Zombos Says: Brilliant
"Lord, hell must be frozen over by now. I see Boston and much of the Northeast is," remarked Zombos, reading his New York Times. He turned the page. Yes, old habits die hard with him, and he refused to shake off his love for newsprint-smudged fingers, the paper mill smell, and a crinkle of pulpy newspaper for the lesser sensory experience glossy digital screens provided.
"I wonder what Pretorius' hat is doing in the middle of the lawn," I said, standing uncertainly on the worn, shaky-on-its-track, rolling ladder as I windexed the large full arch head window that let the most light into the library.
Our groundskeeper took to wearing a deerstalker cap during the winter months. It was dark brown, made of leather with fuzzy ear flaps, and had a golden PS embroidered in large letters on it. Those letters stood out above the dark color of the hat and now almost glittered in the whiteness of the deep snow mounds that stretched across the breadth of the great lawn.
Zombos put down his newspaper and walked over to the window. We both stared down at the hat. It moved.
"Oh, my, you better pull him out of the snow before he freezes solid," said Zombos. He returned to his chair and his newspaper.
"How?" I asked. "Snowpiercer couldn't get through that amount of snow."
"Oh, just toss on some snowshoes and you will be fine," he said. "Three fingers of Brandy to brace yourself for the challenge would help."
I thought about the Brandy and a career change while I bounded down the staircase. I also thought about Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer and his post-apocalyptic snowscapes and endless mounds of snow. And how does one actually put on snowshoes anyway?
Each decade's worth of cinematic endeavors produces at least one movie that attempts to capture the defining fear, hope, and hopelessness of the time period it is created in. You might call this meta-genre approach zeitgeist cinema, or light-heartedly label it fretful cinema; or even brush it aside with a brief nod to how it is simply a pandering cinema. Call it what you like; it is still a reflection on the topicality generated from the trending distillation of disconcerting infotoids (what passes for news these days on the Internet) that are continuously funneled through the usual digital channels for our consumption, in-between posting selfies. Feeding our innate paranoia with fear is a mainstay of all news streams now.
And horror movies, of course. It's either zombies, nasty aliens, or some catastrophic event nipping at humanity's heels. We never seem to tire of dying together: living together seems the bigger challenge. Sometimes a brush with fear can be enlightening and emotionally cathartic. Fear also makes for good horror stories when what to be feared is familiar to us (the audience) but we still ignore it (the movie's victims). What we refuse to acknowledge in our fears allows us to play its uncertainties, giving us a sense of comfort, as real or as false as we choose it to be.
In Snowpiercer (a movie adapted from the 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige), fear starts with the frigid weather and worsens when a failed scientific solution for stopping global warming--a little too much, a little too late--makes the snow fall, and fall, and fall. Sub-zero cold locks the planet into an ice age that kills almost everything. The survivors are themselves locked into the Snowpiercer, a massive train whose perpetual engine keeps it rapidly circling the planet, completely, once a year. In the graphic novel it is 1000 cars long. I don't know how many cars are in the movie version but there are enough here to show us how brilliant the Snowpiercer's creator is (a perfect Ed Harris in a perfectly detestable role), and how insane.
In the back of the train are the less fortunate survivors, crammed into squalid living conditions and surviving on protein gelatin bars that look as nasty as they must taste. Towards the front of the train are the fortunate survivors, living in luxury, cleanliness, and greedy excess. In-between are the cars that provide food, water, and a chance for the have nots to reach the front of the train and take control from the haves. But the way is blocked by impregnable doors and soldiers determined to stop any rebellion begun at the back of the train. The soldiers are mostly Korean. I'm not sure if this is meant to mean something or is simply a result of the shared movie production with South Korea. I still found it disturbing and despised them immediately (within the context of the movie).
Previous rebellions have failed. This time, Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) has a better plan for breaching the doors and by-passing the soldiers to reach the locomotive car. Wearing enough clothing to hide his muscular-frame and a scruffy beard to hide his good looks, Evans gives us a different kind of hero; one who isn't all good or even idealistic. Just desperate. The protein bars aren't enough to keep everyone alive and the few children growing up in the squalid, cramped, rear of the train are mysteriously taken away every so often, never to be seen again. We find out why later, but its hideous and makes you hate Ed Harris's Wilford more than Everett does. And Everett's reason is shocking and sad and may make you want to hate Everett almost as much.
The rebellion is sparked by Minister Mason's brutality (a perfectly despicable and calmly loony Tilda Swinton), and, car by car, we see absurdity, insanity, and inhumanity gelled together like one of those protein bars, and just as distasteful. Evans must free Minsu (Song Kang-ho) from the prison car, along with his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), because Minsu designed the train's doors and know's how to open them. Minsu and Yona are hooked on Kronole, a drug made from industrial waste. They are more concerned with finding Kronole than hurrying up the rebellion. A brief stop for sushi in one car, a chillingly bloody fight undertaken in sudden darkness with rejects from Hostile in another, a classroom car filled with dangerous subjects, and a final confrontation with the train's creator all unfold with outrageous art house flair. The art direction, scene effects, and textures and colors bring you into the train, into the blustery snowscapes outside, and along for a wild ride on icy rails through a deadman's curve and much turmoil. This is one of those movies you wonder how it got past the stiffs and standards of typical movie-making and bless the fact it did.
Snowpiercer (both the train and the movie) can be viewed in many ways: it is a self-sustaining ecosystem; it is an an analog for the perennial polemic of [insert whatever country you like here] social classes pitted against each other; it is a bold statement about humankind's propensity for always turning dire situations into an US or THEM algorithm; it is simply a damn good yarn filled with crazy action, desperate, morally corrupt characters, and a wild visual flair you don't see very often.
One of the 10 best films of 2014, Snowpiercer leaves you with your mouth open and an uncomfortable, winky sense that, yes, even though it bends its movie-reality into absurd shapes, it easily fits our really-real-reality into those shapes with too much familiarity. It rubs our noses in it. It makes us realize that if push comes to shove, YOU would want to be one of the lucky ones at the front of the train, even though you despise them for being the lucky ones at the front of the train.
You would be too scared not to.