In 2014, we’re told during the opening frames of this post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, mankind finally figured out a way to stop the progression of global warming. A chemical, found to lower the temperature of the atmosphere by a few degrees, was released into the sky by dozens of countries at the same time, then everybody sat back and relaxed, anticipating the glorious need for socks and sweaters once again at last.
Great idea; one small problem: Mother Nature rarely appreciates being monkeyed with, and instead of cooperating by chilling out ever so gently slightly, she opened up a can of Ice Age on their ass.
Cut to 17 years later and a train. It’s called the Snowpiercer, and it’s the largest train ever built. On board are the last survivors of the planet Earth. The train uses a perpetual motion engine, we’re told in an educational video, and travels along a huge, globe-spanning track, cycling once around the planet every year (try not to wonder how this magical track never needs repairs; it won’t do you any good).
When the Snowpiercer was first unveiled as the last stop for man, it was boarded using a class system — essentially to establish a class system, really, since the money was immediately useless the second it was spent. You either paid for a first- or second-class ticket, or you ended up jammed in the tail of the train with 1000 other poor people, where there was no food, no water, no windows, and no hope. For 17 years, the tailies have struggled to survive, and while eventually, the owner/conductor of the train, “Wilford the Benevolent,” stepped in to provide them with just enough water and gelatinous “protein bars” to survive, the conditions began horrific and pretty much stayed that way.
As the story opens, a young tailie named Curtis (played by Captain America) and the tail’s elderly leader Gilliam (John Hurt) are planning a rebellion, the first in years. The conditions they’ve been forced to endure and the terrible abuses they’ve been increasingly subjected to have finally become intolerable, and the group intends to turn this train around once and for all, so to speak.
The plan? To bust through the length of the Snowpiercer and get to the engine — the ultimate seat of control. Though they have almost no weapons whatsoever, and face a force of guards armed to the teeth (or are they? rumor has it they actually ran out of bullets years ago. . .), the proletariat is, as always, a class to be reckoned with, because the “have-nots” are fueled by something the “haves” simply ceased to possess: the ardor of want.
As they make their way from car to car, through battle after battle, Curtis and his team (including the ever-wonderful Octavia Spencer) encounter one astonishing sight after the next, beginning with their first look out a window in 17 years, and followed quickly by cars filled with living, growing fruits and vegetables; frozen slabs of beef and whole chickens (try not to wonder where this magical meat comes from; it won’t do you any good); and a tunnel through a car surrounded on all sides by a glassed-in aquarium loaded to the gills (pun) with fish.
While the poor have been barely subsisting on those disgusting “protein bars,” the rich have been feasting on what appears to be an endless supply of sushi and steak. Every injustice fuels the tailies’ fervor further until, finally, the last survivors of the team break their way into the engine, finding there the biggest shock of all.
Now, there are a WHOLE HOST of things that make absolutely no sense whatsoever in this film, which is typically something that drives me pretty bananas. Here, though, while I noted each one in turn, and rolled my eyes at more than a few (including everybody’s horror at finding out what the protein bars are made of, which: who cares? Plenty of people eat that right now by choice all over the world already, you wimps), the movie is so damned entertaining, being annoyed seemed like a waste of a perfectly good time. This is pure summer popcorn fun, with some extra-delightful elements on board as well, including and especially the magnificent Tilda Swinton, virtually unrecognizable as the cruel, bug-eyed, buck-toothed spokesperson for the Wilford of Oz, coincidentally wearing not only my haircut from the 3rd grade, but my glasses as well.
While Snowpiercer thinks itself more clever than it actually is (for all its earnest “analysis” of the ramifications of a class system where the rich have so MUCH more than the poor, it actually has nothing new or interesting to add), this is easily the most thoroughly entertaining sci-fi flick I’ve seen all year. Great production values, good storytelling, engaging character dynamics. Plus, if you’re in the middle of a heat wave like we are in Seattle right now, spending two hours with a movie set in a world where your arm can freeze solid in 7 minutes makes for some pretty nice daydreaming.
Not that I’m complaining about the heat, Mother Nature. NOT ONE TINY BIT (please don’t hurt me).
Genre: Science Fiction, Disaster
Cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Kang-ho Song, Ewen Bremner