I’m glad I finally saw Snowpiercer but it isn’t any good. I remember watching the trailers, and thinking that it looked like it might be amazing. Good cast, and the director, Bong Joon-Ho, had impressed me with The Host back in 2006. And then the movie just disappeared. It wasn’t released at all in Ireland, and by all accounts it was pulled from nearly every market or just not released. Hmmmph, I thought, and waited it for to come out on video. I’ve yet to see a copy in any shop in Ireland, and for the longest time the only copies you could buy on line were subtitled in Italian or had other weird features. And I started to see stories that Bong had had a huge falling out with Harvey Weinstein, who had taken the kind of revenge which only a millionaire producer can take or afford to take; he’d made sure that no-one would ever see the movie in theatres or even on video. That Harvey Weinstein, what a tool.
He might have had a point. Snowpiercer is a bit of a mess. The concept is ridiculously high; the whole world has been frozen solid after global warming mitigation goes massively wrong, and now the only people left alive are stuck on a vast train circling the globe. On the one hand, the train is a tubular dystopia, and on the other hand, there’s no very obvious reason for it to need to keep on moving. The whole word’s an ice cube, so it’s not like moving around it is going to help, and on the other hand, if you’ve got a power source that can move that much train forever, you’ve got a power source which would warm up a huge amount of space if it didn’t have to waste all its energy moving everything pointlessly round the world. As near as I can tell, the train is moving because that’s well cool, and the hand wave is that the guy who owns the train, and by extension the whole of life on earth, is a nutcase who never outgrew playing with trains. Ayn Rand would have loved him.
If you buy the whole “everyone still alive is stuck on a train, and it sucks” concept, the movie’s going to hang together for you pretty well til the half way mark. The way you feel about the rest of it is going to depend heavily on your tolerance for falling out of gritty realism and into the surreal. I said “OK, I see where they spent the 39 million. On drugs."
The film has an almost literal through line; the people at the back of the train live in poverty and squalor and they’re oppressed by heavily armed goons who make sure they keep in their place while the guys at the front of the train live lives of luxury. So the guys at the back revolt, and attack up the length of it, aiming to take over the engine and seize control, and of course get all the good stuff. The back of the train is unrelentingly horrible, and by twenty minutes in, you’re really hoping that the ruling class are going to get Korea’d to bits. They really look like they deserve the worst fates on offer. So the rest of the movie is the attack up the train, moving up from horrible to merely industrial to luxurious and then to positively decadent until a few survivors get to the engine itself and discover that the whole revolt was engineered to cut the population down to a sustainable level, and, oh yes, the engine literally runs on children.
Tilda Swinton is impressively horrible; you want her to die the second she starts talking, and by the time she actually does get schwacked you’re probably going to be disappointed that it didn’t hurt more. John Hurt is great, but unfortunately his character has a post mortem plot twist which makes his whole performance into nonsense. Ed Harris is there playing pretty much the role he played in The Truman Show, except even more jaded. And Chris Evans is the hero, for all the good that does; he’s in a role which could have been played just as well by Keanu Reaves. Set design seems to have cost a fortune, though it wasn’t always spent sensibly; the nice carriages are so insanely colourful and glossy that they feel like a dream sequence and break you right out of the action. And apparently they spent a fortune building a rig which would mimic the sway and movement of train carriages for their sets, but watching it on a TV, you hardly notice it, and thanks to Harvey Weinstein, that’s the only way most people are ever going to see it.
The swerve in the middle is the big problem for it as a movie, but the bigger problem is the story. Snowpiercer is such a heavy handed allegory for the world we live in that it sabotages itself. Everything left alive on earth is stuck on the train, and the poor are given nothing and told that this is the natural order of things and that the rich have earned their luxury and, well, basically all the lies we’ve been hearing from the global ruling class since the end of the Cold War meant they could finally stop pretending to be anything other than greedy. And then we see that even when we think we’re seizing control, we’re still being manipulated by The Man. And then the train derails, and everyone dies because the rich have left the poor with no options other than pulling it all down around their ears. So the movie begins with the end of the world and ends with the end of the world.
I’m glad I finally beat Harvey’s embargo, but I can kind of see where he was coming from.