Monday, November 24, 2014

Strangers on a Really Big Train: SNOWPIERCER (2014)

What is it about trains that make them so inherently cinematic? From the dawn of cinema where audiences were literally bracing for impact when the titular vehicle from THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) barreled onscreen toward them to Hitchcock's deliciously macabre thriller STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) to Andrei Konchalovsky's superb existential adventure RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985) trains have held filmgoers, as well as some famous actors, captive aboard steel locomotives which, like sharks, stay in constant motion merely because that is what they are meant to do. In that respect, trains are like movies - they must continually moves towards a destination, either predestined or unknown, or else risk blowing a gasket and breaking down.
Joon-ho Bong's (2006's THE HOST) sublimely offbeat thriller cum social treatise SNOWPIERCER earns its place among the best films that use the claustrophobic mileu to peak effect despite its wavering sense of tone. Set in a semi-distant future in which Earth has frozen over and nearly all human life has gone the way of the dinosaur, the film takes place on the Snowpiercer - a miles-long train - or rather, a microcosm of society complete with deluxe amenities for the luckier citizens - that is carrying dozens of grimy, downtrodden survivors, who are constantly being inspected by an itinerant (and armed) security team straight out of the recent ROBOCOP reboot.
Amidst these forgotten souls is Curtis (Chris Evans aka Captain America) a scruffy, pissed-off, prisoner who is constantly eyeing the timing of the automatic doors whenever the guards come in for roll call. It's clear Curtis has a plan and sure enough, he and fellow captives Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer) are helping him lead a mini-revolt and escape the filthy confines they have called home for the past fifteen years.
Joining them along this grease-stained yellow brick road (yes the OZ allusion is intentional) are the father/daughter team Yona and Fuyu, both Chinese and both drug users addicted to an amalgam of "industrial waste" known as Kromole. The Wicked Witch in this journey is Mason, an androgenously-named caricature of Margaret Thatcher played goofily to the hilt by Tilda Swinton. Speaking in clipped British through cartoon-like fake chompers, Mason is at once quite congenial to the unwashed masses in the caboose to demeaning and cruel when it comes to making the underlings more socially acceptable.
It's the scenes featuring Swinton's absurd overacting (director-approved no doubt) where both the story and the suspension of disbelief start to come off the tracks. In a film so bleak, tense, and yes, dystopian, the comic scenes don't serve as relief but rather Terry Gilliam-inspired buffoonery. Ok, we get it, the authority figure is a stooge, but does the movie need to suddenly feel like a Three Stooges short?
So yes, our not-so merry band of heroes will indeed find The Man Behind The Curtain, the steam inside the engine if you will, and without ruining the surprise, it's a humdinger of a cameo that leads to a satisfying and poignant conclusion. Like Neo in THE MATRIX films, Curtis finds himself holding the keys to an uncertain future...or is it a preordained destiny with doom?
You'll just have to take the ride to find out.


David Estes said...

Nice to see Chris Evans taking some chances with the credit he earned playing a superhero. Agree about the 3rd act coming a bit off the rails. Sometimes a director can be so desperate to hammer home a point that the tone can suffer, especially in a genre like this. Loved the casting. Some of the best "faces" this side of Sergio Leone.

TDiddy said...

Yeah I found it surprising since THE HOST was such a slam dunk. Still this is pretty audacious stuff.