Snowpiercer (2013/2014) ****
In the 21st century, itís become very difficult to sort out a movieís nationality. Resident Evil is probably still the champion of ethnic convolution, but Snowpiercer certainly makes a strong showing for itself in that department. Based on a French comic book, it was shot in Prague and Tyrol by a South Korean director, working for a consortium of Korean and Czech production companies, with a primarily British and American cast. Unsurprisingly, that diversity of perspectives has produced a commensurate complexity of style and vision. Production design straight out of Metal Hurlant combines with bone-crunching Asiatic action choreography. Bleak Slavic severity of both the post-Communist and Kafkaesque varieties sits cheek-by-jowl with dry Brit-wit and the madcap surrealism of Chan-wook Parkís ThreeÖ Extremes segment (Not coincidentally, Park is listed among Snowpiercerís many producers.) And Snowpiercerís extremely French brand of symbolic sci-fi is deployed to attack an extremely American target.
In the year 2017, global warming became such an undeniably urgent problem, of such undeniably human origin, that the political will to try solving it finally crystallized. Whatís more, there was by that time a promising technology not just for arresting the greenhouse effect, but for reversing it. Writer-director Joon-ho Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson wisely remain silent on exactly what CW-7 is supposed to do, but it seems to be a chemical treatment of some kind, released into the atmosphere by rockets or high-flying aircraft. The trouble is, the stuff works too well. Temperatures drop, alright, but they keep dropping long after historic norms are restored, eventually reaching depths of cold not seen on this planet since the days of the Marinoan Glaciation 650 million years or so ago, if ever. ItísÖ kind of a problem.
Meanwhile, an inventor named Wilford (Ed Harris, from 1984 and The Abyss) pursues a rather eccentric vision. Wilford became obsessed with trains when he was a small child, and he has devoted his whole adult life to developing the ultimate locomotive. Its hull is made of some virtually indestructible alloy. Its interior is hermetically sealed for perfect climate control. Its engine runs on some exotic power source enabling it to race at bullet-train speeds with effectively infinite endurance. Its various cars are outfitted to provide all the amenities a long-distance passenger could want, from food to entertainment to sleeping quarters to spaces for socializing with their fellows, to say nothing of workshops where the trainís staff can make anything up to and including spare parts for the vehicleís machinery. It is, for all practical purposes, a world unto itself. Understandably, there was much scoffing from outside observers during the development and construction of this wildly over-designed contraption, but the laughing stopped when the world froze, and Wilfordís self-contained ecosystem on wheels became the last place on Earth fit for human habitation. Mind you, Wilford didnít just build his miraculous train out of the goodness of his heart, selflessly for the benefit of mankind. No, Wilford is a capitalist through and through, and anyone who wants a seat on the Post-Apocalypse Express is going to have to buy a ticket. There are classes available to suit any budget, but it doesnít pay to be stingy at the box office. Wilfordís passengers will be riding that train for a long, long time, and their place in the new world order is permanently set by the class of their boarding pass.
That was almost eighteen years ago. For the folks in steerage at the tail of the train, that means eighteen years under armed guard, crammed into bunks three deep, subsisting on inadequate rations of unpalatable protein bars, never bathing, and never seeing the sun. It means eighteen years of brutally draconian discipline; eighteen years of loved ones (children especially) conscripted without a word of explanation, and hauled off forward for who knows what nefarious purpose; eighteen years of hectoring from Wilfordís right-hand woman, Mason (Tilda Swinton, from Constantine and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), about the vital importance of maintaining their appointed place in the God-given order of the Holy Engine. As you might imagine, there have been uprisings from time to time, but theyíve always been crushed without making any difference to the way things are done on the train. Wilford remains secure in his engine. Gilliam (John Hurt, of Hellboy and Outlander), the de facto leader of the slum-riders, grows older, sicker, and weaker. And arbitrary percentages of the passengers in steerage are executed in reprisal for each unsuccessful rebellion.
There is reason to believe that the revolt brewing now is going to be different, however. Its organizer, Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), has learned that one of the drawers in the detention car houses the trainís former chief of security, Namgoong Minso (Kang-Ho Song, from Thirst and The Host). If the rebels can free him and either buy or compel his cooperation, Namgoong could defeat all the security doors between the cars for them, even the one leading into the engine itself. Then it would be merely a question of who fights better and harder, Masonís soldiers or Curtisís desperate rabble. The one unresolved issue is that of timing. Many of those in the tailó including Curtisís young friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell, of King Kong and Deathwatch)ó want to start at once, but Everett urges caution and restraint. The rebels will get only one chance at this, and they must choose their moment with great care. In the end, as is so often the case, circumstance makes the decision for them. When soldiers from the head of the train come back to confiscate the sons of a man named Andrew (Ewen Bremner, from Jack the Giant Slayer and Alien vs. Predator) and a woman named Tanya (Octavia Spencer, of Drag Me to Hell and Pulse), the result is an outpouring of popular fury too strong to be contained. The revolution is on, whether Curtis feels ready for it or not.
Some of you are probably asking at this point, ďOkay, but why a train? Surely it would make more sense to have the last remnant of humanity hiding out in a space station or an underground bunker near a geothermal vent or a domed city like they had in Loganís Run?Ē Well youíre right. Any of those alternatives would be much more plausible than the scenario put forward by Snowpiercer, which is frankly pretty absurd. Its absurdity is not without purpose, however. Perhaps youíve heard of a dreary doorstop of a novel called Atlas Shrugged. Itís been getting a lot of undeserved attention lately, partly because of a charmingly ill-starred initiative to turn it into a trilogy of feature films, but more importantly because ideas put forth in it and the rest of author Ayn Randís work have been spreading like zombie plague among the ďPrivatize Everything Now!Ē subset of the American far right. I donít want to get too bogged down talking about Atlas Shrugged here (oh fuckÖ Iím going to end up reviewing the goddamned movies one of these days, arenít I?), so let me distill it down to four sentences for you. A genius entrepreneurial Łbermensch invents a magic engine, but he doesnít want to pay his taxes, so instead of building the thing, he goes and pouts in a secret clubhouse. Two more genius entrepreneurial Łbermenschen want to use the magic engine to power a magic train, but they donít want to pay their taxes either, so they go and pout in the secret clubhouse, too. Soon all the genius entrepreneurial Łbermenschen in the land are pouting in the secret clubhouse instead of building their inventions or running their business empires. Civilization collapses, and all the moochers and parasites become very sorry that the Bolsheviks werenít nicer to Ayn Randís daddyó but itís too late for that to help the moochers and parasites now, because the spiteful selfishness of vindictive children is the only legitimate basis for a moral and rational social order. In Snowpiercer, Wilford is all three of Randís central genius entrepreneurial Łbermenschen rolled into one, and the magic train with its magic engine merges with the secret clubhouse to become the ultimate revenge fantasy of aggrieved capitalists everywhere. Wilford gets to organize post-apocalyptic society entirely according to his liking, and everyone else is forced to pay him for the privilege of being treated however he believes they deserve.
The most vital clue to the Snowpiercer-Atlas Shrugged connection is Mason. Tilda Swinton is made up to look exactly like Ayn Rand, and when she speaks of Wilford, her eyes burn with the same mad fervor that Rand poured into her infatuation with serial killer William Hickman. Crucially, it is Masonís task, and not Wilfordís, to extol the virtues of the inventorís neo-feudalist dystopia. Mason is the one who berates the steerage passengers for their ingratitude toward the boons that Wilford has granted them: their lightless cattle cars, their diet of compressed cockroach pulp, their being suffered to continue their worthless existences at all. The teacher in the elementary school car forward knows Mason well, and the latterís familiarity with the hymns the children are taught to sing in praise of Wilford and the Holy Engine suggests that she had a hand in composing them. And as we finally see when Mason falls into the rebelsí clutches, she, like Rand, has no actual principles. Sheís as ready to sell out Wilford to save her own ass as Rand was to collect the Social Security payments she condemned for everyone else, or to hold her lovers to fidelity norms that she refused to be bound by herself. Mason is a hatchet-job, to be sure, but a richly deserved one.
Taking on Ayn Rand in the context of a story about rebellion against authority puts writer-director Joon-ho Bong in a bit of a bind, because her whole philosophy is purpose-designed to enable the rich and powerful to pose as oppressed underdogs. Rebel-against-the-system tales, meanwhile, have evolved in such a way as to presuppose a self-actuating individualist hero, which is easily perverted into subtextual support for Randian ideas about the idiot servility of the masses and their inescapable dependency on the drive and vision of supermen. Snowpiercer solves that problem by subverting the trope of the individualist hero itself. Curtis Everett certainly looks the part (and having him played by the current incarnation of Captain America only reinforces the impression), but closer examination muddies the picture. Curtis may have planned and organized the insurrection, but at no point is he ever really in control of it. The uprising starts not at his command, but as a spontaneous mass outburst of rage against an injustice no different from others that the same people have borne in silence before. Not only does Everett not initiate the fighting, but he fails even to predict its onset. The revolution also critically depends upon the participation of an outsider whose agenda is very different from the other rebelsí, and Everettís vision of what will come after victory has no basis in reality, since anyone can see that Gilliam is far too feeble to replace Wilford as engineer. And thatís before we even consider the long con that Wilford is running behind the scenes, in which even revolution has a pre-ordained role to play. Most importantly, Curtis believes (not without justification) that he lacks the moral authority to lead. Genre fiction is full of loners who reject the responsibility of leadership, but how often do you see anymore a character who stands up for justice on behalf of his or her community, and then says, ďNo, donít put me in chargeó I donít deserve itĒ? So what appears at first to be yet another dramatization of the Great Man hypothesis ends up having at least as much to do with Marxian world-historical forcesó especially once Namgoong Minso plays his hidden hand at last, and reveals that the central assumption underlying the class struggle aboard the train is fundamentally in error. Namgoongís secret also undermines the other likely approach to a right-wing reading of Snowpiercer, insofar as it deprives of its ďGotcha!Ē value the point that the end of the world was brought about by efforts to fix global warming.
What happens then is at the root of my only real complaint with Snowpiercer. At the endgame, the movie sets up a situation that is at once unspeakably bleak and oddly hopeful. The only thing Iíve seen that comes anywhere near to matching the mood is the conclusion to The Cabin in the Woods. Bong seems to lose his nerve at the very last minute, though, softening the bleakness and shifting the hope in a more conventional and altogether less believable direction. I donít want to say too much while Snowpiercer is still slinking quietly from one arthouse theater to the next, but itís a matter of coherency of vision. Bongís diagnosis of this societyís ills demands far more radical a prescription than the one Snowpiercer ultimately offers, and the filmís final moment canít plausibly mean what he seems to want it to.
Otherwise, Snowpiercer is very much what I was hoping for. Itís a smart, motivated sci-fi movie that bridges the often difficult gap between the intellect and the adrenal glands, with a memorable look and a distinctive sensibility. It has a wicked sense of humor, combined with a willingness to shock and to give offense that has become annoyingly rare in this age of billion-dollar worldwide box-office grosses, in which studios aspire to almost literally universal appeal when working in capital-intensive genres like science fiction. The world-building is surprisingly effective, given the deliberate artificiality of the setting. And the film is heavily seasoned with enjoyable moments of high weirdness, like the interaction between teacher and teacherís pet (each her own unmistakable species of Objectivist sociopath) after the indoctrination video on Wilfordís youth, or the moment when the train crosses the Ekaterina Bridge, and rebels and soldiers alike pause in their death-struggle to ring in the new year together. The Weinsteins have been releasing Snowpiercer in a modest, gradual manner, so you may have to wait a bit before it reaches you, but I highly recommend you check it out whenever it arrives.