Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan


(South Korea, 2013)

Based on a comic book. What are you gonna do with a movie like this? The director, Bong Joon-ho, is a critical darling (and he made a terrific little movie, Gwoemul, AKA The Host), and the ratings among the critics were astronomical: 84 at Metacritic and 95% at Rotten Tomatoes. But the audiences didn’t like it nearly so well, and for my money the reason is obvious: It’s pretty dumb.

First dumb premise: In 2014 a rocket is sent up with some new chemical that will fight global warming, but instead it freezes the Earth from pole to pole. Nothing but snow and ice, my friends. No plant, animal, or human alive anywhere else on the planet.

Second dumb premise: Seventeen years later a long, long, fast train with a quarter of a million miles of track perpetually races around the seven continents, over bridges and through icefalls. Inside, the cars are divided into classes. In the back are prisoners fed on mashed-up insects, and in the front are hedonistic sybarites, dancing to disco, tanning, and eating the finest sushi. (You want to know how brutalized they are? For the first few months on the train, they were fed nothing at all. They survived by amputating limbs and eating babies.) In between are brutal guards.

Now, there is so much wrong with these premises that I hardly know where to begin. So I won’t. If you think this is the basis for an intelligent SF movie, go ahead, watch it.

The satire keeps bludgeoning you over the head. Okay, the 99% and the 1%, we get it! It only gets worse when our hero fights his way to the front of the train and gets to hear the puerile lecturing of the head honcho, one Wilford (Ed Harris), who built this traveling zoo. It’s the usual mish-mash of half-baked social Darwinism and similar shit, nothing we haven’t heard a thousand times before from demented geniuses.

I’m going to tell you how it ends and not even issue a spoiler warning. The train crashes, killing everyone aboard except your standard Korean (or Japanese, in other movies) waif and a black toddler. There has been some talk that maybe … maybe … it’s warming up a little out there. Maybe there’s something alive. So the girl staggers out of the wreckage, looks up at the frozen mountains, and what does she see? A polar bear! Oh joy! Oh rapture! Most of the critics seemed to take this as a sign of hope. Me, what I figured is that those two survived just long enough to be eaten by a fucking polar bear.

I have to say it looks great. Marvelous set design. The tail-enders’ cars are shitty beyond belief, and the ones up in first class are wonderful. I could live on that train. And there is one sheer delight in the form of Tilda Swinton, as the wonderfully goofy second-in-command. She is hilarious, has a great old time with false teeth and other make-up so good that I wasn’t {{really} sure until the end credits that it was actually her.