Snowpiercer movie review: hunger train

MaryAnn’s quick take: Hauntingly grim, full of appalling ironies and awful truths. This is most definitely not the feel-good movie of the summer.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a big SF geek
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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There’s a reason why Snowpiercer — which could have, theoretically, easily been a centerpiece summer film for a major Hollywood studio — is getting handled with the timid kid gloves of an arthouse release by the industry, quietly dribbling into a few cinemas here and there instead of getting a big opening-weekend push out onto three thousand screens. It’s a reason that has a lot to do with what the film has to say about human nature, hope, despotism, and a revolutionary spirit that might want to counter that despotism. What Snowpiercer is about offers too harsh a condemnation of the powers that be, of which Hollywood is but one arm.

At first glance, both from without and for a good chunk of the film’s runtime, Snowpiercer would appear to bear a strong resemblance to plenty of other films in a genre that is popular and mainstream at the moment: the uprising in the science-fiction dystopia, including movies such as Divergent, V for Vendetta, and especially The Hunger Games. (It has also been compared to 1984, and it does share some philosophies with it. I’d also throw in Brazil, in how it rages against the dehumanization of government whose primary concern is self-perpetuation even at the expense of the people it is meant to serve.) The year is 2031, and it’s been 17 years since the last remnants of humanity began huddling together for survival on a sort of supertrain that circumnavigates the world once per year, never stopping. Planet Earth is otherwise dead, rendered a frozen wasteland by an experiment to cool the atmosphere to fix global warming that did the job too well. The train — which literally pierces the enormous drifts of snow that pile up on the tracks — is a closed ecosystem, providing air, water, food, shelter, and warmth. Life is not possible outside the train.

In the squalid rear cars, passengers are treated like cattle, subsist on protein bars that look like molded shit, and are subject to (seemingly) random abuses by soldiers and swells visiting from the front of the train, where life is clearly much more comfortable, if their nice clothes and evidence of regular bathing and grooming is anything to go by. Discontent is always swirling, and it is reaching a head again. (There are allusions to past failed revolutions.) With the support of the rear cars’ nominal leader, Gilliam (John Hurt: Only Lovers Left Alive, Doctor Who), Curtis (Chris Evans: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Iceman) has a new plan for an uprising, one that will get them to the engine at the front of the train, because there is no political power on the train without, you know, controlling the power needed to keep it moving.

If that sounds familiar — the Western nations aren’t actually occupying oil-producing lands out of a desire to bring schools and hospitals to poor brown people — that’s not an accident. The train is a microcosm for our larger world of limited and contracting resources that has somehow resulted not in those resources being shared around evenly and fairly, but in striking class divisions and massive inequalities. You will be unsurprised to hear that Curtis’s plan enjoys some success, and that as he and his band of angry friends work their way forward on the train, they encounter an almost endless array of unimaginable luxuries the front-of-the-train people have been enjoying. You may be surprised, based on what the mainstream versions of this story have told us, at just how bitter are the lessons that Curtis learns: about the high price of leadership, about the appalling ironies of what it takes to fix an unfair system, and about the awful truth of what happens to revolutionaries even if they win.

Screenwriter (with Kelly Masterson: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) and director Bong Joon-ho (Mother) brings a lot of bleak humor in to lighten his tale: naming a main character Gilliam is almost certainly an homage to the filmmaker Snowpiercer gets a lot of its visual inspiration and dark wit from. (This is based on the early-80s graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, but the film’s plot and characters appear to be quite different.) And there’s much to cheer in how the cast actually looks more like a cross-section of humanity than we typically get in a big SF flick: among Curtis’s band of soldiers are not only more white guys including Jamie Bell (Nymphomaniac, Man on a Ledge) and Ewen Bremner (Jack the Giant Slayer, Great Expectations) but also Octavia Spencer (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Smashed) and the Korean duo of Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song; among the villains is Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) as a sniveling monster from the front of the train.

But in the end, this is still hauntingly grim. If Snowpiercer goes about its SF uprising far more brutally than we’re used to — it delivers not only physical violence but psychological punches, too — we only end up realizing that the rise of the tween-friendly Hollywood SF dystopia is, in fact, a symptom of the sociopolitical mindset that the film is underscoring. Abandon most hope, ye who enter Snowpiercer. This is most definitely not the feel-good movie of the summer.


see also: spoiler alert: about the ending of Snowpiercer

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LaSargenta
LaSargenta
Thu, Jul 10, 2014 3:58pm

That’s a shame the plot got changed. Not that I have anything in particular against another revolution in a dystopia, but Le Transperceneige was bleak and terrifying on its own way to tragedy. I still really, really want to see this and I think I’m going to get to go on Saturday.

MarkyD
Thu, Jul 10, 2014 4:08pm

I convinced my wife to go see this on Saturday. Dinner and a movie kind of thing. She hasn’t a clue what the movie is about, just that I want to see it. I hope it isn’t TOO much of a downer.

Bluejay
Bluejay
Thu, Jul 10, 2014 9:38pm

This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
This train carries brokenhearted
This train, thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools, carries kings
This train — all aboard…

— Brooooce

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Jul 10, 2014 9:49pm

You can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell
From the halls of heaven to the gates of hell
And there’s room for the forsaken if you’re there on time
You’ll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes
If you’re down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow

–John R. Cash, the One and Only

Tonio Kruger
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Jul 12, 2014 1:18am

Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?

Tonio Kruger
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 12:30am

Good night, America.
How are you?

Don’t you know me?
I’m your native son..

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 9:54am

Not really apropos, is it?

Danielm80
Danielm80
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 12:44pm

Could be worse. He could have quoted a song by Train.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 1:27pm

>_<

Tonio Kruger
reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 3:25pm

And I could have quoted from “Runaway Train.” Or “Boxcars.” Or “Folsom Prison Blues.” Or “Rock Island.” Or “Train of Thought”…

Fortunately, I did not do any of those things. But I will admit it was hard to resist the impulse to quote from an old Shirley Bassey song when I first saw that title..

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 4:19pm

I don’t know. I can see the front-car folks checking out Mozart while doing Tae Bo, and afterwards sipping the best soy latte they ever had. Meanwhile, in the rear cars, perhaps there’s a shortage of love, pride, and deep-fried chicken.

MarkyD
reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 7:07pm

Not much worse than Train music. UGH.

Tonio Kruger
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 3:17pm

It could be.:)

It is quite a downbeat song when you think about it. Not as downbeat as the movie seems to be but still…

Paul Wartenberg
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Wed, Jul 16, 2014 2:10pm

You know how you can tell this was a downer movie? No puppies. Of course, being the crapsack world it was, you DIDN’T WANT there to be puppies (oh god no oh god no)…

Tonio Kruger
reply to  Paul Wartenberg
Wed, Jul 16, 2014 3:22pm

I prefer kittens myself.

Paul Wartenberg
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Wed, Jul 16, 2014 4:08pm

Im not letting my kittehs anywhere on that train

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Paul Wartenberg
Wed, Jul 16, 2014 4:06pm

If there were puppies, they probably became dinner years ago.

Thomas Scott Estes
Thomas Scott Estes
Sat, Jul 12, 2014 12:29am

I didn’t much care for the ending.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Thomas Scott Estes
Sun, Jul 13, 2014 12:43am

I’m gonna do a big spoilery post about the ending after it’s been out for a while. It needs discussion. Maybe I won’t wait too long…

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Jul 13, 2014 1:06am

Label the post SPOILERS GALORE and everyone who comments needs to put several rows of asterixes before writing anything.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 18, 2014 5:25pm

*Bump*

ETA on that post? (Not nagging, just been thinking about it.)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaSargenta
Fri, Jul 18, 2014 11:08pm

I’ll still haven’t written about the latest episodes of Sherlock. I wouldn’t hold my breath. :->

Soon as I can.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Aug 05, 2014 7:25pm

Bueller? Bueller?

[I can’t believe the thread about Guardians is heading towards Horton Hears a Who level of comments and this movie has dripped away from everyone’s memory. I’ve been getting e-mails claiming this movie is about Gnosticism!!! I mean, seriously, we need a forum for discussion!!]

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  LaSargenta
Tue, Aug 05, 2014 8:53pm

You could post a new comment and start the discussion. What’s on your mind?

I assume you’re referring to my email pointing out the io9 article about the film’s supposed Gnostic influences (just flagging it as an interesting interpretation, not necessarily agreeing with it). It’s here, if anyone else is interested.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Bluejay
Tue, Aug 05, 2014 10:17pm

Look, MAJ seemed to have something to say. And you did, so did DanielM80…I’m curious! I don’t have anything specific except it was a greatfilmand I’d love to have more discussion about it. I could post an alternate interpretation of the end, but I think a separate thread labled ‘spoilers’ would be helpful so we don’t have to feel constrained.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  LaSargenta
Wed, Aug 06, 2014 2:17am

Another link. I think this is a great visual analysis.

http://io9.com/visual-breakdown-for-snowpiercer-reveals-the-trains-sec-1616609889

Also, I was very impressed with Chris Evans in this one. His role here allows him a bit more range than his role as Cap.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaSargenta
Wed, Aug 06, 2014 12:29pm

I’ll try to get to my post about the ending in the next day or two.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Aug 06, 2014 1:30pm

*happy dance*

Tonio Kruger
reply to  LaSargenta
Wed, Aug 06, 2014 1:29am

All aboard the Ouroboros Express! :-)

rosterri
rosterri
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 25, 2014 3:41am

I would love to hear your take on the ending. I just saw it at the one and only theatre that is playing it in Toronto.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  rosterri
Fri, Jul 25, 2014 10:52am

I’m gonna try to post something about the ending next week.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
Sat, Jul 12, 2014 10:49pm

As I wrote before, I do think it’s a shame they changed the plot; but, this was good, too. I suppose it says something about me that I found the end actually rather hopeful and I found that very last scene beautiful…and telling…more proof of lies.

Very well done movie.

Paul Wartenberg
Sat, Jul 12, 2014 11:49pm

I have been hearing a lot of noise on my vines about this movie, a MUST SEE IT whisper of dread and elation.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Paul Wartenberg
Sun, Jul 13, 2014 1:07am

Must see it before MAJ psts the ending’s discussion!

PJK
PJK
Sun, Jul 13, 2014 10:17am

If you want proof of how good an actress Tilda Swinton is, have a look at her work here in the video clip for The Box by Oribital => https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5_G8exuIRc

How someone can give such a persistent performance over such a long period of time and make it so seamless is really awe inspiring.

Cyril Sneer
Cyril Sneer
Tue, Jul 15, 2014 1:26pm

Utter utter garbage. Worst film I’ve seen this year, and I’ve seen quite a few.

Danielm80
Danielm80
reply to  Cyril Sneer
Tue, Jul 15, 2014 1:53pm

Would you like to explain why you didn’t like it, or do you think MaryAnn is taking a survey?

Beowulf
Beowulf
Wed, Jul 23, 2014 2:32pm

The reviews call this the best thing since sliced bread, yet it is hardly playing anywhere any more and thus not coming to my local cineplex. What is wrong with Harvey Weinstein, anyway? Yeah, I know–everything MA said in her review about corporate Hollywood. Harvey used to be king of the indies. How sad.

RogerBW
RogerBW
Thu, Jul 24, 2014 3:48pm

I found the message kind of heavy-handed, but I still enjoyed the spectacle. I think one has to treat this film not as a story but as a legend; the characters are not meant to be people with real personalities, but rather to be placeholders for every person.