Prior to 1950 and the Atomic Age, only four apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic films were produced. The most famous was the 1936 British film Things to Come, scripted by H.G. Wells. After 1950, though, the floodgates were open, and films dealing with the end of life on Earth, or at least of civilization as we know it, became almost too numerous to count. Whatever the cause of Doomsday — the Bomb, overpopulation, rogue comets, technology, even zombies — the movies have made lots of popcorn money off the grim phenomenon.
Now making its premiere on home video, Snowpiercer, the latest entry in the genre, didn’t fare well at the box office (due primarily to distribution wrangling and a limited release) but nonetheless scored a whopping approval rating from audiences and (surprisingly!) critics.
A really curious hybrid, the movie is based on a French graphic novel and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, whose 2007 giant creature movie The Host blew both of the more recent Godzillas out of the ballpark in terms of quality and originality. Heading the cast of the new film are Chris Evans (Captain America), two Oscar winners (Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer), two multiple Oscar nominees (John Hurt and Ed Harris), and two Korean regulars of Bong Joon-ho films. That’s a lot of firepower, and by no means all of it.
Set in the not-too-distant future — after the Earth has entered a new ice age (thanks to a bonehead plan to correct global warming) — humanity’s sole survivors are all packed into an enormously long train hurtling across the frozen world. The rich and the fortunate live in the lap of luxury in the front of the train, while the luckless majority struggle for existence near the rear. In essence, the situation mirrors the same conflict as in The Time Machine and so many other movies like it, a class struggle between the Haves and Have-Nots.
It is Evans (the Avenger is almost unrecognizable in a black beard and buzz-cut), as Curtis, who leads the revolt this time, as the hapless Unwashed decide to assert their rights and take over the train, despite the protestations of the Company mouthpiece Mason (Swinton, also nearly unrecognizable). There’s a lot of fighting and bloodletting as our selfless heroes surge forward, hemorrhaging numbers at an alarming rate, until the ultimate final confrontation and all kinds of plot spoilers.
The film has been likened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and 12 Monkeys, an interpretation bolstered by the fact that John Hurt’s character, a mentor of sorts to Curtis, is named Gilliam. Snowpiercer develops an almost surreal quality as we enter the world of the privileged on the train, and Gilliam’s films thrive on surrealism and satire. Unfortunately, Bong Joon-ho’s film, though visually arresting, comes nowhere close to the intelligence and thematic complexities of a Terry Gilliam film.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Snowpiercer, but it was hard to get past all the clichés and plot-hole idiocies, particularly as the film moves toward its conclusion. Rather than Brazil or 12 Monkeys, I was thinking of John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) with Sean Connery in a ponytail and loincloth wreaking havoc among the besotted hierarchy of the future. For all its loopy extravagance and excess, Zardoz was imaginative, provocative and original.
Snowpiercer, on the other hand, is merely more of the same old stuff.