Given the shortest of notices going in, expectations were the least of my movie prejudices. With no prior information of Snowpiercer whatsoever, and too little time between finishing lunch and Oculus, I took an atypical leap of faith and went by hunch. That and movie rating metrics (7 on IMDb, intriguingly worded synopsis). Unlike people, say, in a blind date, movies do not thrive in the absence of expectations. Some may take the world by storm but in hindsight it is rather the human element that creeps under the radar — not their work. I am not going to shit on a film I know nothing about. To uphold fairness, one has to know enough to justify a dismissive attitude. I walked in unknowing and out well-informed, and here is what I learned.
Very little in the way of context building, aside from caption on the screen meant we, the viewers, had to (ahem) fully hop on board. They managed to get your ass in the theater, and what better way to get your attention than to catch you up on what transpired to get things in motion? O.K., no more puns, I promise. So the Snowpiercer is a train in perpetual motion. As the only vestige of a civilization now numbering in the low hundreds, or however many can fit into a two-dozen car train, it is a self-sustained and contained ecosystem of sorts. In 2014 global warming countermeasures backfired sending the world into an ice age. Can I get away with one more vehicle pun? Let’s just say the unanticipated effects on habitable conditions — weather here — T-boned the world population. The lucky few got to board a full-service, self-powered train that continually runs along a track circling the world I think. What else is good? In lieu of forced exposition, we are to assume the energy source is recyclable in the onset. Considering the delicate environment this ecosystem inhabits in the greater scheme, an equally fine balance must be struck to maintain it and hence a strict class system, with less defined roles than privileges, is maintained. So to recap: the captions only explicitly mention the ice age, human near-extinction, the train and class system in practice with today being the year 2031.
Inside the train’s tail section, we join the undesirables, dressed in rags, as they are subject to another head count by armed forces. We are led to assume these enforcers are another class. Was it part of an exercise in population control? It is not clear yet. What we are shown is the discontent expressed quietly in the back. Curtis is established immediately as the central character around whom we are to uncover and separate myth from fact (literally) up ahead. Rationed food is delivered amid tight security measures, such as those shown. Typically a few of the elites in command will interject — some in speech (Tilda as Mason) while others in their own bizarre way (the Claude character). Mason’s speech, and general demeanor, is a highlight here. Without too much eloquent verbiage and just the right pauses as to convey the spontaneity of the speech, and comedic condescendence to boot, she served as sole promise of intrigue that vanishes all too soon. As the tail inhabitants deliberate the right moment to strike, they correctly realize ammunition (among many rumored commodities and consumables not easily manufactured) may have long gone “extinct” as well; the guards’ guns were not always loaded. When they revolt they overpower the first few cars with minimal resistance but require assistance from the prison section (they are that low in the pecking order). What follows unfolds in a war-of-attrition manner as each car either presents a confrontation with the elite faction or coming to terms with the disparity in privilege and status. Mason is next subdued and is forced to escort Curtis up the train until she.. Ah we’ve outgrown spoilers.
Although the film plays out the way stages in a video game do, movie nuisances pop up at inopportune moments, the kind where the wrong thing is said when a silence might suffice. Edgar for instance, Curtis’ budding protégé and sidekick gets killed halfway through. I found myself gleefully rejoicing in his demise. The screenwriters’ shoddy attempts at comedy were inconsistent and showed in his lines. And although the tongue in cheek is kept to a minimum elsewhere, stock characters litter the affair.
A sense of false hope is painted for the tail inhabitants from the ‘gleeful,’ speedy camera work showing the squalor and horrid conditions of their quarters. Nam the Kronol-head’s introduction and subsequent persistence of having his habit fed is another example of misplaced comedy. Whereas no one’s living condition from the tail was made light of, addicts were a sitting duck. The slow motion, drawn out action sequences, over the top acrobat kills, all take away from subtle victories. At one point, “Strange Brew” started playing right before a confrontation. Such a random inclusion that its significance eludes me, it was the only song transplanted in a score-driven soundtrack.
Now my favorite letdown moment. Consider the classroom scene to contrast all the lameness to. The pregnant teacher is wholeheartedly engaged in indoctrinating the children before using a machine gun on the tail inhabitants. Rude interruptions by the uneducated. Are all the passengers similarly oppressed by the doctrine? In her sole scene, the teacher delivers in maturity what the writers failed to show in Edgar, the deposed foil to the lead character. Shortly after is the midday Kronol-fueled frenzy, and the stupor that follows. While violin accompanied steak dinners and hair salons are believable luxuries still in demand for a population teetering between survival and extinction, to allow drugs being freely taken goes against any indoctrination attempt. No deadweight whatsoever ought to be tolerated, or so one would think.
Throughout, I had no sympathy for the tail inhabitants, Curtis included. Though not bad in itself, Curtis’ final act and his encounter with the carefully obscured Wilfrod both smacked of missed opportunities and desperation to identify the audience with the ordeal we witness him go through. Had it been the intention, and there is reason to go that route, a certain level of nihilism would have gone some way in scoring redeeming value.
In spite of the polarizing hack job of, in the end, a concoction of tropes, the filmmaker(s) perhaps inadvertently invite the viewer to examine revolt and uprising. For example, another victory is scored for the subtle allusion to how the oppressed rarely prosper after they depose tyrannical figures. That an overwhelming percentage of successful revolutions are essentially Pyrrhic victories is unequivocally hinted to in the final scene. The tail inhabitants all perish on their trek toward liberation. Their rudimentary approach, marred by shortsightedness and impulsivity save for deliberating when to attack, echoes the feeling that the rewards of revolution were not meant to for everyone. Not even Curtis had the stoic wherewithal to come out the victor. He is not made out to be a Joan d’Arc. Or a William Wallace. Just a leader unlucky enough to be too smart for his own good. And possibly now an anonymous one.
He seemingly fails to live up to Wilford’s anointment of him as a potential successor long before he realized there was an opening. It may well have been a veiled taunt leveled in the face of impending defeat, a ploy to buy time. But as the death toll on both sides rose, there was only one logical way this whole thing would end. The ending, of bleak hope, amounts to little more than romanticism, a neat ribbon to wrap the deluge of clichés before. That we had just witnessed the work of the next revolutionary du jour. But not to kid ourselves, folks, the preadolescent will in no time grow enough to procreate with the teenager that saved him, we could believe. But will they hold off the assault from the elements to repopulate the species?