Sunday, July 27, 2014


In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet, a class system evolves aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine.
For my Sunday collapse-and-decline-related entertainment entry, I feature "Snowpiercer," which my wife and I watched yesterday.  We quite enjoyed it.  The movie explores most of the themes I examine here--climate, sustainability, population, food, technology, and inequality.  It also warns that sometimes the cure can be worse than the disease.

As for a more thorough review, I don't have one of my own.  However, I ran across a very complete one in the first part of Books So Bad They're Good: Objectifying the Apocalypse by Ellid on Daily Kos last week.  Warning--spoilers ahoy!
Recently I saw a movie about a train.

I almost didn’t see it at all – it never played at the Heck Piazza Dodecaplex, and advertising has been all but non-existent – but through some miracle it turned out to be playing at Ye Teeny-Weeny Art House Ultra-Organic Miniature Cineplex in the very same town where I work.  On-line friends had seen it and raved, The critics had raved, my roommate saw it at a matinee and raved, and since I trust Roomie’s judgment about film, I resolved to do likewise.

The bright pink list of film times and dates from Ye Teeny-Weeny Art House Ultra-Organic Miniature Cineplex that Roomie left on my desk helped immensely with scheduling, let me tell you.

I went on Tuesday night and frankly didn't expect a big crowd to join me; the critics might be doing back flips worthy of Nadia Comeneci over this particular film, but the box office had been weak, even allowing for it being booked exclusively in teeny weeny organic miniature cinemas instead of the local equivalent of the Heck Piazza Dodecaplex.  Much to my surprise, the theater was packed, even the horrid seats right up against the screen where you have to tilt your head back to see anything other than the actors’ nose hairs.  Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d heard good things about this particular cinematic achievement and braved lack of publicity, lack of wide release, and lack of stadium seating and Surroundsound.

Despite the good reviews and the good word of mouth, I was still a bit nervous as the previews ended, the lights lowered, and the film began.  This was, by all accounts, something of a departure from my usual preference for science fiction, historical drama, and action: grim, dark, and bloody, it was a dystopian fable with a high body count if the reviews were to be believed.   Brilliantly written and directed, beautifully shot, and expertly acted, yes, but still much, much darker and more serious than my usual choice. Add in that the film had what might be termed a problematic back story – based on a twenty year old French graphic novel, it was filmed on a tiny budget in Prague with a multinational cast and a South Korean director who barely spoke English, then ran into distribution problems that nearly kept it from being released in the United States at all – and I think I can be forgiven for wondering whether this would turn out to be a quirky cinematic disaster.

I was wrong.

So, so, so wrong.

The movie is called Snowpiercer, and not only is it the best movie of the year, it may well be the best movie of the century.

The story is simple: after an attempt at reversing global warming goes horribly wrong, the remnants of humanity have crammed onto a luxury train, the Snowpiercer, that travels the globe once a year on a circuitous route cobbled together from major rail systems.  A handful of first-class passengers near the front of the train live a life of decadent ease and comfort, while everyone else lives in horrific squalor in the last few cars.  Seventeen years into the Snowpiercer’s perpetual journey, the people at the back of the train have had enough of filth, starvation, and ill treatment.  When the second in command, Minister Mason (the brilliant Tilda Swinton), seizes two children from the rear car for “medical tests,” it’s time for the revolution.

The rest of the film is story of that revolution, as Gilliam (John Hurt, stoic and secretive) and his protégé Curtis (Chris Evans, filthy and haunted) lead a band of desperate proles toward the front of the train.  Along the way they have to engage in horrific battles, encounter an increasingly bizarre series of luxurious train cars that range from a beauty salon to an orangery to a sushi bar, and learn each other’s secrets, both good and bad.  By the time Curtis and the last two survivors (Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko) reach the engine and the final revelations unfold, not a single plot twist, character, or event turns out to be what it seemed.

Tales of the 99% confronting the elite aren’t uncommon; recent examples include the Matt Damon vehicle Elysium, the bitter Natalie Portman/Hugo Weaving adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, and even the Hugh Jackman version of  Les Miserables.  But Snowpiercer is the best of lot by an order of magnitude.  Expertly directed from a taut, beautifully structured script by Kelly Masterson and director Bong Joon-Ho, Snowpiercer takes every cliché of the genre and subverts it in ways that are both surprising and thoughtful.  There’s shocking violence that is never once gratuitous, humor that breaks the tension without undermining the overall narrative thrust, sets and costumes that serve their purpose without going over the top, and sharp, expert criticism of everything from capitalism to consumerism to the very idea of revolution itself.  Cinematography that all but glows, gorgeous, deadly battles, set design that ranges from the horror of the tail section to the stunning Art Deco engine room...even the score and musical cues are spot-on, with a use of The Goldberg Variations that had me gasping.

More than anything else, though, this is movie with some of the finest acting you will ever see.  Tilda Swinton has earned a lot of ink for her appalling, hilarious performance as Minister Mason, and she deserves every drop.  Equally good are Octavia Spencer as the fierce, indomitable Tanya, John Hurt as the subversive mentor Gilliam, Ed Harris as the devious owner of the trainer, Alison Pill as the elite’s chirpy, murderous schoolteacher, and Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko as security expert Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona.  There isn’t a bad performance among them.

And then there’s Chris Evans, all but unrecognizable under a scruffy beard and tattered pea coat held together by black electrical tape.  His Curtis, who at first seems to be nothing more than a typical strong, stoic action hero, proves a reluctant leader who simultaneously rises to the occasion and begins to crack as the revolution proceeds.  By the time he arrives at the final car, home both to “the sacred engine” that drives Snowpiercer and the “great Wilford” who designed her, guilt and grief and the bone-deep rage he's carried for seventeen years have left him bare steps from the abyss.  You can’t take your eyes off him during a monologue where he confesses just why he’s been so reluctant to lead, and his final breakdown, and final redemption, are stunningly effective.  This is not only the best performance of his career, it anchors the whole film.

Snowpiercer isn’t easy to find in the theaters.  The distributor, The Weinstein Company, originally tried to cut twenty minutes from the film and add a voiceover on the grounds that Americans weren’t savvy enough to watch a thoughtful piece of science fiction but would flock to see Captain America hit Bad Guys with an axe, and finally agreed after a long, nasty fight to release Bong Joon-Ho’s original cut (but only in very limited distribution).  There’s been almost no publicity despite rapturous reviews, and it was released directly opposite Transformers 4 in what looks like a deliberate piece of spite.  Fortunately for Kossacks who don’t live near an art house, Snowpiercer has been released on iTunes,, and other VOD distributors, where it’s breaking download records and proving that no, Americans aren’t too stupid to understand the film and its message.

If you supported Occupy Wall Street...if you're appalled by the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the elite while the rest of the world burns...if you simply want to see the best dystopia - hell, arguably the best science fiction film of any type  since Brazil, or possibly even Blade Runner - see Snowpiercer.  Dark, bloody, and rich with the sort of details that reward repeated watching, this is a movie for the ages, and a grim parable for our time.

I'm not the only person saying this; publications from The New York Times to Esquire have lauded the film and pointed out its very political, and very left-wing, message.  Right now it's running at about 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and has cleaned up at the box office everywhere but the United States (take that, Harvey Scissorhands!).  Oh, there are exceptions - the National Review's take is particularly ludicrous, and no, I will not link to it, I feel like scrubbing myself raw with a Chore Boy copper pot cleaning pad after being on that site for less than five minutes the things I do for you people, geez - but they are few and far between.

There is one thing that's puzzled me, though.  Some reviews, including several raves, have claimed to see the influence of a writer who is about as far from Occupy Wall Street as it's possible to get.  Despite the political allegory, the very clear parallels to modern life, and the criticism of elitist greed that permeates the entire film, a handful of people are convinced that Snowpiercer was at least partially inspired by the least liberal, least likely of writers:  Ayn Rand.

Yes.  Really.
That sets up part two, in which Ellid descended from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Stay tuned.

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