Mark Rappaport (From the Journals of Jean Seberg) Talks Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer

I never liked science-fiction movies. I always thought they were propaganda for a neat, tidy, immaculately designed future...

I’ve never liked science-fiction movies. I always thought they were propaganda for a neat, tidy, immaculately designed future where everything was just going to be hunky-dory. It was like the American Dream, projected forward, an idealized version of the ’50s but in outer space or on another planet, where every precision-made piece of equipment functioned just like it was supposed to. Unlike life on this here planet. And I never understood how you could expect to replace a part in outer space, like a light bulb. Much less order Chinese takeout.

Dystopian movies – about the future running amok, where all the best laid plans went haywire – that I could get into. A future with dirt (or worse) under its fingernails. Blade Runner. The Road Warrior. If we were going to have a future at all, let it be filled with troubles and malcontents. Just like the present. 1984 – came and went. 2001 – came and went. Even 2010 came and went. As the poster tagline of that crappiest of science-fiction movies, Zardoz, screamed out, “I have seen the future and it doesn’t work!” And that was (gasp!) 40 years ago, when no one knew anything. Unfortunately for all of us, the world has caught up to the future and it ain’t pretty. The future is already past and what’s left of it doesn’t look like it’s going to be much of a picnic. Even though audiences lick their lips in anticipation watching New York being destroyed or almost destroyed (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and probably lots of other movies, too), it’s not nearly as much fun as it used to be because the reality that it is more than possible is a lot grimmer than any fictional imagining of it can possibly be. The hell on Earth that Children of Men, Babylon A.D., and Elysium predict is not only not that far away, in many places on the planet, it’s already here. And even though we didn’t know about it, it’s actually been here for centuries. Now that these problems are starting to afflict what used be called the First World, we’re finally starting to take notice.

I think there is a point to all these end-of-the-world movies coming out – they (whoever they are) are preparing us for the ghastly events that the coming century promises as some kind of blockbuster spectacle that should be enjoyed. Whether or not they’re intentionally inuring us to the hardship to come is another story, but they are certainly paving the way for us to accept catastrophic disasters as a normal part of daily life. Which also explains a new sub-genre – comedies (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, This is the End, The World’s End) about how much fun the world’s end is going to be, if we’d only lighten up.

Let’s get serious for a moment. Climate change is not going to be a laugh riot. Already it’s not. Population displacement, changing weather patterns altering production of food, mass migration, and the political upheavals they will bring in their wake are not really the stuff of entertainment. But no one can say we haven’t been primed for it or warned by watching movies and TV shows predicting it and making hay out of it at the same time.

What a long-winded introduction to Snowpiercer, which is a terrific and very grim movie. The premise? To combat global warming, some bozos decided to explode something or other to disperse the carbon dioxide-clogged greenhouse atmosphere and by doing so inadvertently created an uninhabitable, frozen world that makes the long-forgotten promises of nuclear winter look like a day at the beach. One visionary (or is he a psychotic monster?) gathered all the remaining people on Earth onto his train (the Snowpiercer of the title), which circles Earth endlessly. But this is no well-meaning Noah. The proles, the 99% – namely folks like you and me – are huddled in poverty and misery in the back of the train, while the sushi bar and discos are toward the front of the train for the less than 1%. And at the very head of this train that never stops is the man who designed it, the god-figure who is saving mankind for the future, if the Earth ever warms up again. The movie charts the revolt of the underlings – led by the quietly heroic Curtis (Chris Evans), with support from his young lieutenant, Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the sage elder Gilliam (John Hurt) – as they work their way to the front of the train. There’s lots of mayhem along the way, almost non-stop battles (for those of you who like that sort of thing), and a tagged-on ending which suggests a bit of very meager uplift. But we know better.

It’s a South Korean-American film made primarily in English by the lavishly gifted Bong Joon-ho, who made The Host and Mother. Both of them are very quirky movies that go off on tangents and little side avenues, pursuing this strand and that strand like kittens being distracted by dust motes, ignoring the finer points of narrative structure. Here Bong, in a more “mainstream” mode, is limited by the rigorous narrative: the point is to get the front of the train from the back with as much bloodshed and loss of life and limb as possible. No shilly-shallying, no lingering over a beautiful shot, no being distracted by minor characters who just pop up and demand to be paid attention to. However, it’s one of those rare movies that gets better and better as it goes along, capped by a brilliant performance by Ed Harris as the unreconstructed capitalist/unscrupulous madman who runs the train as if he owned it, which he does.

Fun factoids: this $39 million movie, with stunningly tawdry-looking CGI effects of the frozen world, grossed $60 million (!!!) in South Korea alone, a country of 50 million people (!!!!!!). Needless to say, with a return like that, the Brothers Weinstein wanted to get their hands on it. And shorten it – not that it’s even as long as most of the junk at the multiplex. I defy you to name one movie that was improved upon or more successful as a result of the distributor’s cuts. Cooler heads have prevailed. Or maybe it was due to the fact that it stars Evans (who I was sure was Ben Affleck, but I don’t live in America, so what do I know?), of the megahit Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($700 million worldwide gross). So, now you can see it as it was intended to be seen, unless, of course, it doesn’t make money and they go back to Plan A.

One astonishing grace note in the movie: Tilda Swinton – virtually unrecognizable, with prosthetic teeth, Coke-bottle glasses, a heavy Yorkshire accent, smeared lipstick, and a very bad hairdo as if she were the lesbian warden in a girls’ reform school – gives a howlingly funny performance as the god’s emissary that’s up there with the darkly comic performances of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter and Willem Dafoe in Wild at Heart.

Mark Rappaport’s film include From the Journals of Jean Seberg and Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Four collections of his essays and fictions — all about film — The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much, (F)au(x)tobiographies, and The Secret Life Of Moving Shadows — Pt 1 and Pt 2 are available as e-books. Many of his films are available for streaming on Fandor.com.