This despite its absolutely bonkers premise: the world has entered an ice age, and the the remainder of humanity is stuck on a train riding a track that spans continents.

The movie is truly one with international bonifides.  The South Korean-Czech movie, directed by Bong Joon-ho and starring a cast of Americans and Brits, is based on a 1982 French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige.  It’s main theme is that you basically cannot fight the system, and that the more you fight the more ingrained you become in maintaining how things have always been.  Also, by fighting the system, you’re basically dooming everyone else.  (In a plotline that was omitted from the movie, our hero — Proloff — spreads a virus around the train which ends up killing off everyone.)

In the sequel, citizens of the second train using the same track peg Proloff as a boogeyman that they should all be afraid of, lest his train derail their own.  Despite the framing device of an ecological catastrophe, Le Transperceneige really doesn’t seem like an environmental parable.  (In fact, the movie attributes the catastrophe to an attempt to fix the environment.  Some days, you just can’t win, huh?) It seems to be far closer an allegory for the Cold War.  In one train (the USSR and the Eastern Bloc), the revolutionaries become the power perpetuating the same policies and creating all new pitfalls.  In the second train (the US and the Western world), the powers that be are conveniently setting up the first train as a frightening counterpart in order to enact their own unethical policies.  And to drive it all home… it literally is cold outside.  Like, if you stick your hand out the window you will lose that arm from extreme exposure to the elements.

That’s cold, yo.

The main hero of Snowpiercer is Curtis Everett, played by Chris Evans.  You may remember him as the star of the wildly successful superhero franchise: Fantastic Four.  Curtis Everett lives in the tail end of the train, where society’s undesirables are located.  At any moment, one of the better dressed citizens from the front of the train can drop by, grab one of its citizens, and disappear them into the train’s front sections. Who knows what they do out there. Maybe they’re called up to play violin for musical entertainment. Maybe it’s for something worse.

Their only meal are protein bars that are revealed to be ground up insects.  The people are treated brutally by guards, who are led by Wilford (played Ed Harris) and Mason (Tilda Swinton in what I wish I could say was her most cartoonish role ever… but she has a lot of contenders for this title, including precious “Made Overseas” entry, Okja). There’s a crazy scene where’s she’s pleading for her life and, apropos of nothing, she takes her false teeth out. It’s confusing for Curtis and his men, it’s weird for the audience, and it effectively catches everyone off guard. I have no idea if this was Swinton doing improv by taking out her costume teeth, but it totally works in keeping you unbalanced. (It immediately reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where Luxanna Troi takes off her wig in a shared moment of intimacy to engender trust from Odo. That scene was touching. This scene was like a perverse parody of trust.)

Working with his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt, whose character was named after Terry Gilliam), Curtis begins a rebel uprising.  Curtis plans to make a straight line from the rear of the train all the way to the engine.  This is a train, after all.  There is no left.  There is no right.  Just straight ahead through the doors in front of you or fall behind.  It makes wartime strategies incredibly simple when the main strategy is basically to push away the guy in front of you.  Out-flanking only provides you the most limited of option.

Also, Octavia Spencer is in this! I’d completely forgotten she was in this movie until I rewatched it. This isn’t a slam on Ms. Spencer, by the way, who is a great actor. But when you’re sharing the screen with a scenery-chewing Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and the Human freaking Torch, you tend to get lost in the shuffle… especially when you play it low-key like Ms. Spencer does.

The most drastic surprise in the movie is the unexpected change of scenery.  After spending many of the early movie where the walls are black and covered in dirt, our heroes enter train cars that are spic-and-span visions of 1950’s utopian society.  It’s as if the slums and drug dens were connected to an upper class parochial school by just a hallway via some nice gardens and an indoor aquarium from which sushi can be sustainably harvested.

Incidentally, Alison Pill is pretty great as a teacher here. She has the creepy cheerfulness that all people who hang out with schoolchildren all day sometimes adopt. But keep close attention and you’ll notice that at one point her eyelid starts to flutter, a slight indication that she’s holding something back and a little batty. She proves to be dangerous, and yet remains sympathetic throughout.

Here, Wilford and the train have become religious figures — commentary that belief and symbolism have placated the masses somewhat. On New Year, soldiers blindly celebrate the passing of a bridge, and eggs boiled from the waters that power the sacred engine are passed out as gifts. The frozen bodies of people who had tried escaping the train are viewed as monuments. For any faults I point out about this movie, the world building is pretty fantastic. And that’s saying a lot when your field of vision is limited to narrow corridors where the outside world is only visible periodically!

Snowpiercer was the first Bong Joon-ho movie I’d seen.  Now that I’ve seen two other movies, I can’t help but feel that he’s something of a nihilist.  Okja, for example, shows that despite the presence of people with good intentions, nothing about the world will ever change for the good… and perhaps we don’t really want it to.  The same attitude is reflected in Snowpiercer.  Technically, the movie ends on hope.  We see that perhaps the world is changing, as there is some evidence that there is life growing outside the train.  But… maybe it’s best if humanity is not included in that equation?

After all, attempting to counteract global warming was what got everybody in this mess in the first place.  Even in The Host, it’s humanity that was the engineer of its own doom.  In his quest to overtake the engine, Curtis uncovers a great betrayal: that the system he was rebelling against was all part of a problem that he was perpetuating, and the only way to win the game was to completely destroy it.  That sorta does make him the villain of the movie. Maybe the was the intent. The clean-cut superhero himself is also a sham, as he does dark things in the name of justice.

And no… I’m not referring only to the one moment that everyone made memes about.

True, Tilda Swinton was the one drawing from Muammar Gaddafi and Adolf Hitler as inspirations for her performance.  And yes, the powers-that-be were planning on full-scale genocide in order to keep Snowpiercer’s population at manageable levels.  In the world of Snowpiercer, though, this drastic measure may be the only thing ensuring human survival.  Without going into spoilers, can Curtis Everett’s actions at the end of the movie ever be considered good for mankind or, even, good for the Earth? Good thing that the universe has a sense of dramatic irony — because, man, if it didn’t, humanity would be totally screwed.

NEXT: We climb the stairs of some slummy tenements with The Raid: Redemption. Well, well, looks like someone called dibs on this one already, so I’m going to switch it up a bit with a stone cold classic: The Five Deadly Venoms!