So, I’ve wanted to see Snowpiercer for, shit, two or three years now? I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about it, but it’s been a long time coming, I can tell you that. So over the weekend, Mekaela and I finally watched it.
Parts of it are great, really great. But, unfortunately, I wanted to like this one a lot more than I actually did.
An attempt to cure global warning goes spectacularly wrong, and the Earth suffers another Ice Age. What’s left of humanity now lives on a train perpetually traveling around the world, with the atrociously poor people in the back and the ludicrously rich people at the front. Curtis (Chris Evans) leads the atrociously poor people in revolt.
1. I want this to be stated upfront: I can take a ridiculous premise. Ridiculous premises, by and large, don’t particularly bother me. I’m sure there are exceptions to that rule, that there are movies where I glance at the setup, and I’m like, Nope. Even I can’t buy that utter bullshit. What’s the point of even watching this movie because that whole premise right there? Fucking lunacy. On the whole, however, I feel like I can deal with any basic plot that’s given to me upfront. I might struggle with believability as the plot continues unfolding into utter madness, but the setup? No issue.
I’m mentioning this because some of the negative reviews I’ve seen about this film — the most scathing of which came from a friend of mine, who’s a very sweet guy and also basically my Cinema Nemesis — have complained about the absurdity of Snowpiercer’s premise. I’d like to make it clear that my problems with this film have absolutely nothing to do with that. The last of humanity is struggling with class warfare on a train ride through Ice Age #2? Sure, whatever. Give me some Milkduds, and let’s go.
MY problems with Snowpiercer almost all emerge in the third act, which means I can’t tell you shit about them until the Spoiler Section. Dammit.
2. It’s not all bad, though. There’s actually quite a bit to like in Snowpiercer. The acting, for instance, is all around top notch.
We have quite the cast here: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Kang-ho Song, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Alison Pill, and Ed Harris. They’re all tremendously talented actors, but special props have to be given to Evans, Swinton, Bell, and the only main cast member I wasn’t previously familiar with, Ah-sung Ko, who is kind of delightful in this film. Chris Evans is a wonderfully grim protagonist, Tilda Swinton is an almost comically bizarre antagonist — she’s very different from how I expected her to be — and Jamie Bell is funny as hell while still managing to sell one particularly poignant moment.
3. I also really like how a lot of this movie is shot. The cinematography is often quite spectacular, and some of the fight scenes, man, are fucking AWESOME. This is actually a considerably more brutal and violent film than I would’ve thought going into it, and I wholeheartedly approve of that. This is actually the first Joon-ho Bong film I’ve seen (I swear, I swear, I’m getting to The Host), and based on this work, I could definitely see more of his films.
4. But other than a highly disappointing third act, my other problem with this film has to do with conveniences. Again, I obviously can’t discuss much without Spoilers, but a few things happen during the story that I just can’t quite buy into. None of which would have been deal breakers without that ending, but with the ending . . . the minuses quickly start adding up.
5. Still, I mostly had a pretty good time watching this until that troublesome third act. (And even in the last twenty minutes, there are still some really nice moments to be had, particularly with acting. Evans, man. I like that guy.) The pace, for instance, is great. The movie is just over two hours and never feels slow. I really enjoyed seeing what new, crazy thing would be in the next train car, and there were a few great, cringeworthy moments — even one that has a decent shot at winning my coveted ‘Most Cringeworthy Oh-My-God OW Scene’ superlative at the end of the year. (Hey, it could be coveted by somebody. You don’t know.)
I’m also really glad that the Weinstein Company didn’t end up cutting out twenty minutes of footage or adding a freaking voiceover. Snowpiercer is a good, solid length and really isn’t all that difficult to understand — in no way does it require additional narration. I’m American, and I still totally got it. I have plenty of confidence that my fellow Americans would also get it, cause, you know. Snowpiercer ain’t exactly subtle.
But if the last twenty-five minutes or so had gone a different way, this could have been an A or A- movie for me. Now . . . yeah, it’s definitely lower than that.
(Additional Disclaimer: You may also find spoilers in here for 1984. Just so you know.)
Here’s my problem: I suspected Gilliam (John Hurt) was a bad guy in the first ten minutes of this movie.
Not just because he’s John Hurt, actually, but because of foreshadowy dialogue — can’t trust your heroes, etc. (To be fair, that applies to both Chris Evans trusting John Hurt and Jamie Bell trusting Chris Evans, but I immediately applied it to the former relationship.) Couple that suspicion with the following facts:
A. Someone at the front of the train is passing back helpful notes to the revolution.
B. The head of the train is some mysterious Wilfred, who we’ve never seen.
C. A number of attempted revolutions have occurred in the past, all of which have failed.
D. Gilliam is clearly the one pushing Curtis into leading the revolution.
And it seemed pretty clear to me that Gilliam either was somehow Wilfred or else in league with Wilfred (it’s the latter), which meant that Gilliam and Wilfred wanted the revolution to happen, which meant they probably wanted all the revolutions to happen. Which means the whole plot of the movie is pretty much the result of the Big Bad’s fiendish mustache-twirling, and I simply cannot stress enough how much that particular plot twist bores me. Not just because I found it utterly predictable in this film, although I did, but because it’s a twist that always bores me. Guys. I’ve read 1984. I’m over the whole ‘your quest was futile because it was always my evil plan, muahahaha’ reveal. I spent the whole movie hoping Snowpiercer wouldn’t turn out this way, and when it did . . . the whole thing just fell flat for me.
So, that was my main problem with the film. I also wasn’t ultimately crazy about Yona’s possible clairvoyant abilities.
I actually didn’t mind them in the moment, but by the end of the film, they felt a little out of place. Like, I don’t know if I needed them explained, exactly — I generally like surreal, not well-defined magic — but since it’s the only element of supernatural ability in a distinctly not magical setting, it seemed a little thrown in and convenient to me.
Also seemingly convenient: Yona passing out at a critical juncture, and that One Evil Second Banana Dude who comes back to life near the end of the movie. I seriously thought they were going to reveal him as an android or something, but nope. I guess he’s still not as bad as the ballerina who miraculously revives at the end of Die Hard for one last scare, but it all seemed pretty silly and unnecessary to me. Again, though, none of this would’ve bothered me that much if I hadn’t hated that predictable reveal.
I think I’m especially frustrated by this because there’s so much in the movie that I did like. The big fight scene in the Ninja Car when the train went through the tunnel and only the bad guys had night-vision goggles? So good. Also so sad — this is when Jamie Bell, predictably, bought it, although his death scene was great. See, Curtis has a choice — he can go back and save Edgar (Bell) from That One Evil Second Banana Dude, or he can keep Mason (Tilda Swinton) from escaping. You actually see the moment Edgar realizes that Curtis is going to let him die, and it’s so mean and so perfect. Poor Jamie Bell.
Another awesome scene: the Classroom Car.
Alison Pill is the best little pregnant psycho teacher ever. It’s like she’s channeling Kristen Bell’s uber-innocent glee from Reefer Madness — she even LOOKS a little like Kristen Bell, come to think of it. Everything about her is hilarious and perfect, including the moment when she pulls a machine gun out of a basket and kills one of our heroes. (That would be our one-armed and nearly unrecognizable hero, Ewen Bremner.) Let me repeat: Snowpiercer features a pregnant schoolteacher who both kills rebels AND gets killed by our lead protagonist. Kind of love it. Also, the moment where Curtis murders Mason is pretty great. ALSO, these kids are evil. Seriously, they’re evil.
Here’s an interesting thing about this movie: basically everyone dies. Including most of the kids.
John Hurt is killed by Wilfred’s people. (This didn’t shake my confidence at all, that Gilliam was a bad guy, although I was wrong to think he was still alive. When we saw him die on the video feed, I just assumed the footage was faked.) That One Evil Second Banana Bad Guy takes out Octavia Spencer, too, although she didn’t help herself out much with the war cry she made before she attacked him. Octavia! This is why you don’t yell before you come at somebody from behind. Honestly.
Curtis and Nam (Kang-ho Song) also die — but before I get to that, I should briefly talk about Chris Evan’s pretty awesome monologue where he explains what really happened to his arm.
See, remember when I mentioned one-armed Ewen Bremner, like, two paragraphs ago? We actually see him lose the other arm early in the film when — as punishment for throwing a shoe at Mason — the bad guys stick his arm through this nifty compartment in the train wall, exposing his skin to insanely cold temperatures.
After two minutes of exposure, a dude takes a giant ass mallet to the frozen arm and breaks it off Ewan Bremner’s body. (This, by the way, is my contender for ‘Most Cringeworthy Oh-My-God OW’ scene. It’s not particularly graphic or anything, but it made my arm hurt just watching it.)
We figure this particularly brutal method of punishment is the explanation for John Hurt’s missing limbs. We also figure this is why Curtis has a big ass scar around his arm. Or at least I did — I figured he’d tried some kind of rebellious act before, and — for whatever reason — the arm didn’t come off properly. I thought maybe they didn’t leave Curtis’s arm out there long enough in the cold, or Gilliam somehow intervened, or Curtis was secretly an android, or something. (Seriously, I was totally stuck on androids the whole movie. Alas, no bots for Carlie.)
In actuality, though, the poor people turned to cannibalism after the first month on the train when they had absolutely nothing else to eat. Curtis, who earlier asked Edgar if he remembered his mother at all, turns out to have killed Edgar’s mom in hopes of eating Baby Edgar. (Cause babies apparently taste best, which is something I’ll keep in mind next time I’m at work in Labor & Delivery and have forgotten my Pop Tarts.) Before Young Curtis or any of the other
fine young cannibals could eat Baby Edgar, though, Gilliam cut off his own arm and told them to eat that instead, which led to the miraculous revolution of people cutting off their own limbs for the greater good. Young Curtis is inspired by this and tries to follow suit, but just can’t make himself fully go through with it — I can’t blame him — hence the scar.
Now. I’m a little torn on the backstory here, mostly because part of me is like, Okay, and HOW did all these people survive their self-amputations? Are they all descendants of Sofie Fatale from Kill Bill or something? Cause I’m relatively sure that none of them received medical attention, considering they didn’t even have bread at this point, much less stores of O negative and a shitload of Band-Aids. And if you tell me tourniquets . . . look, I’m not exactly a fount of medical knowledge, despite working in a hospital, but I’m pretty sure you’re severely overestimating the medicinal wonder of tourniquets, if that’s the case.
On the other hand, though, there’s just something so beautifully, grotesquely fantastic about people cutting off their own limbs to feed other people that I kind of love. It would totally work for me in a super surrealist story, or a story with old school, grim fairy tale magic, or basically any kind of anime. (I would give good money to see this scene as an anime, maybe set to something by Clint Mansell.) But I’m not sure it fully works for me in Snowpiercer, maybe for the same reason the brief instances of clairvoyance don’t work — it just feels out of place with the tone and setting.
Chris Evans does sell the hell out of that monologue, though, and Ewen’s arm is a surprisingly effective misdirect, like, as a writer, I find myself super impressed with that misdirect. So I guess I do overall like the backstory, even if I can’t entirely take the chopped off limbs as seriously as I’d like to.
A quick sidebar, before I get to the Dreaded Final Car Scene: Edgar says earlier in the film that he knows he’s eaten steak before, he just doesn’t remember what it tastes like. If he was a baby when he came onboard the train . . . when has he ever eaten steak? Hasn’t his whole life basically been cockroach gelatin bars? (Mmm, cockroaches.) Am I missing something obvious here because I’m confused by this.
Okay, sidebar over. Nam reveals to Curtis that he and Yona are planning to use the super combustible drug they’ve been collecting this whole time and blow open an exit door, since he believes that humans can now live outside the train. Which, ha. Mek and I totally called that. Well, okay, I thought they were going to save some of the explosives and use it to create fire outside the train, not waste the whole fucking thing on the door — but that’s for later.
Curtis wants none of this plan, though, determined to find out the disappointing revelation that is awaiting him in the last car.
Ed Harris provides that disappointment by telling us all that basically everything we’ve seen in the last two hours was HIS PLAN ALL ALONG, bwahaha. (In fairness to Harris, I’m fine with his delivery, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him in the final car, since I’d forgotten he was in the movie at all.)
We also find out that two of the kids who were kidnapped earlier are being used to keep the train running. Curtis ends up sacrificing one of his arms after all to save Octavia Spencer’s kid. (And I do like that arc.) Then he and Nam both end up sacrificing themselves to save Yona’s life (and the kid’s, too) after the bomb takes out the entire fucking train. Holy shit. There might be a few survivors we don’t see outside of Yona and the Kid, but there can’t be very many. 99% of what’s left of humanity is now dead, so good going, Nam.
Seriously. I can understand how Nam might not care too much about the people who shoved him in what looks like a morgue refrigerator, but it’s only
because of the script a miracle that his daughter survived the derailment at all. Which means, dude, your plan officially sucked.
Yona and the Kid climb out of the horrific wreckage and don’t immediately freeze to death, which is good. They also see a polar bear, proving that life can exist in the outside world after all. Also good. Unfortunately, they don’t have much in the way of food or shelter, so we’ll see how long these two crazy kids last on their own.
But hey, that’s for the sequel to figure out, right?
I actually kind of enjoy that Snowpiercer kills off most of humanity by the end of this film, even if I’m still shaking my head at Nam’s planning skills. And I did love a lot about the movie . . . but the predictability of that insufferably annoying twist ending severely undercuts my enjoyment of this film as a whole.
I don’t know, Nam. Considering halving the recipe?
Also, classism sucks, and the poor are never in control of their own lives, even when they think they are . . . until somebody blows the shit out of a door, I suppose. Fiery death, the great equalizer.
Also, babies taste delicious, but eating them is probably morally objectionable.