I can’t shake the nagging feeling that somewhere along the way, Terry Gilliam had something to do with this. I’ve checked and it doesn’t appear that he has, but still, it just feels like he has had some form of cinematic sway in its creation. Not only does the project look like the kind of dystopian nightmare that would lurk in the back of his cerebellum somewhere, but the tone, a voraciously ugly, pustulent and violent microcosm of society’s most unpleasant of possible futures, is presented here in an almost comedic fashion.
Regularly you will wonder just what on earth is going on, and with good reason. Even with the aid of a thorough synopsis, the audience will no doubt still suffer from several ‘wtf?’ moments in just the first quarter of an hour. The first of these moments will arrive when you have had the opportunity to peruse the enviable cast list and find out that yes, they are indeed all actually making an appearance in what is, essentially, a bit of a dotty revolutionist film on a moving train. How the producers managed to get all these acting luminaries together is anybody’s guess, but it is no less impressive, despite our ignorance.
Now what you make of this will depend on your political stance, and make no mistake about it, this film has glaring political overtones, not to mention more than a healthy dollop of socio-economic comment. As Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason mentions early on; “I am a hat and you are shoes. Know your place.”
And it is on the footwear in this rapidly crumbling analogy that we concentrate most of our time here. Starring Chris Evans (Captain America, The Losers, Robot Chicken) as the natural leader (“I am not a leader”) of a group of hungry, dirty and very annoyed people stuck on a train in perpetual motion globe-trotting a frozen and lethal planet earth, left barren and lifeless after a disastrous attempt to solve the increasing problem of global warming went horribly and unmendingly wrong. Chris Evans’ band of scrubbers also enjoy Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and John Hurt amongst their ranks, yet despite all of this a-list acting talent, they still can’t get a first class ticket and have to live, for years on end, in the squalid conditions at the foot of the train. See? Shoes. Foot of the train. Shoes. Get it? Oh, never mind….moving on.
But this not so merry band of grubbilly soiled men, women and children are not happy just living out their days as shoes. Oh no, they aspire to something more satisfying and fulfilling than the bricks of what may or may not be blackcurrant jelly to eat every day. Without even knowing so much as what goes on at the front (or top, where the hats are) of this exceedingly long train, they assume that the grass, such as it is, must be greener near the front, where none of them have ever been.
All of this hat and shoe business is a bit preposterous really and you could say the same for the premise of the film, an adaptation of a French graphic novel entitled Le Transperceneige. Supposedly a damning indictment on the compassionate frailty of humanity in the form of a battle between the haves and have-nots, we are expected to believe that this collection of unfortunates (they are still alive where billiions have perished, so perhaps they are not as unfortunate as they think) would be able to gather together to overcome supposedly armed hordes of people whose sole responsibility would appear to be to stop from them doing exactly that. Add to this that if you actually stopped and asked them what they were fighting for, you could rightly expect them not to know or have ever thought of, an answer. It is mentioned, on several occasions, that most of these people don’t even remember what life was like before boarding the train, some seventeen years earlier, so with hindsight, they might just pause for thought for a moment or two and ask themselves what they think they are trying to achieve. A different flavour of jelly, maybe? Or nicer hats?
Regardless, the film itself, a Korean/French effort is, without much argument, a Grade A Nutfeast. The plot is simple; get to the front of the train because it is there, and only there, that you will find your answers. Our lead Curtis (Evans) has his own set of personal scars to contend with, which become apparent as we go along and you might say this saunter up the carriages is his own personal journey to enlightenment.
The idea that the surviving members of the human race are all ensconced in this train, perpetually travelling around the globe on a never-ending track, designed by Wilford (Ed Harris), is nonsensical and you will have to suspend your disbelief with regard to both story and science just to get though the two plus hours of its running time (apparently, the yet to be released US version of the film is going to be twenty minutes lighter).
The acting by most is just about good enough with Evans passing for wracked good guy with a questionable past, brooding as much as is necessary to enable to audience to bond with him. Tilda Swinton’s Mason is by far the most interesting and well delivered performance, with the most opportunity to ham up for the camera and the screen literally lights up when she is around. The casting of Swinton here is perfect and you could say without knowing in advance that it wasn’t the case, that this part was written with her in mind.
The rest of the cast are merely bit-players if we’re honest, but Spencer, Jamie Bell and John Hurt earn their keep and although maybe light on the lines and the screen time, they do what’s required when they get their own chance to sparkle.
A simple script does let the high-concept and philosophical arguments down somewhat, however, and a good idea is perhaps waylaid in favour of a simpler tale that didn’t really require this rather unusual setup. In all, an overlong, undercooked narrative with mostly credible performances of an often bewildering story. This may become something of a cult hit, if I know my gushing fanboys like I think I do, but for the rest of us simple cinema and story lovers, this leaves us a little cold. Brrr….