Science fiction is a precarious form of entertainment. To some extent, it all verges on fantasy, but where features such as super hero movies have excessive components of make-believe, real science fiction at least pretends to be based on viable possibilities. But science isn’t the only factor that is required to justify the entertainment. The motion pictures have to work as drama (comedy seems to veer more readily into fantasy), and it should use the detail of its postulated environment to stimulate the viewer and amplify both the sense of wonder and the suspense. Star Trek First Contact is a good example of a great science-fiction movie. It has an absurd and barely believable premise that the heroes are able to go back in time, but allowing for that, the rest of the story is rich and exciting, with terrific, human characters, so that you don’t mind the fantasy propping up the science. There is big science-fiction feature playing in the theaters right now, on the other hand, that is studious in its application of science to its fiction, but the filmmakers blow the human aspect of the ending, so regardless of whether the film is scientifically valid or not, it’s a stinker. Which brings us to the 2013 cult science-fiction hit, released in a great, cult-oriented two-platter set by Anchor Bay Entertainment, Snowpiercer.
For viewers immune to its attractions, the film is simply ridiculous. It is about people riding on an endlessly looping train that is traveling across most of the continents after an ecological disaster has frozen the planet and killed everyone except those who made it onto the train. The ‘thousand car’ train has been on this journey for years. A microcosm of human society, those in the rear cars are fed a suspiciously uniform protein bar and are barely surviving, while those in the front cars live a life of luxury. The hero, in the rear car, organizes a revolt and works his way to the front. The film has a strong satirical element, which is bound to turn a lot of viewers off, and some rousing action scenes which, along with the imaginative special effects, is what will keep others intently involved for the entire 126-minute running time. The conclusion attempts to explain everything and then ends resolutely, with just a dash of hope. There are some aspects to the movie that are never elaborated upon—some of the people are clearly people, but others appear to actually be robots—and regardless of how deftly the filmmakers try to flit around it, if you do stop to think about the ecology of the train for more than a moment, it makes no sense whatsoever. But as the heroes work their way past the increasing challenges of each new car—like a video game, yeah—the film is so different and so energized that it can seem like something unique and exceptional.
So, the science is at best dubious, the drama, while engagingly performed, is hardly profound, and the story, even aside from the fantasy parts, is illogical and is a mad amalgam of genres. Why, then, is the movie so entertaining? The answer is simple: it’s a train movie. The subliminal but constant forward momentum of the setting itself keeps a viewer engaged, regardless of whatever turn the movie chooses to make or element it chooses to include. The film is crazy, but in a classy sort of way, with an international cast and a deliberate sense of audacity in its visions, and as it barrels down the tracks you can’t help but go along for the ride. Directed by Boon Joon Ho, the film stars Chris Evans, as rough hewn and flawed here as he is smooth and sculpted in the Captain America films. Jamie Bell, Song Kang Ho, Octavia Spencer (kicking butt), John Hurt, Clark Middleton, Alison Pill, Ed Harris and, as if she had just stepped out of Brazil, Tilda Swinton co-star.
The film appears on the first platter, in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The special effects are smartly applied, so you only ever see just glimpses of the train—the movie has been compared to all sorts of different films in vain attempts to define it, but Polar Express belongs in the mix—and the wintry landscape it is crossing, enough to make you desperate to see more without seeing so much that the movie’s moderate budget would become apparent. The image is sharp and, like everything else, the film’s color tones change unapologetically as the heroes work their way through the train. It would be nice if the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound were even stronger and more elaborately detailed, but the audio mix is functional, with the train sounds always lurking on the edges, and is delivered with enough power to be effective. There are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
In an interesting format that brings to mind rather immediately the connected cars of a railroad train, film critic Scott Weinberg supplies a commentary track. Basically, he starts off with his own talk about what is going on in the movie and then, sequentially, calls five of his movie critic friends (James Rocchi, William Goss, Drew McWeeny, Jennifer Yamato and Peter S. Hall) to get their input on the film. There are a couple of shortcomings to this format—he does not get to talk to Hall for too long because he runs over with the others and the movie is almost at its end; and after about the halfway point, he stops reacting specifically to what is on the screen to explore more generalized topics about the film. That’s fine, except we really wanted to hear what he had to say about the possibility that some of the characters were robots, and he never gets to it. Anyway, the format does enable him to discuss the film’s impact, and its backlash—because the first critics who saw it at festivals and such were so excited about it, the ‘second wave’ included viewers who felt the film had been too hyped. Like we said, the actual appeal of the film is very subtle, because if you’re looking for a definitive impact, you’ll probably be disappointed at first, except that you won’t forget the movie, either. He also talks about the various cast members, including major performers who are filling in bit parts, about the film’s other artistic components, and about the film’s marketing. The Weinstein Company has a long history of dumbing down movies by slashing them up for American audiences, and they wanted so badly to do the same for this one, but Ho held his ground (it’s a shame he wasn’t around for Cinema Paradiso or Like Water for Chocolate) and they were forced to manage the release with greater care, discovering, as a result, that a movie could gain theatrical legs after being released to Video On Demand, if it’s the kind of movie you want to go back and see on a bigger screen.
Snowpiercer is based upon the French graphic novel “Transperceneige,” conceived and written by Jacques Lob and drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette in the mid-1980s. After Lob passed away, Rochette and Benjamin Legrand created two more installments, but went on to other projects, and the works would probably have been forgotten, except that enterprising South Korean thieves put out a local-language edition without permission, and it caught Ho’s attention in a Seoul comic book store. The second platter of the DVD opens with an excellent 54-minute documentary that looks at the entire production through the eyes of Rochette and Benjamin, beginning with the story we described, and then going on to how the rights for the film were secured, and even to shooting the movie, since Rochette and Benjamin had cameo parts, as well as the film’s publicity push after it was finished. The movie has literally changed the lives of the two men, and the documentary, which is mostly in French with optional English subtitles, follows that journey while still focusing on the movie’s creation and execution.
Also featured on the second platter is a 5-minute, quasi-animated expansion of the prolog that explains the movie’s setting; a more traditional but effective 15-minute production documentary; two pieces on the cast running a total of 17 minutes; a very good 8-minute interview with Ho (“Until the film is complete and on my bookshelf as a DVD, I don’t feel a sense of comfort.”) at an outdoor screening of the film in Texas where the audience arrived at on a train; and a lovely collection of conceptual art and art that is used within the film (one of the characters draws events to record the train’s history, which were actually sketched, on the set and in the evening after a day’s shoot, by Rochette) in still frame.