Saturday, July 26, 2014

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Metaphor

When was the last time you saw a sci-fi dystopian action-tinted special-effects bonanza sitting on Rotten Tomatoes with a 94% rating? And for reasons that neither matter to normal people nor are worth getting into, it's available for rent via Amazon or iTunes even as it plays in select theaters around the country. And I desperately needed a 2-hour escape. So I rented Snowpiercer.

Starring Chris Evans, aka Steve Austin, aka Captain America, Snowpiercer is set in a future where humanity, in an attempt at preventing global warming, has sent the planet into a second chemically-induced ice age. The last humans are all on a single special train on a special track that traverses the earth over the course of each year. New Year's Day is celebrated every year as the train crosses a particular bridge.

Everyone is on a train. The train goes around the world once every year. It is powered by a magic eternally-sustaining engine. Water is collected when the train goes through some unknown number of super-frozen areas where the train must pierce through in order to remain on course. Hence, duh, the movie's name.

The collected metaphor of this movie are about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal, as Foghorn Leghorn would say.

(Nothing worth being spoiled will be exposed here. There are plenty of moments that deserve to be enjoyed without knowing what to expect or what is coming.)

We are all in that train. We are all headed in circles, accepting our fates, crossing our fingers that our miserable and unfair existences can survive with us doing absolutely nothing but mouthbreathing and cashing in our meager paychecks. A precious minority -- let's just say one percent -- enjoy a life the rest of us can only imagine but never get the chance to experience or even witness.

I don't mind being hit over the head with a metaphor. Even if it falls apart a little, the boldness and audacity of the attempt are enough to keep that train a'rollin'. The plot isn't bristling with originality, but neither is it so predictable or trite as to ruin the experience. Further, the metaphor and the details within the delivery - a massive fight scene inside a pitch-black tunnel, the mockery of modern education, the ways we so quickly explain away our souls in order to survive - consistently takes you aback or asks you to think in a way few movies lately seem inclined to do.

Sure, it's derivative. What ain't? It was almost fun rattling off all the sci-fi, or dystopian, or prison, or satires that have a moment or an idea stolen from them over the course of the movie, and never once did it really detract from its enjoyability.

Three in particular are worth mentioning, however. Two because they're worth recommending, and the third because it's absolutely not.

First, Snowpiercer is everything, more or less, I'd hoped to find in Southland Tales, the follow-up film from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly. Quirky, unpredictable, and an unsubtle and cynical metaphor with tiny firefly glimmers of optimism.

Second, many moments reminded me of the science fiction book Wool (Omnibus) by Hugh Howey. Although I've only read the first in the trilogy, similar themes thread across both dystopian settings and mankind's seemingly-dwindling place in it. Issues of trust, of "out there" and "in here," and knowing your place in the pecking order permeate both. That these kinds of questions keep stubbornly sprouting like dandelions in the cracks of our modern fiction seems no accident. They've always been around, back to Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and well before those, arguably to the Bible. Perhaps we're on the verge of another spiritual crisis and just don't know it yet.

Finally, Snowpiercer reminded me of the Wim Wenders cult film Until the End of the World starring William Hurt. It, too, is a movie whose flaws are mostly the consequence of ambition rather than incompetence. It begins as a road movie, of girl chasing mysterious handsome stranger, and ends as something entirely different, a dystopian metaphor that explores issues of memory, dreams, technology, addiction and the ways we flee, intentionally or accidentally, from relationships. The film not only introduced me to one of my favorite songs of all time, "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry with k.d. lang, but it was one of only a handful of college-era moviegoing experiences where I left the theater feeling profoundly challenged.

I can't say Snowpiercer left me feeling "profoundly challenged," but at least it wanted to be more than a superhero flick, more than a converted YA novel, more than just a popcorn movie.

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