Train in Vain

Snowpiercer cast
Snowpiercer is a modest-budget semi-indie post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie based on a French comic book from the 80s, and boy does it ever feel like it. I’d been seeing people raving about it on Twitter and Facebook, saying things like “drop everything you’re doing and go see it now.” While it’s not that good, it’s still interesting and kind of a marvel that it even exists.

It could be because I knew a little bit of its history going in, but I kept thinking throughout that it felt like a comic book movie. Not a super-hero movie — Chris Evans is here to show off his range and his commitment to interesting projects, not to show off his chest — but an “indie” comic book movie. It’s more concerned with imagery than with world-building, and more interested in legibility than in subtlety. The premise is about as direct an allegory of classism as you can make. The characters are broad — but still interesting — archetypes. The world is literally constrained, with each train of the car a “closed ecosystem” representing a single idea. Most scenes have just enough dialogue to fit into word bubbles. And the plotting and pacing are the kind you get when artists are rejecting Hollywood and trying to come up with their own conventions — with mixed success.

And maybe it’s only because I now know it’s based on a French comic book, but I kept thinking it felt like European independent movies from the 80s and 90s. It seems like Hollywood action movies filtered through a dream, where the tone’s all over the place, the pacing’s unsettlingly unpredictable, and Hollywood stars appear out of nowhere, for no good reason other than that they wanted to be in something interesting for a change.

Overall, I liked it but didn’t love it, but I’m still glad it exists. Especially as a counter to the standard action movie template, and I think that’s a big part of why it’s been getting so much positive buzz: people love it for not being Transformers, or even Captain America (which was actually good!)

The most intriguing thing about the movie, to me (and the only thing that made it worth a blog post), is the way the tone is deliberately all over the place. I think Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton both gave excellent performances, even though it didn’t seem like they’d belong in the same movie. Swinton was an over-the-top caricature, while Evans was playing it completely straight, particularly impressive considering that his most dramatic and emotional scene was a lurid monologue about cannibalism. Kang-ho Song*’s performance was entirely in Korean, but even without that, his seemed to be a performance from a more lighthearted, less high-concept action movie. With less competent — or even less confident — actors, it would’ve felt disjointed, as if they’d not bothered to talk to each other before filming. But it mostly works here, and it’s fascinating to see camp and deadpan work together without canceling each other out.

The screenwriter and director, Joon-Ho Bong*, also made The Host, which also seemed to veer wildly in tone between black comedy, camp, family comedy, and horror movie. It’d be easy to speculate that that’s just his style. And I’m still not 100% sure that it works; The Host was another movie that I wanted to like much more than I actually did.

But it’s interesting to see the attempt. Especially now that we’re seeing more and more long-form storytelling in television series. It’s meant that television is getting gradually better, but also that the rules are getting more ingrained. Even as the quality goes up, there’s less room to experiment.

Battlestar Galactica‘s final season was a complete disaster, but there was also something perversely thrilling about it — once everything had gone off the rails, you had the sense that for the first time, anything was possible. At any other point in the series, a scene threatening to blow Colonel Tigh out of an airlock would’ve been another example of “fake TV tension:” it still would’ve worked because these guys have had so much experience crafting television, they know how to make a tense moment fit in the overall arc of an episode, but you’d still know in the back of your mind what the real stakes were. But by the end of the series, after everything had gone horribly wrong, there was genuine tension. This would be bad, but they’re just crazy enough to do it.

Until the end of Snowpiercer, I got the same sense of exhilarated confusion: this isn’t playing by quite the same rules as a normal movie, so there’s really no predicting what they’re about to do. By the end, it settles into almost complete familiarity, but for a while, it’s just off-putting enough to be engaging.

*Apologies if I’ve got the surname/given name order mixed up for Korean names; IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are inconsistent about which comes first.