The problem, of late, has been the sheer lack of agreement between critics and audiences about what’s worth seeing. As mentioned previously, the Swedish WWII film (The Last Sentence) was beloved by critics but not so much audiences. But the alternative (at our local) was a French WWII film also beloved by critics, but not so much audiences. We could trek down to the backup theater to see Radio Free Albemuth, which was based on a Philip K. Dick story, utterly despised by critics, with audiences favorable to it, but just barely. (And also without any of the usual signals, like “Christian”, to suggest why critics would hate it.)
Both the kids had seen and disliked the movie poster for Snowpiercer, generic as it was, but audiences were okay with it and critics were gaga so I just dragged The Boy to see it.
And he loved it!
I…also liked it, though not as much as he did. There was a discrepancy in our brain-disengagement process that accounts for the difference. Let me explain the premise:
In an attempt to fight Global Warming (I know, I know), the countries of the world inject a chemical into the atmosphere, but they screw it up and actually end up freezing the world and killing everyone.
However, there’s a train. Yes, a train. And it travels around the world. Once circuit a year. It’s a super-fast self-contained ecosystem containing all the world’s remaining life. When the movie starts, we’re in the back of the train where the poor people live on something suspiciously Soylent Green-ish, oppressed by Nazi-esque soldiers and mob enforcers and Tilda Swinton, with Chris Evans and the kid from Billy Elliot (grown now, sorta) plot with John Hurt to invade the front part of the train where Ed Harris rules all.
So, it’s Elysium-on-a-train. And I’m pretty sure that’s why the critics liked it. Because it’s an allegory of the evil 1% oppressing the rest of the world.
I found this incredibly amusing because the train is a terrible allegory for a free market economy—there’s no movement or trade at all to speak of—and a perfect allegory for a centrally controlled “sustainable” society. The train is a perfect Progressive paradise: the upper class go to nice schools, live drugged/sexed-up adolescence, then go on to fulfill their various roles in the society.
And yet, pursuing any allegorical angle very far is the road to madness. Joon-ho Bong (The Host (2006), Mother (2009)) is operating on a different level. It’s, like, a Korean thing, reminding me after a fashion of Ki-Duk Kim (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, 3 Iron) in the sense that you’ll go wrong if you’re being too literal. The narrative is a kind of poetry.
And this works in some not entirely explicable fashion. Perhaps because the narrative is strongly constructed from a dramatic standpoint, with real plot points and (perhaps somewhat clichéd) characters and foreshadowing and so on. That’s what The Boy enthused about. Lately, he says, there have been a lot of what he considers “fake” movies, where they look like movies and have a lot of explosions and happening things, but they don’t really hang together well.
So, there’s a poetic logic to the proceedings that make it entertaining and engaging.
But that’s the only kind of logic there is in this film. For example, the whole tension of the film comes from the people in the back of the train wanting to escape to the more forward cars of the train, but there’s literally no reason for there to be any poor people on the train in the first place. I mean, I got to the point where I half-expected to see them get to the engine room where burly men would be shoveling heaps of babies into the burner. (There is a very, very tenuous contrivance for having created this lower class, but it’s fever-dream conspiracy level stuff.)
Then there are the various horrors they encounter which, frankly, are kind of silly, since the alternative was death. And there are battle scenes. I mean, big confrontations. In train cars.
Bong has brought along two of his repertory players, Kang-Ho Song and Ah-Sung Ko (who played feuding brother and sister in The Host), who are drug-addicted lovers/psychics/engineers (well, he’s the engineer, she’s the psychic), who help the band of adventurers get through the doors on their way to the front of the train.
And they speak Korean. Kang-Ho Song speaks it all the time. Ah-Sung Ko speaks English sometimes. And they have a translating machine. Which they use sometimes. Other times, the characters appear to be reading the subtitles.
So, look, if you can’t get past the sheer nonsense of it, you’re not going to enjoy it.
The ending is…well, very final. Happy? Unhappy? Beats me. It didn’t seem to matter much. It was just the ending. Don’t judge.
There’s really no distilling this down. As a straight adventure film, it’s kind of a fun ‘70s-style dystopia with that unique Korean flavor. But don’t go looking for science, engineering, logic…or anything like that.