A south Korean movie, directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host 2006) based on the screen play by Kelly Masterson (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) and Bong Joon-ho. The world has been destroyed by attempts to stop global warming which have gone totally wrong. Faced with the growing threat of global warming, an experimental new approach was developed, which entailed seeding the upper atmosphere with a chemical (CW7) to overcome the effects of global warming.
One of the first things you notice about this film is the cast. I have to admit, it is probably not the cast I would have picked, but that said, I would have been wrong. The casting works well and I wouldn’t change any of them. Behind the scenes, there is some discussion about The Weinstein Company taking out about 20 minutes of the film to suit western viewers. The movie is based on a French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”.
The film opens in the train, but with a narration giving us the history of the efforts to stop global warming which ultimately resulted in the destruction of civilisation by virtue of the CW7 working too well and forcing the world in to an ice age. We quickly learn that those on the train have been on it for 17 years, entirely self-contained. Life is dystopian for many and carefully managed and controlled overall. The train itself is a huge affair purposefully built by an eccentric transport mogul who had no confidence in the CW7 solution so he built a special train which linked in to the world’s rail transport system and provided a place of refuge for the select few, constantly travelling around the world, never stopping.
Never stopping has a price. In order to keep the train moving the passengers are carefully ordered. First class, standard and economy. We learn about the workings of the train and its society from the huddled masses in economy. As bad as conditions are, we are told they are “the lucky ones” as they got on the train and are still alive. For seventeen years these people have been in the windowless back carriages at the tail of the train. Things are not good. People are huddled in to any corner they can find. The background is explained to us through the eyes of those trapped in the back. There have been up-risings in the past, all of which have failed. One of the key aspects of the uprisings is getting out to the armoured carriages in to the next carriages on the train. The people are fed a stable diet of protein pars to keep them alive. The protein bars are provided by the “Train” We also notice that although these third class passengers are in rags there is a fully uniformed security force and also train crew.
Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014) plays the part of Curtis, he is the leader of the would-be rebellion. He must decide when to act and how to. Key to their plan is rescuing Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song, The Host, 2013) who is the security expert who designed the security systems for the train, keeping the carriages separate. The only problem is that he is a drug addled prisoner in the train’s prison carriage. Curtis together with his Lieutenants; Edgar, his second in command (Jamie Bell, Man on a Ledge, 2012)) sporting a strangely passable Irish accent who is the no-patience action man; and Gilliam, the older sage, respected by all and carrying the wounds of previous encounters. Discipline is savage, beatings are regular and extreme, often involving loss of limbs. Other rebellions have failed, they have looked at why and hopefully have a plan to overcome these issues. In to the mix of this we see the “overlords” using these third-class passengers as nothing more than a resource to be taken from.
At one scene we see one person taken to the front of the train to provide musical entertainment for the upper classes. We later see him and others who have been taken, their minds’ washed to be compliant and subservient. Meanwhile children are being taken to the front and nobody knows why.
Authority on the train is in the person of Minister Monroe (Thilda Swinton, Adaptation, 2002) who is the voice of authority, endlessly engaging in a passive aggressive dominance over those in third class. Eventually when they notice that the guards on the carriage actually have no ammunition in their weapons, the passengers rise-up. Using weapons and tools they made, they make their attack, first to the jail carriage where they rescue the security expert and his girlfriend. Using their skills they move forward first past the prison carriage, then they take the food and water carriages, revealing some of the nasty truths involved in life on the train. After a series of often bloody battles, against firstly the guards, then axe yielding black clad figures to then more armed guard and some very nasty people along the way. Eventually they make their way forward, glimpsing along the way how the rest of the upper-class passengers live. Ultimately they arrive at the Front, and meet Mr Wilford (Ed Harris, the Way Back 2010). Here talking with Wilford they rebels get an idea of just how perverted life has become on the train.
We are told as the film progresses that the key to survival is balance. There is plenty of food (for the privileged) the key is balancing the demands with supply at the right times and seasons. This even stretches to the punishment of the third class passengers, it is calculated that 74% must die. We have become used to video games producing tie-in movies, however this is a movie which almost feels like a video game despite not having one at its origin. Each Carriage is essentially a new level with new associated challenges for the rebels to overcome.
This movie could have been too busy, with so much cramped in to so tight a space, both physically and emotionally, but the characterisation works, Evans’ Curtis is very underplayed, what we know of him comes from revealing moments as the movie progresses, to ultimately a character we have confidence in as a leader. Swinton’s Monroe is a nasty piece of work showing nothing but disdain for the passengers through her passive aggressive control. We see just how lose control is later on as she is used to lead the rebels through the train. Those upper class people they pass are largely disgusted by what they see, interrupting their on-going lives. The food shortages present further back are not seen here.
The only obvious weakness that presents itself, is a slight continuity issue; where having established that the guards are out of ammunition we later see a full use of ammunition as the rebellion gathers pace, perhaps it is rationed to certain areas. The other slight weakness is the issue of blockages on the line, is it only now that these are causing problems, are they normal with the rebellion deflecting away from essential management of them?
When we eventually meet Wilford, having already gotten a background on him we see a person who is immediately comparable to “Christof” the show’s producer and “God-like” character. We see the same calm omnipotence here. There Characters are perhaps a little too similar, given the respective plots. Very smartly we are shown not just his power but also how fragile it all is, perhaps his character is more comparable to The Wizard from The Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan). His power is based on what people think of him. Minister Monroe’s character shows us how the train’s front has almost taken on a mystical, even religious aspect, with Wilford being almost worshiped.
That said, this is an excellent movie with an excellent cast, Evans, gives one of his best roles, Swinton is almost unrecognisable, Bell and Hurt support magnificently. It should be pointed out that even additional supporting cast duties are taken up by well-known character-actors more than capable of supplying what is needed.
In the last scenes we see a polar bear; does this signify freedom, danger or the sub-text that the bear looks fed and, if it is fed, there is life of some sort, where there is life; there is hope. As viewers, Bong, quite deliberately allowed us to get to know those people surviving at the back of the train and what they have to endure, are we allowed to hope for their future.
This is very much a hybrid movie, merging the characterization of western film with the manic nature of some of Korea’s most successful outputs in recent years (The Good, The Bad and The Weird, Kin Jee-woon, 2008). There is violence, but it is a tool of the plot, especially in how the lower class passengers are treated and in one or two scenes it is quite graphic, but just on the right side of what is needed.
An excellent movie which could have been mind-numbingly bad in other hands.