Think the Polar Express from Hell.
What is it? It’s a South Korean, science fiction action film that stars Captain America, takes place entirely on a train, and has become the “little film that could” of the moment. Deservedly so. It has something on its mind, and profound or not, it offers a degree of layered oddities so beautifully filmed it reminds one why movies are such a cherished medium.
It begins where a lot of bad science fiction begins--global warming. There’s a twist right off the bat, though. In the opening credits, an atmospheric experiment to combat global warming works so spectacularly well that it starts a new Ice Age. A big one. Don’t worry about the whys and wherefores as it’s just an excuse to set up the story.
Maybe all of humanity is gone. We don’t know. We do know that a big clump of people think they’re all that’s left. Their world is the Snowpiercer, a huge super train that goes on and on for what seems forever. Powered by perpetual motion magic, it travels on a global track and circumnavigates the globe once a year, a relic of genius turned into the ark of a ghost world. Again, just roll with it because we’re doing allegorical science fiction here.
The train is a society. The elite live at the front, the dregs live at the back, and so it is. “Les Miserables” on a train, with healthy riffs on France from “A Tale of Two Cities.” The analogy to political arguments of both today and the past is obvious. Only this one doesn’t take the easy way out. It’s about order, admits you need some semblance of order that’s not entirely fair to make a society function. It’s also about corruption, acknowledges that every power structure will produce people on the top who rationalize that outcome as natural and proper. And it’s about despair and the unfathomable choices people will make when pushed to the wall.
The man who made this train, created it from his wealth and ingenuity, is an engineer named Wilford. To quote from the last political campaign, he really did build it, some kind of Ayn Rand titan in the day, I suppose. So isn’t he entitled to say how it works? On the other hand, once your vision has graduated to ordering things that juggle the lives of countless others, is the whole of it still only yours? If you expect “them” to stay in their place, what obligations might that incur? Because that’s the difficult trick about societies and order in general—how do you get a critical mass of people to buy in? If you can’t do that, then maybe your order is simply an illusion floating about like some train gliding on ice.
That’s the grey area in which this movie takes place. The back end of the train is certainly awful. No windows, not much light and crowded to the boiling point. The dregs were isolated without food and water seventeen years ago when the train started up; they survived by cannibalism until icky protein bars started to arrive. They’ve rebelled without success several times. Now a chap by the name of Curtis (Captain America, or Chris Evans if you prefer) has a plan. He gets secret messages from somewhere further up in the train and has talked it through with his elderly mentor Gilliam (John Hurt).
They’re going to the front of the train. They’ll make it this time. Yet even as we sympathize, Gilliam asks the unfortunate question: “What then?” It’s the curse of every revolution.
Curtis is actually a conflicted fellow who doesn’t want to lead. He also delivers an unforgettable line in his dark night of the soul: “You know what I hate about myself? I know what human flesh tastes like.” He’s pushed to the wall soon enough. Train security arrives from up front to measure children in the back cars and ultimately takes one. A man who tries to stop them is punished by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a revoltingly smug and self righteous bureaucrat. The man’s arm is stuck through a portal outside the train as it howls through a mountain pass at night. His limb comes back in frozen to be broken off with a sledgehammer.
Know your place in the order of things.
Curtis’ rebellion starts out well enough to reach the prison car. The prisoners there are sedated and held in drawers of the type you’d expect to find in a morgue. Based on the messages he’s received, Curtis frees Namgoong Minsu, a drug addict who built the security systems that control the doors between cars. They offer him Kronol, a drug made from industrial waste, for each door he opens. Minsu insists they free his daughter Yona as well. She’s in the next drawer over.
It’s a deal. Curtis’ rebellion continues to advance until they come to a car filled with security forces wearing tactical gear and armed with axes and hatchets (bullets have kind of run out over the years). The battle that follows is a great set piece. Curtis is winning until Mason shows up to scold everyone and announce the rebellion is finished. The security forces don night vision goggles as the train enters a tunnel. It looks bad until Curtis counterattacks with torches. The rebels triumph. They also catch Mason, who promises with splendid cowardice to lead them through the train if they spare her.
The journey becomes ever more surreal: botanical cars, fruit tree cars, aquarium cars, sushi and beef, and residential cars, each more splendid than the last. Mason ultimately betrays Curtis. She opens the rebels up to an attack with still functional guns smuggled back from the very front in a cart of hard boiled eggs. Curtis immediate group still wins, killing Mason in the process. But that small group is now cut off--the back of the train has been retaken. The culling of the dregs begins.
It’s a race to the front through sauna cars, hot tub cars, night club cars, etc. There’s a great fight to the death in the sauna car against the train’s resident master assassin. By the time they reach Wilford’s door, it’s just Curtis, Namgoong and Yona left. Curtis asks his reluctant ally to open the last door. Namgoong says he wants to open another door instead. He mashes all the Kronol he collected on the way up into a big ball and enlightens Curtis on chemistry. Kronol is, after all, industrial waste.
Flammable industrial waste.
Namgoong has been watching a crashed airplane the train passes every year. In the beginning, all he could see was the top of the tail. Now he can see the whole thing and the ground around it, which means the snow is receding. It’s not as cold in places. Namgoong wants to blow the door to the outside.
Before they can choose, Namgoong is shot and wounded by Wilford’s assistant. She invites Curtis in to dine with Wilford (Ed Harris), who explains his vision of balance and order. He is the source of the messages Curtis received; Wilford coordinated with Gilliam to build a rebellion, all to decrease the surplus population. To maintain a better balance. Achieve a more complete order. Curtis just succeeded far better than expected. Wilford concedes that the torches during the tunnel fight were an inspired improvisation.
Wilford is old now. He wants to teach Curtis so the younger man can ultimately take over, become the new Wilford. It’s the train that must be eternal, an order natural and proper that will preserve humanity. That burden is a heavy responsibility. Curtis has proven he’s up to it.
Curtis is filled with despair and almost buying it. After all, we do need a society, right? We need order. That’s when Yona pulls back the curtain on this particular gilded cage. Those children that periodically get taken from the back cars? They’re slave labor consigned to tight little hellholes, performing manual labor in place of parts that no longer function. Cogs to be worked until they die and then replaced.
So as Gilliam said, what now?
Curtis rescues the boy we saw taken at the start of the movie. Yona delivers the Kronol bomb to Namgoong. In their last moment, Namgoong and Curtis shield the two children with their bodies as the bomb detonates and the deluge begins. The train veers off track. A fatal avalanche starts.
The only two people to emerge from the wreckage are Yona and the boy, nicely decked out in winter shoes and coats from the front end. They don’t freeze. In the distance, atop a ridge, they see a polar bear ambling along. There is life outside the train.
So is that hopeful, sad, or nihilistic? All three?
Who knows? It’s an allegory. One balled up in an action flick. A pretty well done one, though, with some first rate acting and impressive camera work. Definitely worth a look.
It beats “Transformers 5: Jackhammer to Your Brain.”