For 2016 I’ve given myself a weekly challenge: watch a film that I’ve never seen before. That’s it. One film, each week. No restrictions on age, genre, or theme.



I have so many questions.

This movie’s namesake is an infinitely-running train that circumnavigates the globe, carrying the last of humanity after an attempt to stave off the effects of global warming went horribly wrong and plunged the planet into a new ice age. This means that someone has apparently invented a perpetual motion machine, which would theoretically be pollution-free, but not soon enough to make any dent in the damage we’ve done to Earth’s atmosphere. Did humanity really not have any better ideas than detonating a “cold bomb” in the upper atmosphere? Is the train really a perpetual motion machine if its parts sometimes break? (And doesn’t replacing the broken parts with child laborers introduce a new source of kinetic energy into the equation?)

The grimy conditions of the lower class don’t lend themselves to the type of recycling (e.g., water reclamation) that would be essential to sustain that population for any amount of years, so are they just a drag on the train’s limited resources? How do they keep the prisoners alive in those oversized filing cabinets? Did the train come with those holes they use to torture people by exposing their limbs to the frigid weather, or did they add those later? If it did come with them, what were they for? Did Snowpiercer‘s builder anticipate the bizarre social experiment his train would become? The film implies that he was a megalomaniac, albeit a frustrated one, before the global cooling crisis, and having sole control over civilization has built him into a philosopher-despot. Schoolchildren are taught to worship him. Tilda Swinton’s perfectly hateful government mouthpiece speechifies to the grumbling masses about the importance of knowing your “preordained particular position.” The bombast makes you queasy without any real fear.

A glowering Chris Evans, just as compelling beneath grime and goatee as he is in a spotless Captain America uniform, mounts an attack on the one-percenters at the front of the train. He and his fellow rebels – Octavia Spencer (predictably excellent), Jaime Bell (predictably dead), John Hurt (predictably evil) – free a lockpicker (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter (Go Ah-sung), whose shared drug habit hides their true cleverness. And then Snowpiercer reveals that its greatest weakness (its setting) is also its greatest strength. This preposterous, monstrous train literally propels the action forward. The rebels can’t flank or surround the enemy. To go back is to lose. Their only option is to plow ahead with fists and knives and improvised battering rams.

And behind every door is a new and unpredictable set piece. One car is a prison. Another, an aquarium. A nightclub full of partygoers zombified by drugs and vague class fear. A sauna that becomes a bloodbath. At one point the rebels enter an empty (storage?) car lit only by narrow windows. It’s been years since any of them have seen the outside, and they spare precious minutes adjusting their eyes to the blinding icy wilderness. The train’s riot police enter from the far end of the car. At first it looks like a stalemate, one the rebels might be able to walk away from. And then the train enters a tunnel, plunging the car into darkness, and a night-vision massacre unfolds. Storytellers have long known that constraints can make your fiction bloom in unexpected ways; Snowpiercer takes that literally, and flowers.

Unlike the best dystopias, Snowpiercer doesn’t make us reconsider the ways that we relate to each other. But it does rejigger our expectations for the action movie of the future.



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