This dystopian parable had one of the nuttiest premises I’ve seen in a movie. In the not-so-distant future, the entire planet is frozen solid after the attempt to solve the problem of global warming goes spectacularly wrong. All life is wiped out, and what remains of the human race is gathered on a single train, which is powered by an eternal engine and whose rail network spans the entire globe, so it takes the train one year to complete the full circle.
The train is the world, and as throughout the human history its population is split into haves and have-nots. The former reside in the front of the train where they spend their days in pampered luxury, while the denizens of the back section live in misery and squalor on a diet of protein bars which look like disgusting black jelly (and yes you do get to find out what they’re made from). At the very front are the quarters of Wilford, the mysterious owner/designer of the train, who is never seen to leave the engine room and who has cronies and armed forces maintaining the order in the back, including some inventive punishments involving cold temperatures. Despite that, the train had seen a few (failed) revolutions and as the movie opens we’re at the start of another attempt, spearheaded by Curtis (Chris Evans), who is something of a reluctant leader.
This is the kind of setup that can be mercilessly nitpicked on, so it’s probably best to see it as a device for the commentary on human nature and social order, rather than a realistic scenario, because there’s no way a train could chug around the planet for 17 years without any railway maintenance or repairs and that’s just to start with. Once you swallow the premise though the movie is a weird and wonderful ride through the bizarre and often brutal universe onboard the train, as our rebels make their way through the carriages, each designated for some specific purpose. While it’s pretty clear that in the end Curtis will somehow make it to the engine room and have a chat with the Architect… sorry wrong movie, Wilford, there’s nothing predictable about the journey itself. Probably the most surreal moment is when the group comes into the classroom full of little kids, where a bright and chirpy teacher feeds them propaganda glorifying Wilford a la Hitler’s Youth. There are also frequent scenes of violence, though much of it is implied rather than graphic and it’s often interspersed with moments of black or/and absurdist humour.
Evans is solid as the lead; Curtis starts out seemingly a pure, heroic kind of character (partly because Evans has one of those faces that just look so damn decent and all-American), but is slowly revealed to have a haunted past. The supporting cast, which includes the likes of John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer, do a fine job, the standout performance coming from the nearly unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason, who acts as Wilford’s propaganda mouthpiece. She’s a truly eccentric character, sorta like a cross between Margaret Thatcher and a hammy clown; her insanely over-the-top performance should by all rights stick out like a sore thumb among the more natural acting everyone else does, yet it works, probably because it’s in tune with some of the over-the-top elements of the film. When I finally found out who plays Wilford, I had a chuckle to myself and thought, but of course.
The film’s view of human nature and history (going around in circles like the train) is pretty damn bleak, and I wasn’t sure how to interpret its ending. Is it a depressing view of what the human race ultimately deserves, or does it offer hope whose lack of realism can be ignored because the entire premise is unrealistic to start with? Sometimes open endings like this are the best way to finish the movie even as they frustrate the hell out of you.