Monday, July 07, 2014

power to the tail car

When I was in grad school we did some reading about the theory of the carnivalesque, which basically says that people in power let the peasants get a little crazy now and then to blow off steam and prevent a real revolution. Back in the day, that meant villages would host carnivals where the king would dress up as a commoner and commoners could parade around like kings. The next day they would return to their regularly scheduled program of oppression and plague.

Without going into spoiler-level detail, I think this is the idea behind Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong’s thriller about a train car loaded with the few survivors of a failed global warming fix that has left Earth frozen and uninhabitable. As you might imagine, things on the train are a little tense. Especially because the “tail car” passengers live in filth and poverty, while the folks at the front of the train spend their time going to raves and knitting in orange groves. The government mouthpiece for the train’s mysterious leader, Mr. Wilford, is a deliciously awkward Tilda Swinton. She assures them that everyone has a preordained place in the natural balance of things.

Pay no attention to our bloody visitors, children.
As you also might imagine, a scrappy group of the downtrodden decides to overthrow the one percent. Chris Evans is their predictably reluctant leader. When he mumbles his protestations, I wanted to join him—Octavia Spencer was standing nearby, and she seemed like a much more interesting choice. So are Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, father-daughter genius-outlaws (the story doesn’t waste their talent as much as it does Spencer’s).

I realize I’m making it sound like a silly movie, but it’s actually pretty great. Each car of the train is a visual design jewel. The tail car is very Jacob Riis, with its rags and bunk beds, while Mr. Wilford’s car is kind of Deco/Eames. In between there are the aforementioned orange groves, a creepy Wilford-worshipping classroom that made me think the movie was at least in part a North Korea allegory, and a sparkling walk-through aquarium. A lot of the movie feels like a nonsensical but vivid dream. A lot of it is stomach-turningly violent. I couldn’t quite decide if it was overkill, or necessary, or if I’m turning soft. I mean, how many limbs do you need to see hacked off to make a point? The world may never know.

Sure, she looks like an elementary school secretary, but she'll chop your arm off.
In addition to the carnivalesque reading and the North Korea reading, you can also look at the train as a traditional, linear plot. People move along it, each car connecting, but things get really interesting only when you bust out. It’s worth hanging in through the dreary/violent middle cars to get to the good stuff.

No comments: