A dystopian sci-fi movie with a message is not a new concept. Even the best dystopian sci-fi movies—The Matrix, Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, V for Vendetta, for example—all are far more than just entertainment, as each has, in its own way, something significant to say about something, be it society, politics, corporate greed, class, etc. Using film as a medium for socio-political commentary is not unusual for filmmakers, and the dystopian-future setting is perfect as it is just unrealistic enough to get away with it and just unsubtle enough to pour it on: change what you’re doing or the world will literally end up like this. These are strong messages delivered in powerful ways. When they are done right, that is.
However, there is another common feature in movies such as The Matrix, Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner and V for Vendetta that has nothing to do with their message: they are good movies. They are made to be good movies and their messages, you would have to assume, were secondary to their writing, filming and production. You feel there was no such consideration for the new movie Snowpiercer, a dystopian sci-fi action thriller from Korean director Joon-ho Bong, now in theatres and also available on video-on-demand. It feels, for every second you are watching Snowpiercer, that the message it is trying to get across is first and foremost on its mind. And this message, much like the movie, becomes numbing after a while.
The setting is the future when a climate-change experiment has gone disastrously wrong and has frozen all life on Earth—all life, that is, except for the small sampling of humanity gathered on a single train traversing the planet at high speed (I know…but stay with me). The train is marked by a very specified class system, with the poor in the back and the rich in the front, and never the twain shall meet. The poor are treated very badly by the rich and the poor don’t like it very much, but there’s not much they can do about it, since the rich are protected by armed soldiers and harsh punishments are meted out to anyone who dares to disobey or rebel in even the slightest way. So, what can they do? They are stuck on a train, they have limited resources, limited numbers, limited options. But they DO have Captain America! (Sorry, I just couldn’t help it. This movie made me punchy.)
Chris Evans, who also happens to play Captain America in a little other movie franchise you may have heard of, plays Curtis, one of the poor people in the train, who becomes the leader of the rebellion that moves to attack the front of the train. The bulk of the movie features this rebellion that moves from car to car as we venture from the back of the train towards the front, lulling us into the idea that this movie has some sort of purpose, some sort of end point, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t. Snowpiercer is perhaps the most garbled, nonsensical, fever-dream I’ve seen since any Terry Gilliam movie. And it doesn’t have even a quarter of the Gilliam charm, wit, depth or imagination (by the way, if I were Terry Gilliam, I wouldn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted by this movie, which is a less-than-inspired knock-off of the Master). This movie winds up absolutely nowhere and the irony is: the movie spends the entire movie getting there.
But that’s not even the craziest part about Snowpiercer. What I love most about dystopian future movies are the worlds they create. My two favorites, The Matrix and Brazil, both envelop you in these worlds that you just breathe in. You don’t understand them, but you believe them. They are fully imagined worlds, with full detail and depth, texture and knowing. The biggest problem with Snowpiercer is the fact that the world it tries to create is this strange and oddball world that has one foot in our world and one foot in a fantasy world and it just didn’t work for me. The exact same element that is supposed to be the unique and special thing about this movie—the train—is the one thing that kept taking me out of it. A train is too literal for me. I know a train too well, you are never going to convince me that all of this wackiness is actually happening on a real train—it took me out of the movie. I know I’m supposed to suspend disbelief, but this is way too much you are asking me to do. There were too many instances where I was distracted from whatever “story” was happening because I was focused on the fact that they were on a TRAIN. I was out of the movie. If you are going to do a dystopian thriller, you’ve got to truly go fantastical. This is probably why they set movies on other planets. So people like me won’t sit in their seats and go “well, last time I was on Mars, it wasn’t like that.”
But, then again, Snowpiercer is just one oddball movie, period. And not just for the train thing. And not for the heavy-handed message about class divisions either. It is campy, weird, morose, gross, schlocky, inventive, clever, and sometimes really cool to look at as well. I will say this about it: you certainly haven’t seen anything like it this year and probably won’t. Is it a movie for everyone? Not by a long, long, shot. But if weird, sci-fi, campy, bizarre and ultimately pointless action movies with a message are in your wheelhouse, you will love Snowpiercer. I mean, it’s kind of hard to look away. I found myself curiously fascinated the entire time, not knowing whether I was supposed to be laughing or be horrified by what I was watching. I do love the genre mixing though, with elements of action and horror and sci-fi and camp and even melodrama rolled into one, but the over-emphasis on concept to the detriment of story and believability hurt it for me in the end. But if not being able to look away from a disaster counts as a good thing, then climb aboard the Snowpiercer Express.