snow job

Sometimes after I finish a movie, I'll look to see what critics thought of it. I guess I'm hoping to see my opinion backed up by the experts (in those instances where I have a strong reaction, anyway). Sometimes I'm validated, but sometimes I'm baffled. Last night I was baffled. Snowpiercer's 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes baffles me.

If Snowpiercer were an addition problem, it would look like this:

                   Schindler's List
            The Hunger Games
    The Day After Tomorrow
               The Wizard of Oz
                  + Polar Express

Dystopic, post-apocalyptic movies are my absolute favorite, so I was already primed to like Snowpiercer. It's the story of a perpetually running train which circles a frozen Earth, containing the last surviving humans, strictly divided by socioeconomic class. Awesome, right? Oh and it stars Tilda Swinton. Even awesomer.

But Snowpiercer is dystopia plus camp, and that is a difficult combination to pull off. At moments I felt as jerked about by this movie as the train's inhabitants, zipping wildly around jagged mountain peaks with no control over their fate. Just when I'd accepted Snowpiercer's slapstick, eased into its cartoonish feel, it would suddenly bring me up short with some inexplicably disturbing concept or visual. Case in point: towards the end, the film's protagonist tells a story about the early days of the train, a time when the poor, starving passengers sequestered in the last car were so desperate for food that they fell to cannibalism. "You know what I hate about myself?" weeps Curtis. "That I know babies taste the best."

If you're going to drop a bomb like that on your audience, you'd better be sure you've steeled them for it. I was not steeled, and the line hit me like a snowball to the face. And not tlapa, either. Carpitla.

Another problem with Snowpiercer: it quickly kills off its most compelling characters (including Swinton's character, a loathsome toad of a woman she plays gloriously), then fills the gaps left behind with new ones that seem like they should be important, but aren't really. For instance, there are a number of fight scenes directed to emphasize the significance of some bad guy (repeated close ups of his face, etc.) but ultimately those characters don't add very much to the storyline. I was confused as to where my sympathies were meant to go. They certainly weren't drawn to Curtis, Snowpiercer's irritatingly reluctant savior who, when faced with the full truth of reality in the film's final scenes, crumbles like tlacringit (sorry, but that whole list is amazing).

Even the film's villainous mastermind, Wilford, the train's creator and dictator figure (played by Ed Harris), is disappointingly bland. He's less terrifying than smug and disaffected. His whatever attitude towards the horrors his creation has perpetuated was contagious, because by the end, I felt pretty damn whatever myself. Critics raved about Snowpiercer's set design, but its most important component, the exalted Eternal Engine of Wilford's front car, just looks like an oversized hamster wheel. It's as if the art department had exhausted its creativity somewhere between train's caboose and its lush middle section. Eh, fuck it. The audience'll get that it's a big deal.

In Snowpiercer's last scene, the train breaks up spectacularly, cars scattering like toys across blindingly white snowcaps. One of the final shots is that of a polar bear, gazing at the destruction with a dafuq? expression on his face. I imagine that for much of Snowpiercer, I looked a lot like that polar bear.