Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
I’m not usually one for predictions, but I think it’s entirely possible that Snowpiercer might be included in the next version of the 1001 Movies. Why? Well, based on the number of people who pee themselves over it, the number of top-10 lists for 2014 it made, it’s entirely possible. Additionally, the listkeepers sometimes attempt to demonstrate their street cred, such as it is. Witness the appearance of a film like The Cabin in the Woods a couple of years ago. Based on that, I think Snowpiercer has an even chance of being ensconced in the coming year.
So here’s where I get to piss people off: Snowpiercer, while filled with interesting action, good fight scenes, and a unique dystopia, is ultimately a nonsensical and kind of stupid movie. No, scratch that; Snowpiercer is all kinds of stupid. Not a bit of this film makes any sense at all. Once the film gets going and the action actually starts, the only thing holding it together at all is however much suspension of disbelief the audience is willing to give it. I tried. I really tried to make it work for me, and it simply doesn’t, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why everyone seems to be losing their collective shit over a film that appears to have a plot written by either a video game designer (it would make a pretty cool video game) or an imaginative 12-year-old without much knowledge of story structure and a desire for fight scenes.
The broad strokes of the plot are that eventually even the American right wing realizes that climate change is a real thing. A bunch of nations collectively decide to launch a chemical into the atmosphere to fix things, but it all goes wrong. Instead of fixing the climate, the chemical causes a worldwide freeze, making the planet unlivable. The world freezes, and the last bits of humanity are put on a train that, somehow, connects rails that travel all around the world, hitting every continent and inexplicably crossing oceans. It’s a giant closed loop of train tracks that takes precisely one year to circumnavigate. More on this later.
Anyway, like any good dystopia, there are people spread throughout the train in a rigid class system. The folks who live in the front of the train live in luxury, eating foods from carefully tended hydroponic gardens. In the back of the train, the desperate passengers who didn’t have a ticket for the train live in squalor and survive by eating glistening, semi-transparent protein blocks. The train has been going for something like 18 years, and periodically the people of the tail section revolt and try to take over the engine, but routinely fail.
We don’t have much of an action film without a revolt, so that’s exactly what we have planned for this film. This time the rebellion is sparked by the abduction of a child from the tail section to the front for reasons unknown. The tail section starts to get feisty, and one of the passengers is punished by literally having his arm frozen off. It’s about as dumb as it sounds, although it looks cool. Anyway, the tail section decides that enough is enough and comes up with a plan to break through all of the cars and get to the engine. The group is led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his main henchman Edgar (Jamie Bell), joined by Tanya (Octavia Spencer), who’s child was stolen, and a number of others. The whole plot is masterminded by a man named Gilliam (John Hurt), who appears to be the spiritual leader of the cattle car section.
The bulk of the film is the battle through train cars to get to the front. The first big coup is the collection of Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), who is incarcerated in the prison section and who also designed the security system of the train. Namgoong and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are addicted to a chemical called Kronole, which is also highly explosive. Their fee is a cube of kronole for every door opened. Eventually, through a few bloody battles and twists and turns, including a massacre on New Year’s Day; the capture of Mason (a mostly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), the more or less leader of the train’s enforcers; and a confrontation with Wilford (Ed Harris), we get to where we’re going.
Obviously, Snowpiercer is a political allegory about the upper class and the underclass. I get that and I’m willing to give the film a little license to tell the story it wants. But not when it goes this far (pardon the pun) off the rails. There’s simply too much here that doesn’t work or that flatly doesn’t make sense in any way for the film to be coherent. I have a staggering number of questions about the world of this film that are never answered. In fact, it would appear that the film doesn’t even think to consider these questions, assuming instead that we’ll just follow along with it and nod our heads until the final credits.
So what do I want to know? Sure, I’ll list a few off as they come to me. Why are they on a train? Why not, say, build a fortress somewhere and live in a specific equatorial location? We learn that the protein blocks are made from insects. Where the hell are the insects coming from in that sort of quantity? At one point, they walk through a meat freezer stocked with beef and birds (see the picture above). Where the hell do they come from? We never go through a livestock pen. Who took the time to build a train car that doubles as a massive enclosed salt water aquarium? Sure they get sushi a couple of times a year (no joke), but without fresh water for spawning, how are they keeping the salmon alive (because that’s what they’re eating)? How does Curtis regularly get the notes specifically to him from elsewhere on the train, and why the hell does he trust the one-word notes that come from parts unknown? How come we never see sleeping quarters for the first class passengers? Or all the workers? How come none of the first class passengers react to the sudden appearance of a group from the tail section? When the tail passengers reach the school room, why are all the kids the same general age? Where’s the high school car?
For what it’s worth, we’re told at one point that the train tracks cover 438,000 kilometers. Simple math tells us the following: at that speed, the train needs to travel exactly 1200 kilometers per day to get to the same spot for New Year’s Eve every 365 days. That’s 50 kilometers per hour, or about 31 miles per hour for those still not adjusted to the metric system. So the last speeding ark of humanity is barreling around the world at the rate of a slightly over-the-speed-limit drive to the grocery store down the block.
Frankly, the rest of the film shows about that much attention to detail and reality. After how much Snowpiercer was built up to me, I can only say I’m really disappointed.
Why to watch Snowpiercer: A truly unique dystopic vision.
Why not to watch: Not a bit of this movie makes any sense at all.