The year is 2031. Seventeen years prior a worldwide attempt at cooling the earth to prevent global warning failed, plunging the planet into freezing ice. All infrastructure, culture, and civilization is now lost in an icy expanse, with the exception of a train that continuously circles the globe. In this train are the remains humanity, structured into strict classes where the rich dwell in the train’s front, living off the poor and ratty unfortunates who dwell in the train’s tail.
Clearly such a story is shot through with allegorical implications. The director, an ever innovative Korean named Joon-ho Bong, acknowledges this by fully embracing the representational world, sweeping us away with the completely realized costumes and detailed grit and grime, all captured by claustrophobic camera work. The people living at the back of the train daily suffer from injustice. As they become more desperate they begin a revolution, breaking out of their guarded tailend, led by a stern faced Chris Evans, a lively and witty Jamie Bell, and a couple of other motley ordinaries on a last-ditch effort to claim the engine and confront the owner of the train. As they proceed up the train and its compartment’s are opened one by one, they are met by the bureaucrats and their armies of axe welding soldiers, commanded by bizarrely costumed but perfectly convincing Tilda Swinton. The resulting conflicts are brutally violent, blade on flesh and metal on blood, like so much of our civilization’s history.
The story, like the train, plunges ahead full throttle. It delights in surprising us as compartment after compartment are opened by the rebels revealing deadly twists and surprising turns. Main characters are killed off and minor characters become unexpectedly important. And as the movie hurtles towards its conclusion, we are left on the edge of our seat. How will it end and what vision of the world will it leave us with?
The train itself, containing all this is left of this world, becomes a compelling microcosm of the film’s view of reality. The train, and with it, all life, resides on a fixed track, hurtling along at a breakneck speed making an outside existence impossible. Its inhabitance focus on their misery or the distractions of their life but the few who glimpse the outside of the train see only hopelessness, a canvas bleak, chilling, and inescapable, who's inhabitants are “dead, all dead.” Ever and always the noise of the locomotive can be discerned, a daily reminder of its inhabitants vulnerability, sometimes grinding in the background, sometimes clanging and shaking.
It is a bleak and despairing worldview, but it does take keen interest in its inhabitants, their existence, and their reasons for life. We could argue that the story paints a picture of a cruel God, grinding away at an eternal engine, pushing his cold doctrine through a brainwashed power structure.
But the film’s ending succeeds in surprising us, with both a twist and a heart. Listen closely as the population’s only hope tells a story of his people’s early days. Recognize the sacrifice and personal cost in that story and see how this heart of compassion for the least of these becomes a key to the climax of the film. Compassion, in a world as depraved is what is depicted here, holds a gleam of potential light and with it, hope.