I don’t know what it says about the movies these days that the best one I’ve seen so far this summer is a completely insanethriller set on a train in perpetual motion around a post-apocalyptic earth on which the have-nots are packed like sardines in the caboose while the wealthy live in splendor in the front.
In one sense, Snowpiercer is indefensible. Science fiction, even satirical science fiction, needs to have its own rigorous internal logic, and Snowpiercer is almost defiantly illogical. For one thing, it begins 17 years after the earth has frozen over—apparently the world tried to cure global warming but turned the thermostat down too low—so surely whatever discrepancy there was in the fare between the front and the back of the train has long since been amortized.
For another, surely a train that keeps running by turning snow into gasoline can magically make a lot of other stuff too to improve the lives of its hoi polloi. And finally, if the world is made of snow, surely there would be enough water for the poor people to take a daily shower without costing the rich fascists in the front too much trouble.
The only way to excuse such lapses is if you come to the movie theater directly from having skipped a neighborhood effort to reenergize the Occupy Wall Street movement because you went to get your nails done, or from having made a third effort to get past page 11 of Thomas Piketty’s book before closing the Kindle app and opening Temple Run 2 instead—and are therefore looking for something easier to get through about how mean and nasty economic and social inequality are.
So why do I also say Snowpiercer is the best movie I’ve seen this summer? Because it is a by-God movie—a seat-of-your-pants, nail-biting, over-the-top, exciting, funny, weird motion picture,with an emphasis on “motion.” On screen, the train provides a near-perfect setting, combining the intimacy of a closed space of the sort you see on a theatrical stage with the illusion of constant movement and change on the outside. The director, a Korean named Bong Joon-ho, makes use of the contrast just about as well as anyone ever has.
There’s a reason the slang term “movie” became the term of art to describe the narrative film; when you watch one, you are immobilized but the action around you is designed, metaphorically, to transport you without your ever having to leave your seat. It’s the original and elemental magic of the motion picture, and it’s still there more than a century after the form came into being. But directors and writers no long-er think about how to make a movie move, or how to harness that particular magic to pull a viewer outside of himself and into a story. Bong Joon-ho really has done so here, though, and it will be extraordinarily exciting to see what he comes up with next.
I don’t want to say much more about the movie because it really depends on the unfolding of a series of surprises as the train’s hidden features and peculiarities begin to reveal themselves. You should be warned it’s very violent, but it is also deliberately and satirically grotesque (especially in the person of Tilda Swinton, who hilariously embodies schoolmarm fascism in all its guises), and the grotesquerie serves to undercut the effect of the violence. But I will say that Chris Evans, best known for his soulful performances as Captain America in three (so far) Marvel films, is unrecognizable and absolutely great as the lead rebel from the back of the train.
Trains and films have gone well together since the first real plotted movie, The Great Train Robbery, was released in 1903. In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made his most delightful film, The Lady Vanishes, about the disappearance of a woman from a train whom no one but a very nervous young woman seems to remember. Twenty years later, he used a phallic train ride as the metaphor for the seduction of Cary Grant by Eva Marie Saint in 1959’s North by Northwest.
The great 1934 comedy Twentieth Century involves a washed-up theater producer who finds himself onboard the same train as the movie star he discovered—and makes hilarious improvisational use of the other passengers to talk her into appearing in his next show. Countless westerns featured bad guys duking it out with white hats on the tops of train cars. And you can’t forget the great subway movies as well—The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), The Warriors (1979).
But it’s the sense of being trapped in a confined space that is either dangerous in itself (because the train might crash) or only a tin wall away from dangers untold (as in the barren world outside the Snowpiercer) that makes the train such an effective setting. Speaking of the former, there is another terrific film that came out earlier this year called Last Passenger, about six people on a commuter train from London that begins hurtling out of control. It’s as understated as Snowpiercer is operatic, but like its flashier cousin, Last Passenger knows something all those $250 million blockbusters don’t: Memorable moviemaking ultimately arises from conflicts between people, not fights between computer-generated images.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.