Snowpiercer: Revolution after the world ends

August 17, 2014

by Johanna Connors

[This film review is reproduced from Kasama Project.- Eds]

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The year is 2031. A world-wide attempt to stop global warming has turned the Earth into a giant frozen snowball. The last refuge for humans is on a world-traveling train with a perpetual-motion engine. Life aboard the train for the past 17 years has been a living hell, especially for the poor, crammed in squalid, cattle-car conditions at the tail end of the train.

A few hundred people on this train are all that remains of humanity, stuck in what amounts to the last life raft on earth. There’s a revolution brewing to seize power and stop the abuse.

This movie is a cry against the brutalization of the poor and the destruction of the planet. In other words, director Bong Joon-Ho hurls the newly released sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer, into two major conflicts shaping our times.

One of the great things about science fiction is that it deals with politics in ways that are accessible to millions. Snowpiercer takes its place alongside earlier science fiction that went right to the battlefronts of previous moments: The Day After, which vividly captured the danger of nuclear brinksmanship in the 1980s; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which targeted the witch hunt of McCarthyism; and George Orwell’s 1984, which warned of the horrors of obedience to state mind control.

Like these other works, Snowpiercer is politically complicated, even as it sticks its finger into the problems that keep people awake at night.

Snowpiercer is a “B” movie – with lots of shortcomings in script and film-making, but by the end I really didn’t care about those flaws. I was just glad to see it. The fact that a film has been made about Octavia Spencer deals justice.revolution – and that it is being so well received – is itself an encouraging event. (Imagine, a poor people’s revolt with a 95/77 score on rottentomatoes.com.)

It is worth seeing. And it is worth dissecting.

If you haven’t seen it, you can find it in a few (too few!) theaters right now or using video-on-demand streaming.

If you have seen it, I’d like to share some thoughts below. Snowpiercer has enough ambiguity and complexity that I imagine 75 percent of all reasonable people will disagree with whatever I write. I’m okay with that.

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SPOILER ALERT! The rest of this review contains spoilers.

As the world died, an unjust class society was recreated on a train of survivors. Capitalist hierarchies continued and are enforced with brutal violence. It’s as if no one had learned anything. In the back of the train, the refugees at one point had been reduced to huddled passengers eating each other. But they have overcome that. In fact, out of the degradation has come signs of cooperation, love and even hope. The poor are working together. They care for each other. They share love. And with all that comes a desire for a common revolt.

There have been other revolts on the train, but all failed. Now a new leader, Curtis, has arisen and with him an ambitious plan: they will break through the locked doors and guards, and take the train, car by car, until they get to the engine. Once the poor have taken over the machinery itself, they figure they can dictate terms to their oppressors.

A breaking point comes when the mass of ragged refugees watch two children dragged off at gunpoint by uniformed enforcers. When a father resists this abduction, his arm is frozen off in a public torture. At the next opportunity, it’s on. What I like most about Snowpiercer is that it shows raw class hatred and oppression. It is unapologetic about the violent struggle for justice.

As the rebels advance car by car toward the engine, the director gives us surreal scenes that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland or the film, Brazil. Behind each door the advancing rebels get jarring insights into how the train society is organized. Where does food come from? How are the privileged indoctrinated and entertained?

Tilda Swinton as a ruling-class mouthpiece.Every time Tilda Swinton did her amazing impersonation as ruling-class twit-monster-spokesperson, I couldn’t stop laughing. And speaking of actors, who would have thought that Chris Evans would have used his success as the hyper-patriotic Captain America to then star as dystopia’s Spartacus?

After you get there…

The first problem of a revolution is defeating the armed forces of the oppressors. Once the rebels have done that, the movie takes them to a whole different set of problems.

When they confront the engineer (Ed Harris) running the train, he lays out that society is a closed system. There isn’t enough for everyone. He even argues with a creepy reasonableness that they need to kill the poor periodically because there are too many mouths to feed. And based on that he offers the leader of the revolution the ultimate co-optation: He asks Curtis to take over the engine and run the system as his successor.

In a startling and confusing ending the film takes us to the core question that everyone has about revolution. How do you overthrow the old hated oppressors without just becoming new oppressors?

As you watch the movie, you think the rebels are going to take over the train. Then, in a shocking moment we see into the engine itself. It uses the living bodies of kidnapped children. It is a vivid and artistic revelation of Karl Marx’s point from The Civil War in France “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” In other words, Curtis discovers you can’t just take over the engine and make your demands for ending oppression. The engine itself runs on oppression.

What are you supposed to do? Become the new engineer of a train of horrors? Wreck the train and just escape?

In this case the only escape is into a deep-frozen world of eco-disaster and extinction. They are trying to make revolution, but they are doing it after our world has already ended. Once the biosphere was frozen, human choices shrank. I went to see this move with a teenage friend who found it gripping. At dinner afterwards she commented, “Let’s not let things get that far.”