Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Off the Rails

Film: Snowpiercer
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.


  1. Oh no! I think there are two things happening here. The first is the weight of expectations. You mention several times that you've heard so many great things about Snowpiercer. That makes it really hard for any film to live up to them. That doesn't mean your points aren't valid. I'm certain that if I sat down and thought about a lot of the issues you mention, it would drive me nuts. All I can say is that on first viewing, I was thrilled by Snowpiercer. Will it hold up? That's doubtful. Even so, watching it was a breath of fresh air last summer.

    1. I can see that. But even without the expectations (although that's a huge part of my disappointment), I just can't see what the fuss is.

  2. A couple of my cinephile friends have recommended Snowpiercer. Neither of them is very reliable for this kind of film. M likes almost every horror/adventure/science fiction movie ever made. (He was raving about both Exodus and The Battle of Five Armies.) D is kind of contemptuous of genre films, but every once in a while he'll really like something for the most arbitrary reasons. (Like, was it made in Europe?)

    (They both like Interstellar but they split on Dark Knight Rises.)

    (And I admit, they're both probably trying to figure out if my endorsement of The Interview means anything at all.)

    I'm starting to think I might like Snowpiercer.

    The logic problems probably won't bother me if everything else is working. I admire audacious implausibilities, and the mixture of bad science and bad sociology might just work for me.

    It's on Netflix streaming, so I can watch it when I want.

    1. I won't say it's not worth watching. Even though I was bothered by a lot of it, there's quite a bit here to like. The visual style is great and its well acted. For me, it really comes down to the fact that it's a cool idea made completely implausible.

      It's also entirely possible that I'm just thinking about it too hard.

  3. I saw it before the rest of the world, as I saw it a couple years ago in Korea--a full year before it came to the west. So it wasn't hyped up for me. And I agree that it's not worth the excitement-pee it's getting. I liked it more than you, but I still don't get it.

    Also... I really need to see the American version to see if it really is different than the original cut, because... the more I hear about it, the more it confuses me. It was explained in the Korean version why they were on the train. Also, in the Korean cut, the protein bars were made out of people (soylent green!), not insects.

    1. Yeah, I'm not getting it. Snowpiercer has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics, which is far too high for a film with this many logical problems.

      I don't mind being in the minority on it--I didn't hate it (I gave it two stars on Letterboxd). I just wish it held together logically.

  4. The Emperor has no clothes. The action scenes are fine, but the deer up makes no sense, as you have pointed out. The heavy handed have VS have not theme is ridiculous. The payoff for the movie was annoying, really, that's what this was all about. If they wanted to be rid of the lower class sections, uncouple the cars, have they never seen a Western with a train in it? I gave it a chance, there was just not anything I cared about in this story.

    1. We're in the minority on this. In a case like this, I like to think I'm fighting the good fight against bad plot design and lack of verisimilitude.

      I agree on the payoff.


      I hope the polar bear eats 'em.

  5. I'm in the same boat as Dan and Nick: I liked the film more than you, got a kick out of its imagination and the action sequences... but your beefs are 100% valid and in no way would I consider this a top shelf, 1001 list-worthy movie. Given the overall tone of the comments, who DOES think this movie is all that? - Nolahn

    SPOILER Fun Fact
    Polar bears are the only animals on earth that develop a taste for human flesh. Chomp chomp!

    1. Based on what sometimes gets added to the List, I think this one is 50/50 for the 2015 edition. It's a "critic" film in that it's at a 95% from critics, 77% from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, it's little known outside of the film geek community...

      It's got a chance.

  6. You had me at it was "ultimately a nonsensical and kind of stupid movie" -- i couldn't agree more.

    I'd not heard a word about it when I saw it, and it is one of the few films which I have not bothered to review, because i didn't think it was worth my time.

    It was just that bad!

    I have since heard how much praise this film has received, and wondered of I had watched the same movie. -- Yup, it's still a ridiculous movie for all the reasons that you have mentioned.

    If it makes the 2015 edition, I may buy a copy and burn it to keep warm ;)

    1. The more I think of it, the more I think it's likely to show up. It's exactly the sort of critics' favorite that demonstrates that the listmakers are hip and capable of picking an action film instead of a series of 3-hour dramas where people sit around and talk at each other.

      It's a shame, because it's well made and there's a lot of potential here. I really wanted to like it, but there are so many problems that I just couldn't get my head around it.

  7. I had had this in my Netflix queue for quite a while. Going in I had questions such as who keeps the tracks clear (explained in the movie), who repairs the rails from earthquakes (not explained), who repairs the general breakdown of the train and rails (partially explained in movie), where does the food and water come from (partially explained), etc.

    I agree with some of your questions. You could possible figure the insects are from the hydroponic car. They did show them passing by high-end passenger quarters in one car. There are far more cars on the train than we were shown them going through, so those could have housed many of the things you asked about. As for why a train and why some of the specialized cars, it's because the guy who built it was a train nut, and he "foresaw" (potentially he had something to do with the actual disaster - maybe through the company that made the chemical) the coming need for a closed system containing those things. The notes are coming from the front and are intended to go to him so they ensure he does get them. When he misses one he asks around until the right block is found (when they were negotiating with the little kid for his protein bar). The fresh water comes from the snow and ice the front of the train goes through. The oceans are presumably frozen over, but how then did they have time to build train tracks on top of the ice? The human race is doomed anyway because there's no genetic diversity by the end of the movie, even if there is some way to live long enough to reproduce.


    Now, what I thought it got right was the entire concept of what a closed system means and what the consequences are. Again, before I even saw the movie I went in with a bunch of questions and one of the main ones was overpopulation and the way that nature takes care of that (wars, pestilence, etc.) I was actually looking for the revolution to be part of the overall management of the population, so when it was I liked that. There was also the constant emphasis on "maintaining a balance" which tipped me that they were actively managing everything in the closed system, even the births and deaths. I can't remember what science fiction story it was, but it was a ship in outer space and there were intentional wars in order to keep the population down, except the people didn't realize they were being manipulated into it.

    I didn't like the ending. What is she going to do, kill the polar bear with her bare hands? Of course, the existence of the bear means an ecosystem that supports it, including whatever it eats. If it would have ended with Evans' character actually taking the place of Harris' that would have been a great dystopian take on it. The main character realizing that in order to save what is left of the human race he has to become the thing he has hated the most. Had it done that I would have liked it far more.

    Overall, I did like it, but it could have been a lot better.

    1. I never really questioned where the water came from, because that is completely explained. The problem with the insects is the sheer mass of them--that many insects in the hydroponics car would be terrifying, and they'd need that many insects every day.

      I also get that the train thing is because the inventor was a train geek, but still--it seems unnecessarily arcane. Even if the train doesn't break down, the rails certainly would need maintenance

      The bigger problem is this--a lot of the questions I have about this film are there specifically because of what we're shown. If we don't walk through the meat freezer, I probably wouldn't ask about where all the chickens came from. But we do, so the question pops up.

      There are a lot of good ideas in this film, a lot of interesting ideas that were worth exploring. I just wish they'd been explored in a film that didn't feel so detached from its own reality.