Friday, December 26, 2014

Polar express

The Polar Express, cinematically, is a largely disappointing and sometimes depressing 2004 film by Robert Zemeckis. It appears in the dictionary next to the term "uncanny valley."

However, in literary terms, it is the wonderful 1985 storybook by Chris Van Allsburg that inspired the movie. It's a painterly beauty whose every page is saturated with steam engines, children in bathrobes drinking hot chocolate, snowflakes, and magic. The story details the travels of a young boy to the North Pole on the titular locomotive, to meet Santa Claus and see him give out the first gift of Christmas. They go through forests and snowy plains and craggy mountains, all to end up at the cheery glow of industrial warmth that is the North Pole. For me, it's Christmas incarnate.

That's because my family has been reading it on Christmas Eve probably since my sister and I were teenagers. Every year when we were all together on Christmas Eve -- even into our adulthood -- my dad would read us the story. I soaked in the magic like a ten-year-old, even when I was a 30-year-old.

I believe I have now read it to my own son each of his five Christmases, even when he was only four months old. This year on Christmas Eve, I read it to two sons for the first time -- the second one crawling around and desperately trying to pull down the lamp.

It wasn't lost on me, then, that my wife and I immediately -- "immediately" meaning about 90 minutes later when they finally both went to sleep -- proceeded to watch the adult version of The Polar Express, otherwise known as Snowpiercer.

Two stories about trains speeding through wintry landscapes on the same evening? What were the chances? We should have watched Transsiberian and made it a triple feature.

I had already seen Snowpiercer in theaters, but my wife missed it, and it seemed of a sufficiently grand scale to make it our Christmas Eve viewing, even though nothing remotely cheery happens in the entire film. Yet you wouldn't call Snowpiercer depressing, either -- it's that strange tonal triumph of which Bong Joon-ho is so often capable.

It wasn't like we specifically scheduled it for Christmas Eve originally (hence the Polar Express alignment being happenstance rather than premeditated theme). We had figured to watch it one of the weekends leading up to Christmas. But part of the reason I delayed it was that I'd purchased us a new version of the HDMI adapter that allows us to watch stuff on my wife's Mac on our TV. The old one crapped out about six months ago, and since Snowpiercer is streaming on Netflix, we'd have been watching it on the computer without that cable. However, it was also fun to make that new cable my own "first gift of Christmas," which I presented to her moments after the kids finally left us in peace.

I don't have a lot else to say, I guess. As the passengers and the locomotive itself are always in distress, Snowpiercer has a lot more in common with the distended movie version of The Polar Express than the placid and lovely storybook. Coincidence is enough of an inspiration, and often the only inspiration, for me to write a post.

The movie does have one comical way in which it is diametrically opposed to The Polar Express, and not just that it's an R-rated movie for adults with tons of bloodshed. While the North Pole is, in a manner of speaking, the only place the train goes in The Polar Express, it's the only place the train does not go in Snowpiercer. Here, check out this route map, as seen in the film:

Oh, and Australia gets the short shrift as well. Hey, that's alright -- the outback is probably a pretty nice temperature on this future snow-covered earth, so those of us down there can just stay put.

I did wonder as I was watching Snowpiercer this time whether someone actually did the math, and determined that a train traveling at this breakneck speed would indeed take an entire year to circumnavigate the earth. Doesn't seem like it would, even with this circuitous route. In fact, if you told me that it would take less than two months to cover this route, I'd believe you.

It's just one of many, many, many ways we are asked to suspend disbelief while watching Snowpiercer. Here are a few others, and watch out for minor spoilers.

1) If everyone boarded the train on the day it started running, at Yekaterina Bridge in Russia, wouldn't all the passengers in steerage be Russians?

2) If the front section of the train is so fancy and has all these rooms of unimaginable excess, where are all the private living quarters?

3) If the train hasn't stopped for 17 years, why does everything in the fancy section seem like it's brand new, and how do they renew all their finite resources?

4) Who catches the ten million roaches needs to make all the protein blocks, and where do those roaches spend most of their time?

5) How do the passengers in steerage have dozens if not hundreds of axes?

6) Why does Wilford's henchman fire through the train's windows at his targets, with a very low probability of hitting his targets but a very high probability of destroying the windows?

And so forth.

So yeah, Snowpiercer definitely suffered a little bit from a second viewing. The thrill of discovering what will happen next, what's awaiting our intrepid heroes in the next car, is clearly key to the enjoyment of the film. Once you know, it's just not as satisfying, and there are plenty of nits to pick if you want to. It's only dropped one spot in my year-end rankings so far, but further position corrections could be forthcoming.

Still, on an Australian Christmas Eve in which the light didn't fade from the sky until sometime after 9 p.m., it was nice to be reminded of the parts of the planet that are, indeed, covered by snow.

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