*. In case you haven’t been following the news for the last decade or so, the growing economic gap between a super-rich 1% and everyone else has become a matter of pressing political concern. Not surprisingly, speculative fiction and filmmaking has started to address this situation, presenting readers and moviegoers with a variety of dystopic futures where an elite class (sometimes literally) preys on the proles. Think The Hunger Games, or the Elite Hunting society of the Hostel franchise. Or this movie.
*. I find the political message unoriginal and heavy-handed. Tilda Swinton’s big Shakespearean speech on social order lays it out (think of Ulysses’ speech on “degree” in Troilus and Cressida, or Menenius on the political/anatomical analogy in Coriolanus). The point is that everyone has to stay in their allotted, preordained station. You have to keep your place on the train of life and not try to move up.
*. That political message is, in turn, everything. It doesn’t matter if the way it is represented is beyond far-fetched. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to imagine a train this big as a self-contained “rattling ark” capable of producing enough food for so many people, not to mention the power needed to keep it all running at such a pace.
*. For the most part I didn’t mind the crude politics, but I was more than a little disappointed to find that the kids were just being taken away to be gerbils running the treadmill at the heart of the divine engine. Come on. That was weak. I thought they were going to be the steak Wilford was eating. Because where else is that steak coming from? It isn’t vat-grown, as the rebels do pass through a freezer car filled with carcasses. So where are the cows? Come to think of it, where are they getting so damn many cockroaches to turn into protein bars?
*. In case you were wondering, in the book the meat is all vat grown except for mice, which are fed to those in the back of the train, and rabbits for those in the front.
*. Moving along, disappointment was my main response to most of what we gradually find out as the gang head to the front of the train. In a movie like this you expect some kind of a twist or surprising revelation at the end. Here there was nothing — aside, I suppose, from finding out that Wilford was orchestrating the uprising all along (and even that wasn’t very surprising).
*. The graphic novel it’s based on was published in 1982, though the only thing they kept for the film was the basic concept. It’s a completely different story.
*. On the DVD commentary Scott Weinberg mentions being baffled by people who don’t “get” the modern praetorian guards dipping their axes in fish blood. Apparently we’re supposed to know that the fish blood is poison. Well, I sure didn’t get it Scott. And even after being told that this was the point, I didn’t think it made any sense. To start with the obvious: if you’re hacking someone with an axe, what difference does it make if the axe is poisoned? And how long would the poison stay on the blade? How many axes could be poisoned by the one fish? Did they not have any poison on the train that didn’t come from the belly of a fish?
*. Just as an aside, the DVD commentary was done by Weinberg and other guest commentators that he gets on the phone. They’re not bad, but this system (which Weinberg also uses for the commentary on It Follows) isn’t a great idea. The people on the phone aren’t watching the movie with Weinberg so he has to clue them in to what’s happening on screen and the whole thing gets to be rather awkward.
*. As a final point related to the commentary, the best part comes when Weinberg goes off on a mini-rant about what it means to call a movie “overrated” and how the critical process and critical function work. Given that I think this movie is overrated, I found this quite interesting to listen to. Weinberg’s point, I think, is that people who call a movie overrated or overhyped are engaged in conspiracy thinking. There may be some truth in this, but I felt he was protesting too much. Especially with all the online review aggregators available now, it’s fairly easy to chart and quantify large discrepancies between critical ratings (and their volume) vs. public opinion (as measured by user ratings, box office, etc.). And it’s also true that in some cases hype really is the product of marketing (as with the Blair Witch phenomenon, to take a famous example). But a discussion of this is by the way.
*. OK, so the first time the drug kronole is introduced we are told it is highly flammable. This is repeated a couple of times later in the movie just in case we might have forgotten. But from the first time it’s mentioned, you know it’s going to be used as a form of plastic explosive, right? Nothing subtle there.
*. That obviousness, even crudity, is apparent elsewhere. In order to find something out about Wilford and the story behind the train we have to sit through a schoolroom video that seems strangely dated (sort of like a 1950s educational film), not to mention pointless. Wouldn’t the kids have this film memorized by now? It’s obvious that the video has just been shoehorned into the movie to provide a bit of background exposition.
*. Tilda Swinton is great as Mason, but then (a) she’s playing a flamboyant, grotesque character, and (b) it’s not hard to stand out from such a dour cast. I mean, I didn’t even recognize Chris “Captain America” Evans as Curtis. I think Evans does a good job, but the character is a plank.
*. Aside from Swinton’s performance, the art direction is the only thing that really stands out. But then this is the kind of film that a designer loves. Every car of the train is a Price Is Right showcase for a different style and look (colour schemes, lighting, wardrobe, props, etc.). And given the limited space for each showcase, it’s all very playful and theatrical. That said, I wasn’t blown away by any of the designs. Even the most fantastic (and improbable), like the aquarium car, didn’t take me anywhere I hadn’t been before. I wouldn’t call the look of the film visionary or ground-breaking.
*. I used the word “visionary” perhaps because I was looking at the DVD box and it tells us this movie comes from “visionary director Bong Joon Ho” (or Joon Ho Bong, as it’s sometimes rendered). Really? What counts as visionary these days? I would have thought it meant breaking some kind of new ground, at the very least. I don’t think this movie does. I didn’t think The Host did either.
*. When do you think Wilford changes out of his pyjamas? Ever? Does he have a pair of overalls he puts on when he has to work on the engine?
*. I don’t understand the cryptic one-word messages, tucked into pills, that Wilford sends Curtis. He even gives him one right at the very end saying “train.” The only thing I can think to say is that Wilford is (by his own admission) bonkers and making these fortune cookies is just some crazy shit he likes to do.
*. The ending has been interpreted optimistically by some, as showing that life still exists outside the train. It seems pretty bleak to me. The kids aren’t going to become farmers on a frozen mountainside, and that polar bear will probably run down and eat them quickly. They’ll both be dead for sure in a few hours.
*. It’s a bit disturbing, if not altogether surprising, how highly the critics rated this film (pace Weinberg’s thoughts on the overrating of movies).
*. It’s not bad, but it’s pretty much a run-of-the-mill dystopian SF film, with a tired political premise, poor effects, humdrum action sequences, unremarkable design elements, and a clumsy, somewhat ridiculous story. So how did it make so many annual “top 10” lists? Weinberg even calls it his favourite film of the year. I appreciate his enthusiasm and advocacy but . . . no. It’s an OK flick, sure, but what is there about it that makes it great? Has the bar been set that low?