Legend has it that South Korean director Bong Joon-ho stumbled across Jean-Marc Rouchette’s graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, about a perpetually-moving train that houses the remnants of the world’s population. Divided by class and perceived ‘worth,’ the train signifies the caste system and all of its dangers, while Chris Evans’ (Captain America) Curtis Everett stands in as Spartacus, freer of slaves and upholder of justice. Having received heady comparisons to the Wachowskis’ The Matrix and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, can a highly-amped but little seen film replicate that kind of fantastic success?
Everett leads the latest revolt at the insistence of his friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell), and a woman (Octavia Spenser) who has just had her son kidnapped by the Teacher (The Newsroom’s Allison Pill). [He’s also got the typical ancient adviser (John Hurt) and a young man (BBC’s The Musketeers’ D’Artagnan, Luke Pasqualino). The revolt begins with the freeing/bribing of the train’s former security advisor and current drug addict, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-hu), and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung). Car-by-car, the insurgents move forward, as Joon-ho alternates between scenes of Oldboy-like violence and external shots of the train in CGI wonder. But because each car is different, the film seems to be adaptive in its genre and depiction, some more realistic than others. [Honestly, the most troubling, stomach-twisting visuals are not over-the-top violence, but rather the eating of the protein blocks (once you know what’s in them) and the trip through the “teaching car” where the next generation of the privileged are programmed to hate those in the back.]
Thematically, the film is about class, and wealth. In some ways, it seems that the train is the world and U.S. is the one controlling the front of the train with its use of 80% of the world’s oil while being a marginal percentage of its population. That’s all connected to the way we use percentages (like the ones I just made up), information, and communication. But we tell ourselves that our motivation is pure because it’s ours, just like the shrewish dominatrix, “Sir”/Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), tells the then-captive back-of-the-train folks: “There is one thing b/w our hearts and the bitter cold. Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death. we must all of us remain in our allotted station. we must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Eternal order is proscribed by the Sacred Engine.” Balance seems to be Mason’s focus, as power, control, sustainability come at the sacrifice of someone or something else.
While all art seems pretty derivative at this point, even now as we see elements of Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Wizard of Oz, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and the aforementioned Spartacus, but there’s still something intriguing about a storyline that’s pretty linear (I mean, c’mon, the train isn’t circular). I think that’s because of Evans, whose Curtis says non-Messiah-like things, “I’m not a leader” (or is that Charles Barkley?) and “I’m not who he thinks I am” in direct contrast to the way that the “frontrunners” are so sure of themselves, hooking their beliefs on the inventor (Ed Harris) who few have seen. Over and over in the beginning, he’s asked “is it time?” by those who want to follow something so badly that it hurts, even more than the barbaric freezing or kidnapping that those forward in the train inflict on them.
Still, the truth about any movement, whether it’s environmental, political, social, or religious, not everyone wants to be ‘saved.’ We know that the sun is blinding, as the caboose riders experience it for the first time in decades and are terrified and inspired all at once, but this is metaphysical, too. It’s the light that the revolt brings to the tunnel by way of torches, and yet different aspects of the light prove damaging (as in the greenhouse car). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” takes on a whole new meaning here (John 1:5). This seems to dramatically hopeless at times, we’re not sure light can make a bit of difference in this icy world!
The ending may surprise you, both in its shocking revelations and its depth. We find that the Messiah is not what we expect, that the truth of sacrifice and surrender is tied up in mercy, hope, and goodness. We find that the truth about our world requires to look at it differently, to take down the barriers, the gates, we placed and told ourselves hold us back. We find that if we look at our world differently, we might see that the depth of the darkness isn’t quite so deep, that there is hope, but that we must believe… Or we fall into the preordained suffering-as-planned view of the world that many accept, even of a God that we otherwise hear may or may not be loving.
Ultimately, what we see of the train is impacted by what our view of humanity and what are view of God is, both as travelers on the train and viewers of the film. Ultimately, how we see the world and how we treat each other is impacted by our worldview, either for ourselves as the center or for others as the focus. Do you live only for yourself or is the pattern of selflessness set by the Messiah, Jesus, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself”? Your decision makes all of the difference.
I was surprised by the ‘truths’ revealed by at the end, but not by the temptation of Curtis. While I see Jesus as a much different person than Curtis, it found myself expecting the Jesus in the wilderness temptation of the ending. I had expected that Curtis would make it to the front of the train alone, having been peeled from his advisors and partners one by one, and be encouraged to join the ‘Wizard’ waiting at the front. I found the end to be the obvious end of the film. While visually stunning and quite philosophic (if not a bit pedantic), this wasn’t The Matrix or District 9 (or for a different brain twist, The Sixth Sense) because it didn’t spinout enough to keep me guessing.
Worth seeing? Yes. Mindblowing? Not so much.