November 4, 2014 -- I rented this DVD yesterday because this film is getting some Oscar buzz. After seeing it, I was convinced it was being praised by the same people who liked “Oldeuboi” (Oldboy, 2003). Well, maybe it is, but this film was made by a different director, not Park Chan-wook, but Joon-ho Bong, and I liked a couple of his earlier films, such as “The Host” and “Mother” (“Mother” made my top 10 list for 2010).
I disliked “Oldboy,” not just because of the psychological torture I had to endure, but the ludicrous extent of crap in the premise. Unfortunately, “Snowpiercer” reminds me way too much of “Oldboy,” but with even more crap in the premise. This film is outlandish, to put it mildly.
As absurd as the premise of “Snowpiercer” is, at least it is interesting. In the future, an experiment to reverse global warming goes terribly wrong and the earth's climate goes cold. The only people left alive are on a train run by an impossible perpetual motion machine invented by a psychotic man named Wilford (played by Ed Harris, channeling his character from his manipulative role in “The Truman Show”). The train has been running non-stop for years on a track so long, it takes a year to complete each loop. So this is not science fiction, rather, it is an absurdest fantasy. You could even call it a horror film.
The people on the train live in a strict hierarchy. Those in the tail of the train live in squalor. Those in the front of the train live in luxury. You can move backwards, but you can't forwards. The rules are enforced with merciless brute force. The society is authoritarian in the extreme. Small children are sometimes taken by force from the tail of the train to the front for unknown purposes. There are also terrible tales of mutilation and cannibalism on the train.
Just to see if cannibalism is a realistic human response to this situation, I did a little research on an analogous historical precedent, the Warsaw Ghetto, where thousands of people were starved to death by the Nazis in the early 1940s. According to what I read there was at least one instance of cannibalism there, but I saw no reports of widespread cannibalism. The killing and eating of people, especially babies, makes this movie less believable to me. The idea of people cutting off their own arms and legs for food is another one that is hard to swallow. Forgive the pun, but this is ridiculous.
It is bad enough to see people at their very worst, but this film shows us a society worse than any concentration camp, POW camp or gulag in history, stretching credulity past the breaking point. In doing so, the film makes its satirical point, but grows repugnant and ridiculous while doing so. This over-the-top aspect of the film is in line with its origins as a French graphic novel (Le Transperceneige).
From time to time, revolutions begin against the harsh injustices on the train. All have failed in the past. A new one is brewing now, led by Curtis (Chris Evans of “Captain America”). His plan is to lead a force of rebels all the way to the front of the train and capture the all-important engine which drives everything. Curtis doesn't want to be a leader, however. He plans to turn over leadership of the train to his oldest and wisest friend, Gilliam (John Hurt of “Hellboy”).
As Curtis leads his rebels through car after car in the train, we see a fantastic world of people, animals and plants, a balanced, self-sustaining ecosystem. There is also decadence, drug zombies inhabit a car tricked out like an opium den, a nightclub, parties, luxury salons and spas, a totally unsustainable animal meat locker, a school for upscale children, an amazing aquarium. It is a dizzying journey. This is all nonsense, but intriguing nonsense just the same.
There are battles along the way, with lots of graphic violence, featuring guns, knives and axes, lots and lots of blood, and one seemingly indestructible killer, Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov). There are several big revelations at the end of the film, but these don't have much potency because of all the craziness in the premise of the film. These absurdities take the edge off all the hyped-up angst in the film, but it sure helps with the all-too-few bits of humor in it. This could have been a good absurdest comedy, if it had gone more in the direction of Joon-ho Bong's “The Host.”
This is a film that lends itself to some interesting interpretations. In fact, it hits the audience over the head with these themes so hard, nobody could possibly miss the social commentary. It can be seen as an illustration of the social upheaval that happens when you have a totally stratified society where there is no hope of advancement for those at the bottom. The cure is to blow it all up and start over. Anarchy is better. It can also be seen as a parable for what happens when you take environmentalism to the extreme and ecosystem balance comes at the cost of human lives. These interpretations would have a lot more force if the story had a little credibility, but it doesn't.
This dystopian fantasy is unpleasant enough and inhuman enough that I never want to see it again, but it is interesting visually. The acting is also very good by a diverse cast. Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) gives a knockout performance as a desperate mother. Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton (she plays a truly horrible character who is kept on screen for far too long) also give strong performances. It explores some interesting ideas and it shows a lot of imagination in the process, but it is just too repugnant and it has too much conceptual baggage weighing it down. This film rates a C.
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