A train that chugs around the world with nowhere to go is an astute metaphor for Snowpiercer. In Bong Joon-ho’s fever dream of the near future, a countermeasure against global warming has made Siberia blanket the earth; the remnants of humanity, crammed into several dozen cars on a self-sustaining train, makes a yearly circuit around the globe. The train, which is called the Snowpiercer, was the brainchild of a crackpot billionaire named Wilford. It isn’t clear whether he had intended it to be a Noah’s ark all along or whether its construction just happened to coincide with the apocalypse, but the result is a case study in apartheid: the haves live near the engine and the have-nots bring up the rear. But what was it that the haves had? Were the groups segregated on a first-come-first-serve basis? Skin color isn’t a factor. Save for the imperious Wilford—who has claimed the engine as his throne room—an individual’s on-board status doesn’t appear to correlate with his former income level or earthly station: the first-class manifest includes Tilda Swinton as a yokel with an oik accent and false teeth, and a onetime violinist for the Boston Symphony is mixed in with the rabble. Money wouldn’t have much currency at the end of the world, but the hedonistic first-class passengers don’t seem to have paid their way in practical skills. If the film’s sympathies with Occupy Wall Street are to be taken seriously, this isn’t a small bone to pick; the invocation of the One Percent seems the result of fuzzy math, as those languishing in steerage appear to be the minority. Even Marx wouldn’t have given the plot-launching insurrection by the lower orders his imprimatur: with one grotesque exception, the train doesn’t run on the back of labor. Just about every review of this movie cautions you to take its political allegory with a grain of salt. I would suggest a quarry.
At the risk of sounding obvious, Boon has a vision, but it is strictly visual. Along with his co-writer Kelly Masterson—with whom he has adapted a French graphic novel—the director has some intriguing ideas that, in the conservative world of the entertainment industry, might pass for edgy; but he has little talent for integrating them. All of the foreshadowing, which imbues the whimsical design with an oracular tone, just ends up making the movie bottom-heavy; revelations sputter out like mad ravings, but, as in Oldboy, the absurdity and paranoia are justified by an overblown Christopher Nolan-like windup. Chris Evans, who is impressive as the rebel leader, gives a wallop of a monologue toward the end that might have been more effective earlier, when it would have clarified the goings on and given substance to the rebel cause. Bong and Masterson pick off big names and major characters with the ease of George R. R. Martin, but not the facility; some of the goners hadn’t enough opportunities to earn much grief for their loss, so the effect is just a jab at convention. Still, there are moments in which Boon proves himself as a top-notch visual storyteller. He takes advantage of the narrow-gauge width of these characters’ world; the whole movie has the effect of being shot with a fish-eye lens, but without the peripheral distortion. You have to take a cold shower to shrug it off. At one point, Evans and his sidekick Jamie Bell lie in two separate bunks but look squished like sardines. There’s an expressively distended sequence which sums up Evans’s choice between The Cause and its collateral in a simple but wrenching way—and it’s parodied moments later by Swinton. There are also excellently staged action-movie flourishes, like a witty shootout when the Snowpiercer is rounding a bend or a hide-and-seek sequence in a car full of saunas that may as well be trees in a wood. But these are effective set pieces, nothing more. Moments like Evans’s flicker of decision have a human gravity that Boon clearly wants to express, but he fails to inform his more idiosyncratic elements with pathos. The intended effect is 12 Monkeys, but the result is a cockeyed spoof like The Fifth Element.
Sure, I’d take this bizarro blockbuster over most Hollywood sequels; it’s something of a miracle that Harvey Weinstein bet on this pipe dream being a box-office success: a bona fide Bong hit. Snowpiercer isn’t mellow—doesn’t go down smoothly like the fine-tooled Edge of Tomorrow—but I think it’s a more interesting diversion rather than a superior work of art. The film is a masterpiece by proxy: Alison Pill is a Lynchian schoolteacher with a smile that seems detached from her face; Swinton goes haywire like the whorebot in Metropolis; John Hurt plays a beard-to-knees seer called Gilliam, in homage to the director of 12 Monkeys and Brazil; and music from the hotel band in The Shining gets piped in at one point like the anodyne tunes at Disneyworld. But the Kubrick reference—a signifier of the dryness of the upper crust—stuck in my craw because it diagnosed what’s wrong with this movie: Its “politics” aren’t rooted in the real world or history, but in second-hand notions spawned from pop culture that doesn’t really have anything to do politics. Even Brazil is only political in the sense that The Trial is, and Kafka had his politics assigned to him by a society that was reeling from totalitarian states that didn’t come about until after his death. Gilliam—the filmmaker—has an Ignatius J. Reilly side: He protests just about everything that’s happened since the Middle Ages. His ideal reality is just what that term implies—an oxymoron. Quixotic though this may be, it gives his work a temperament that Boon can only approximate, possibly because Gilliam’s fantasies aren’t as moored to specific current events as Boon’s appear to be. Boon’s flashes of brilliance get interrupted; life stutters by like it does for someone in a video game who can’t make it to the next level. The tart ominousness in Snowpiercer may prime you for a mystical revelation, but any insight it has just goes off the rails.