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Crazy Train

by Ross Douthat

We live in an era when geek culture can feel ascendant and yet oddly sterile. The genres that were once loved mainly by fanboys, eccentrics, teenagers — science fiction, fantasy, and (above all) comic books — are now the pillars of pop culture, the mainstays of mass entertainment. The geeks have inherited the earth . . . but much of their triumph consists of perpetually looking backward, returning to worlds first made famous when theirs was mainly a niche enthusiasm, rather than boldly going where genre hasn’t gone before.

There are sound reasons for this caution: Genre’s triumph is inseparable from the triumph of the “pre-sold,” blockbuster approach to moviemaking, and the occasional attempt to do something genuinely original produces plenty of aesthetic and financial cautionary tales. For every breakthrough, such as Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, there’s a flop John Carter or (Blomkamp’s follow-up) Elysium to convince studio executives that they’re better off strip-mining the Marvel Universe or returning, yet again, to franchises that were young with the Baby Boomers and have aged with them ever since.

The rebooting and strip-mining can still yield good results, as this summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy both attest. But for this to be remembered as an actual golden age for genre, rather than a long, expensive autumn, there needs to be room for actual originality. And unfortunately, even when they have something new and remarkable in their hands, the studios can find a way to foul things up — which is why Guardians and Apes are playing in just about every movie palace in the country, while the best science-fiction movie of the summer topped out at 350 theaters.

That movie is Snowpiercer, and really it’s better than that “best of summer” description suggests: It has an originality of vision that belongs somewhere in between The Matrix and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element on the ladder of CGI-era science-fiction films, and I mean that as high praise indeed. (It is not technically an original story, but the source material, a French graphic novel, is sufficiently obscure that it might as well be.)

Like many works of genius, it’s a little singular, a little strange; the director, Bong Joon-ho, feuded with Harvey Weinstein over the final cut, and you can almost understand where Weinstein was coming from when he decreed that this version, at Bong’s preferred length, would go to a subsidiary that specializes in video-on-demand openings and get only a limited United States theatrical release. (It has been playing much more widely overseas, and is available directly from your cable company.)

You can almost understand . . . except no, he’s an idiot. As weird as it is, Bong’s movie could have easily been a blockbuster, for the same reason The Matrix was 15 years ago: It’s gripping, gorgeous, and (literally) propulsive, intellectual without being (too) pretentious, and riveting from start to finish.

The propulsion comes from a train, the Snowpiercer of the title, that serves a generation in our future as a kind of strange, careening Noah’s Ark. The earth has frozen over, thanks to a failed attempt at geoengineering (thanks, global-warming alarmism!), and temperatures are too low for human survival — except inside a mad genius–cum–tycoon’s pet project, a train whose tracks encircle the entire world and whose rattling, racing cars somehow keep the cold at bay.

Within the cars, a bizarre society has been established — hierarchical and insane, with a brutalized proletariat stuffed in the rear, a fortunate elite ensconced in the first-class cars, and a cult of the “eternal engine” (and its steward, Mr. Wilford, the mad genius himself) as the regnant ideology. In this hermetic world a revolution is brewing, plotted by a young turk (Chris Evans) and his bearded, Gandalfian adviser (John Hurt), who assemble a gang of steerage troublemakers (Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and — as a father-daughter pair of drug addicts — Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, veterans of the director’s Korean films) and set out on the long march to the front.

Standing in their way, and then assisting (maybe) as their hostage, is the film’s most extraordinary figure: Minister Mason, played by Tilda Swinton as a nannying ideologue; Nurse Ratched crossed with Mary Poppins crossed with . . . Goebbels, somehow. (I promise, it makes sense.) And waiting for them is car after mysterious car — each a little universe unto itself, a small, sealed-off world within what Snowpiercer’s kids, too young to remember trees and earth and sky, call “the whole wide train.”

I won’t spoil any more, except to say that you shouldn’t expect the crude Marxist allegory that Swinton’s early speeches hint at and that some reviewers have described. Snowpiercer is much more of a grab-bag of ideas and influences — Dickens and Malthus, Terry Gilliam and Ursula K. Le Guin — and, while the class warfare is part of the pantomime, the evils at work in the train are far more complicated than wicked 1 percenter oppression.

What should you expect? Expect to be surprised, expect to be mystified, expect to be entertained, and expect what genre entertainment should deliver more often than it does these days: something you really, truly haven’t seen before.

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