Rated R. Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1. Running time: 2 hour 6 min.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, say to it: You are a land that is not cleansed, not rained upon in the day of indignation. Its princes within it are like a roaring lion tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows within it… Its officials within it are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. Its prophets have smeared whitewash on their behalf, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, “Thus says the Lord God,” when the Lord has not spoken. The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.
Ezekiel 22:23-25, 27-28
Not since Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) and Neill Bloomkamp’s District 9 in 2009 have I been so impressed with a sci-fi dystopia film. This time it is not South Africa but South Korea that is the home of the director, Bong Joon-ho, whose film The Host was a big international hit a few years back. He has adapted the 1982 graphic novel by French authors Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, and made it relevant for those concerned today about the 1% gaining so much power over the 99%. The filmmaker is working very much in the tradition of the great Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah or Ezekiel.
The director’s international cast and smart script combines the best of the art house film with the action of the adventure thriller. The story is set in 2031, some 17 years after a an attempt to counteract global warming started instead a new Ice Age, wiping out all human and most animal life on the planet. Only a few thousand humans are still alive aboard the train after which the film is named. With a controlled ecosystem, the huge train keeps circling the globe, its engine a virtual perpetual motion system. More than a mile in length and referred to as the Rattling Ark, it is the brainchild of Wilford (Ed Harris). He was once a super rich transportation mogul ridiculed for his idea for saving the human race, but now he is considered as a god by many aboard the train.
The society he rules over is even more rigid that the wealthiest 1 percente could conceive of today. If we were to compare it to that aboard the Titanic, we would say that its stratification is not vertical, from top to bottom, but horizontal from the front to back. (I can’t help but think of the Civil Rights song, “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus” at this point.)
Wilford dwells in isolated splendor in the engine, then come a great many cars with technicians running the systems, Pullman sleeping cars, a night club where orgies are common, a sushi bar, a beauty salon, an aquarium, a garden, a school where children are indoctrinated into Wilford’s fascist values, and in the last portion of the train the lower class is crowded together and kept in order by storm troopers and harangued at regular intervals by Lieutenant Mason (Tilda Swinton), a true believer that the rich should reign over the poor. (We don ‘t learn of these details until much later in the film.)
Mason’s dreaded visits at the head of a squad of troops is to punish someone—we see a poor guy forced to stick his arm outside through a small opening until it freezes so solid that it shatters when it is brought back in and a goon hits it with a sledge. Another time it is to find someone who has been a professional musician, now needed to replace a violin player up front. Still another demand is that all the children be rounded up so that Mason can measure their height. We do not learn the nefarious purpose her choosing the shortest until much later in a scene that could have come from a 19th Century collection of Dickinson child labor horror stories. I should also mention that while the 1% passengers dine in regal splendor, the people at the back of the train are kept alive by black protein goop shaped like bricks—and apparently not tasting much better either.
Naturally all this does not sit well with the masses at the back of the train. There had been a rebellion once before, but the rebels never made it to the engine. The reluctant Curtis (Chris Evans) is the one that people look to lead the next revolt, but he keeps saying it is not yet time. The one-armed elder Gilliam (John Hurt) serves as his mentor, and has a devoted supporter in young Edgar (Jamie Bell), whose anger is easily kindled. Tanya (Octavia Spencer) is also a fierce supporter, especially so when her little boy is taken away in one of the child roundups.
Curtis has been receiving a series of short messages in capsules, one of which reveals that the designer of the impregnable inter-car lock system Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) is in the prison car. Managing to reach it, Curtis bribes the security expert to help them open the locks by promising to release his psychic teenage daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung) also and giving the addicted pair the dope called kronole that they crave.
There follows a series of battles as the rebels move from car to car and learn that the rumors of others living in luxury while they practically starve are true. We discover this along with our heroes. At one point they see an unusual class of children presided over by a weird pregnant teacher (Alison Pill); and in another, after emerging from the windowless part of the train, they are almost blinded by the sunlight. For my taste there is far too much violence and gore, especially in one fought with hatchets and knives, and yet despite this, I could not take my eyes away from the screen. The decadence of the society in the front is highlighted by their merely watching Curtis and what remains of his crew—an impressive part of the plot is the uncertainty of the fate of the main characters—pass through their car with none of them offering any resistance. It is as if they feel so entitled to their luxuries and the protection of the troops that they think nothing can threaten their status.
The encounter between Curtis and Wilford is a fascinating one, with several revelations, one of them very surprising to both Curtis and ourselves. The billionaire is philosophical about his callous treatment of the poorer passengers, reminding one perhaps of those theoreticians who justified the horrors of Hitler and Stalin. The conclusion is uplifting (especially after so much carnage), gifting us with a splendid shot of a glorious creature and the hope that if it has managed to survive the human-induced winter, then perhaps the escapees from the Rattling Ark can too. With the caveat about the excessive violence, I can recommend this to viewers concerned with social justice issues, as well as to sci-fi and action fans.
A set of discussion questions will accompany this review in the August issue of Visual Parables. All issues of the journal are available at the Store.