By: Kevin Jordan
How do I get off this train?
Every year, there is always at least one movie that is wildly overrated. In 2013, it was Gravity. In 2012, it was Flight (with very strong competition from Magic Mike and Zero Dark Thirty). In 2011, it was Bridesmaids (yes; it really was). And so on and so forth. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be this year, but then I watched Snowpiercer. If you haven’t heard of Snowpiercer, that’s because it went straight to video on demand while simultaneously opening in a limited number of theaters in the United States. If you have heard of it, it’s probably for the same reason as me – upon its U.S. release, the main stream critics and the first wave of viewers raved about it and told everyone they simply had to watch it. Knowing it was a science fiction flick – and one that looked very creative – of course I was excited to check it out. Can you guess where I’m going with this?
Snowpiercer is not a good movie. In fact, it’s a very bad movie. It’s not John Wick stupid or The Last Airbender gouge-your-eyes-out atrocious, but it’s not too far off. Snowpiercer has a 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes which means that only 5% of their linked-to critics watched the movie with their brains turned on. Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a couple things about those critics. (1) The last two years have featured inexplicably good reviews for a science fiction film that was entertaining, but had screenplays that cause you to make the same face as you would when smelling a person’s toe jam. It’s almost like they’ve decided that every year they’re going to pick a science fiction movie made by a director they like in order to be able to say to regular people “see? We do too like syfy movies” (Yes, they misspell sci-fi when they say it). (2) Almost none of those critics ever critique the screenplays of films. They’ll tell you about acting, dialogue, set pieces, directing, costuming, and if they’re feeling wordy, special effects and sound, but when it comes to the screenplay and story, they usually just give a summary. Considering the entire reason for a making a movie is to tell a story, you’d think they would pay a little attention to things like character motivations or reasons why certain events happen, but they’re too busy trying to find a spot on fill-in-the-blank’s ass to plant their lips to worry about such things as plot holes.
(I’m about to SPOILER a lot of those plot holes, so turn away now if you want to be disappointed while watching this movie rather than before watching it.)
The premise of the movie is tough to swallow, but not impossible – the remainder of humanity lives on a train that endlessly circles a frozen Earth. Your very first question should be “why are they living on a train?” Honestly, you just have to accept it because there is no logical reason, not even when it’s creator and driver, Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris), spends several minutes explaining the train to the protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans). You’ll even find out that the train’s engine is a perpetual motion machine, begging you to wonder why they didn’t use that technology to power bunkers or biodomes or any kind of habitat that isn’t a vehicle hurtling at dangerous speeds over icy tracks in the Himalayas. That sound you just heard was your brain sighing.
And if that’s not enough, the movie begins with script telling you how the ice age came to be and that “all life became extinct.” Yes, that is an exact quote and no, I don’t think the writers realized how stupid that line is when it is immediately followed by scenes with humans. And insects. And fish. And polar bears? Seriously, the movie ends with a full grown polar bear standing on a mountain. Even in a fantastical movie with this absurd premise, how the hell can a polar bear exist if “all life became extinct?” Plus, Mr. Polar Bear renders the train concept completely pointless because if polar bears have survived the cold, surely humans didn’t need to hop on an elaborate globe-circling train to survive.
Anyway, it’s obvious almost from the start that director/writer Bong Joon-ho wasn’t interesting in telling a story so much as he wanted to create a train allegory depicting social class separation. Taking a cue from such things as Titanic, 1960’s American-South bus etiquette, and insert-country-here’s current social structure, the train is divided into castes with the rich and affluent living in opulence in the front and the poor, starving, and destitute living in squalor in the back. The problem is that Joon-ho doesn’t go any further than that. The people in the back don’t serve a purpose; they’re just there. Their job seems to be to eat nasty protein gelatin, be dirty, and get counted by the guards every so often. At the end, Mr. Wilford gives some bizarre explanation regarding keeping the population of the train static – that revolts are required every so often to thin the heard. He’ll even go so far as to say they can’t wait for natural selection, so then why the hell don’t they just kill all the poor people? Aren’t they just taking up resources?
In addition, he also says the back of the train provides children that are required to help keep the engine running in what is the craziest explanation of the entire movie –a small child is shoved into the engine as a replacement for some part they can’t make anymore because this movie needed to be even less plausible. But, even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain why the poor people have been on the train for the entire seventeen years of its existence since that engine part had only recently failed.
Not only are the proles pointless, but the rest of the train has no real logic to it either. As Curtis and gang are revolting their way towards the engine, we see several of the train cars, but very few of any real importance and all which are mostly empty of people. If the whole thing is supposed to be a self-sustaining environment, where are all of the middle class or working class cars? The closest we ever get is an aquarium car where Curtis’ group stops to eat sushi. No, really – their hostage, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) invites them to sit down for sushi and they do because the smartest thing to do in a rebellion in such a confined space is to take a snack break. Sure, we also see a schoolhouse car, a meat locker car, and an orange grove car, but we also see a dentist car, a sauna car, a hair salon car, a drug den car, a nightclub car, and even one car that is completely empty. Half this train appears to be filled with non-essential bullshit, which would make sense for its original purpose (akin to a cruise liner), but makes no sense seventeen years into being humanity’s last shelter. Where’s the kitchen car, the sleep cars, the livestock cars (the meat locker had beef and chicken in it, so we know they’re there somewhere)? And, since nobody seems to actually work on this train, why is there a caste system at all? Typically, the poor are taken advantage of, usually in the form of slavery or forced labor, but here they seem to just be ballast for the back of the train. The explanation for the workings of the train always goes back to “the engine always provides” as if it’s actually a creation of Willy Wonka and spits out everlasting gobstoppers and socks. I get that Joon-ho was exaggerating the train for his caste allegory, but it doesn’t work in the post-apocalyptic world he stuck it in.
It’s not just the train that is wildly confusing – the characters don’t make much sense either. Curtis and his best friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell), want to revolt because they don’t like the food, at one point reminiscing about not being able to remember shat steak tastes like. Shortly into the revolt, the gang picks up two people from a car that houses prisoners in morgue-like wall-drawers (again, why does this car even exist?!) – Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the guy who designed all of the door security features, and Yona (Go Ah-sung), Namgoong’s daughter who may or may not be clairvoyant but is definitely a drug addict. While Namgoong at least serves a purpose, Yona has no reason to be in this movie at all. Every now and then she will warn them about opening the next door, but since their goal is to get to the engine, they’re going to open the doors anyway. Of the remaining characters, Mason is the only one who isn’t there solely as walking meat puppets and even she seems fairly pointless. She appears to be Wilford’s mouthpiece and enforcer, but her bodyguard, Grey, is essentially the same character. For much of the revolt, Mason is a hostage, but her main function is to narrate much of the movie because, like the opening script of the film, Joon-ho was too lazy to use film techniques to tell the story.
Finally, the sequence of events is what really provides the locomotive-sized plot holes. For one thing, it’s eventually revealed that the gelatin was introduced several years after the apocalypse and is made by grinding up large insects. Remember – all life became extinct so where did the insects come from and why did they wait so long to start making it? As the revolt moves forward, there is a battle in one car between the rebels and a group of security enforcers dressed in body armor and wielding axes. This scene is eventually revealed as the turning point in the rebellion, as Wilford eventually explains that the revolt was allowed to happen but supposed to have ended there. Wilford also says that he always intended on Curtis taking over for him, but if that’s true, then the battle scene makes no sense because Curtis was supposed to die there with the rest of the rebels. Plus, Grey never stops trying to kill Curtis. If Curtis is so important, shouldn’t Grey know not to kill him? To that end, why not just take Curtis to Wilford in the first place?
Perhaps, the strangest (and only decent) scene in the entire film happens in the school car. A bunch of elementary kids are watching a history lesson; an homage to George Orwell’s 1984. They are learning the goodness of Wilford and the train and if fits the theme of caste warfare nicely. The problem is that indoctrination of that sort doesn’t serve a purpose in this particular world. All they have to do is look through their windows at the outside world to know that the train is good. It’s also the only scene that even attempts to develop the caste system as everybody else on the train (except the rebels) is busy doing drugs or partying.
Essentially, the entire movie boils down to a single question – why is anything we are seeing happening on this train? There is no logic to anything we are seeing and the revelations presented at the end only enforce the idea there is no logic. But maybe the biggest logic problem with the entire film was asked by a friend of mine – why is the train even moving at all? Like every other question, the answer is syfy.
Rating: Can you ask a Redbox machine for your money back?