If you have no axes, you can like me on Facebook.
Snowpiercer is a terrible name for a movie. What the fuck does it mean? It sounds like a new-agey place in Idaho Springs that pokes holes in people’s tongues and nutsacks. The name gives you no clue that Snowpiercer is a mass transit conveyance that can run forever without stopping and the only escape being into a world where death is certain. Sort of like the Route 15 bus on Colfax. Except this is a train.
I once threw up on a train. I had been at Glenwood Hot Springs and I was too cheap to buy a souvenir so I tried to drink a bunch of the water to take home. The sulfur made me sick somewhere around Rifle and I barfed. You know what they do if you puke in coach class? They cover it with coffee grounds to mask the smell. Then everyone near you finds a seat in a different car and you pretty much have it to yourself. Then you can barf anywhere you want for the rest of the ride. But I bet in business class, they have fancy puke doilies or even a vacuum cleaner.
The premise of Snowpiercer is one that can fuel the masturbatory diatribes of political hacks on both sides of the outhouse. Global warming becomes so unbearable that even the Koch Brothers would stop saying, “Global warming is a hoax,” every time it snows (“Told you so! It is real!”). The world’s only chance at survival is a scientific experiment, but it goes horribly wrong (“Told you so! Never put your faith in science!”). As a result, the earth has become a giant popsicle whose only survivors are the people traveling inside a fancy-ass train. This train, the Snowpiercer, can run forever and is self-sustaining. It has been for 17 years.
In the 90s, Marlboro tried to build a party train. I think they were going to reward their most loyal smokers with multi-day trips across the west, and lavish them with Pullmans, Jacuzzi cars, drinking cars and fancy buffets. I don’t know why it never got made, but I bet someone realized that the company’s most loyal customers were probably filthy pigs who smelled like ashtrays and talked through tubes stuck in their throats. Images of fat, drunk people shoveling ribs into their faces with one hand while holding two Marlboro Reds in the other is not great advertising.
Snowpiercer is like Supertrain, a very short-lived NBC TV show about a nuclear-powered luxury train. Both it and Snowpiercer have a swimming pool, discotheque, sauna, gourmet dining and ensemble of B-list actors. What Supertrain lacked was the steampunk set design, the ax-wielding henchmen and an Occupy plot about the 99% crammed into the back of the train in filth and squalor while the well-heeled riders ride up front eating fresh sushi and chortling at safari stories in the parlor car.
After 17 years of being fed protein gel made from cockroaches, being systematically culled and watching some of their children dragged away, presumably to make smart phones and cheap watches, the filthy wretches decide to revolt. One of the dirtbags is Curtis (Chris Evans) who says early on “I don’t want to be a leader.”
Can you guess what he ends up doing? Of course you can. Usually, movies are a little subtler than Snowpiercer in showing the reluctance of their heroes. But there is nothing subtle about this movie. It is based on a comic book and it feels like it. Everything is on-the-nose, cartoonish and over-the-top. It’s the sort of allegory shit that fanboys wet their mother’s couches over and declare as clever because they get it. The reality is, they get it because it’s so fucking obvious.
I like my politics in the movies to be sneaky. It’s best when I’m having so much fun that I don’t even realize I’m being taught a lesson . But Snowpiercer’s point is so fucking heavy-handed and so absolute that, even if I fully agreed with it, I’d feel insulted by the pandering. It feels more like being forced to listen to AM talk radio for an hour. It’s just a bludgeoning. As with all bludgeonings, whether from the left, the right or an infant with a sledgehammer, I ended up resenting the person giving it to me. Stupid baby.
In Snowpiercer’s case, the allegory couldn’t be less subtle. A train is straight line; there is only one path. To lay people out from wealthy to poor along that line is to ignore everything that defines people except money. The rich are in front and they control the engine. The poor are in the back, their lives at the mercy of the rich. There is no way for them to revolt except by moving directly forward. There is no going around, there is no sneaking, there is no revolt from within. The poor of this story are universally good (and boring). The rich are universally bad (and garish).
In the real world, I root for the poor because it’s where I live. I also have no doubt that the rich fuck the poor over. But, to root for the poor in this movie requires the audience to see the world as simply and linear as it does. There are no characters worth rooting for because writer/director Joon-ho Bong didn’t bother making any of them more than shallow pawns on his solitaire chess board. The story feels much more in his control than the characters’. He just wants scenes of extreme violence, a certain visual aesthetic that combine Willy Wonka with Brazil, and the bludgeoning.
Snowpiercer tries to inject some character relevance late when Curits tells a story of eating an old man’s arm instead of eating a baby, and that baby growing up to be Babe Ruth, or a friend or something. I don’t remember exactly, just that he says babies taste best, and that this came too late, after too much violence and after the movie’s course was set in stone.
As the poor march up the tail toward the front, they endure a gauntlet much like a Japanese game show. There are flanks of ax-wielding goons in masks and night-vision goggles who chop and chop. There are machine-gun wielding elementary school teachers. There are boss battles and then aquarium and greenhouse cars. Every scene is visual, either violently or remarkably. I never got a sense of what it was like living in a train. There was little indication that anyone was tired of living on a train after 17 years, just that the poor were sick of eating cockroaches and having dirty faces. But come on, there are only so many times you can hang out in the fancy parlor car or the disco car or the sauna car before you’d go fucking nuts. I bet exploring how miserable even the rich people were would have made this a more interesting story. Of course, that wouldn’t fit on the narrative straight line.
Curtis finally reaches the man in charge at the very front, played by Ed Harris. He built the train, kills the poor to balance the population and now he keeps it running while eating steak tartar and sipping wine. Just in case you were confused about whether he’s a good guy, the movie also has him throw little kids into the engine room to slave away at repairs. He actually makes a speech while drinking wine where he says “The train is the world, and all of us humanity.”
Gee, thanks for clearing that up. Two Fingers for Snowpiercer.