Director: Joon-Ho Bong
Writer: Joon-Ho Bong
Bechdel test: fail.
Trigger Warnings (for the film, not the review): cannibalism, violence, child abduction/labor.
Premise: In the near future, governments across the world decide to dump chemicals into the atmosphere to stop global warming, inadvertently freezing and killing everything and everyone on earth, except for an (un)lucky few who manage to board a train that travels around the entire world once a year. The film takes place about 18 years later.
When I went to see this movie, I had no idea what it was, but when it quickly became clear it was about class war in a dystopian future, it had my attention until the final scene. The poor masses, huddled in the back few carts of the train, led by a man named Curtis, have to travel and fight their way up to the front to confront Wilford, the owner and conductor of the train and the rest of humanity. I would chalk this one up next to V for Vendetta and The Hunger Games in terms of theme.
The “role of leadership” is discussed at length, both from the social movement, revolutionary point of view, and from those who would maintain the status quo. From Wilford’s side, leadership is enforced through primarily brute force and fear, but also through “education,” given through speeches and a train-cart-turned-classroom. From the revolutionary side, Curtis is reluctant to step into a leadership position, but with a fate-like mentality, his mentor tries to convince him nothing could happen any other way. It was one of the parts of the movie that was a negative for me, as the decision-making process was always supposed to rely on one, white, male, protagonist, verses another.
Population control is another concept. Discussed as a matter separate from class and only a matter of nature and a balance of ecosystems, the only solution Wilford can seem to come up with is manufacturing an occasional uprising. None of these social dilemmas are wrapped up in a tidy present, however — the ending leaves you with a lot of unanswered questions.
While the 1%-against-the-rest-of-us could be perceived as a cliché theme, resistance to authority becomes a lot more problematic when in a delicate situation that pits everyone against the threat of physical annihilation — both by guards who are continuously more heavily armed, and the instant death that awaits outside the train. The combination of well-developed characters with the every-second-counts action was thrilling and suspenseful. The feelings of injustice and hatred of the violent guards make the characters relatable and their problems heartfelt.
Conclusion: I loved this movie for a few specifically anarcho-geeky reasons: a dystopian future in an apocalyptic world, thoughtful themes, stunning cinematography and well-choreographed action, so most of the few things I didn’t like about it, I was able to let slide. But the one thing I still couldn’t get past was the repetition of this narrative we’ve all heard all our life: that we need a fearless white male leader. We’ve all seen it white male dominance enough in real life, and for a movie this progressive, I was expecting a little better.
Class: Most of the movie is about class war.
Race: There is what seems to be an intentionally diverse crowd of people from all over the world in the lower-classes of the train and less diversity in the middle- and upper-classes. In a sense, this seems to be an intentionally accurate depiction of the world at large.
Gender: there is a strong middle-aged female character who makes it pretty far and is a formidable fighter, and there is another female character who is technically skilled and assists in opening each door of the train. A woman plays the part of second-in-command to Wilford. However: every female character in the story is under the leadership of a (usually) white male on either side. While once again, this might accurately depict the way our world is currently run, I was disappointed that this archetype was never able to be upended.