As the world is coming to an unceremonious, yet merciful end, we can once again turn to the prophetic edicts of cinema to enlighten us as to our uncertain future. What was once a simple exercise in imaginative speculation now is a useful precaution to help tune our expectations. The film “Snowpiercer” offers many insights as to the destination of our rapidly decaying socio-economic structure, as well as a reminder of the less tangible aspects of human resolve. When the film released in 2013, it may have gone unnoticed in the eyes of western audiences. Convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, who headed the production of this film, often clashed with director Bong Joon Ho and tried to bury the release of his own film simply to spite a man who he didn’t like. 7 years later, Bong Joon Ho wins 4 Oscars in one night and “Snowpiercer” is getting a television series adaptation on TNT, all while Harvey is sentenced to 23 years in prison and has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
In the world of “Snowpiercer”, Earth has frozen over after a failed climate experiment sends the planet into a new ice age. All life on the planet is killed off except the lucky few survivors who boarded the train Snowpiercer, a reimagining of Noah’s arc that is powered by a perpetual-motion engine that will never stop. Aboard the train, a strict class system emerges, where the wealthy passengers live hedonistic lives of excess and comfort up in the front sections of the train, and the passengers at the tail-end live and are treated like a pestilence. Among the passengers in the tail is a bearded Chris Evans character named Curtis, who leads the passengers of the tail on a systematic revolt of the hierarchy, moving from one incredibly imaginative train car set piece to the next.
Bong has quickly ascended to the position of luminary guide for the cinematic discussions of class in the modern world. His 2019 Oscar-winning international phenomenon “Parasite” dove deep into the psychological disconnect of the wealthiest class’s perceptions of the struggles of the working class, and many of those themes and ideas were explored first, albeit through a different lens, in “Snowpiercer”. Aside from those selected to govern and police the train, a majority of the upper class are blissfully unaware of the struggles of those living in the tail. They never interact with them, and for the most part, just go about their lives without even a consideration of their existence. Their actions are not evil merely complacent and irreverent, but the consequences are equally as significant as if they were actively oppressing them by their own intent.
The exceptions to the aforementioned callowness are the few times when rebellions are organized and systematically foiled. Curtis’s revolution is intended on being an overthrowing of the establishment that has oppressed the passengers in the tail but is weaponized by the head to continue their oppression of the tail. What is the greatest weapon for enforcing the status quo? Fear. What is the greatest catalyst for exploiting fear? Ignorance. The wealthy class is taught to fear the tail because revolutions are shown to them as violent and foolish, and their oppression is justified for without it, the train, and subsequently, their safety will fall into chaos.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the head of the train is the submission to zealotry that is uniformly adopted by its passengers. There are very few concepts in sociology that fascinate me more than a shepherd leading a herd. It is arguably the most enduring social construct outside of the family that humans have ever abided by, and quite possibly the strongest influence on the average person’s life after said family. What is most remarkable about it is the voluntary nature of this submission which is an indication that the masses are willingly surrendering their agency to a higher power. These people bow before Wilford (Ed Harris) and the eternal engine he created, the results of which are the manipulation of the passengers’ cognitive and moral processes. He is their deity and his engine is his son that has guided them to salvation. This sort of cultism can be considered a natural evolution of our religious bodies and political institutions and is seen to only be empowered further under cataclysmic circumstances.
On the other side of the revolution is a testament to the human spirit. Curtis, as you will come to find, has committed truly horrible acts in the name of self-preservation and desperation. He is our hero, not because of his altruism, but his resolve. His past does not prevent him from looking to better himself or his surroundings in the future. He adopts the role of a leader to guide them from the ashes of what they once were to a hopeful future. It is under this guise that he represents what we as humanity can become if we are willing to change our ways and learn from the past.
While our real-life apocalypse may not be led by people as beautiful or talented as the one presented in “Snowpiercer”, we can look to it, not as a cheat sheet, but as a guide. The logistical differences between our world and the film’s world are noticeable, but the depictions of humanity have tangible similarities to reality. Works of fiction, especially science fiction, seek to extrapolate our tendencies to a logical conclusion and thus make us wary of pitfalls. For even if the world is not doomed to end in the coming weeks, we should still reject apathy towards growing disarray in our socio-economic landscape and learn how to change before it is too late.
As a work of cinema and Bong Joon Ho’s rightful introduction to Western audiences that was stolen from him, “Snowpiercer” is tremendous. It is a thought-provoking exercise into humanity’s future as well as an entertaining and well-acted action film. The term “better late than never” may have been conceived just to adequately describe how we have come to treat this film.
I give “Snowpiercer” a 9.0 out of 10
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Ko Asung, Jamie Bell
Directed by: Bong Joon Ho
Runtime: 2 Hours and 6 Minutes