A Review of Snowpiercer
By John Stiller
“What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.”
–Robert Frost, from his poem “Design”
“Soylent green is people! We’ve got to stop them, somehow!”
–Charlton Heston, from the film Soylent Green
The conspiracy theory of history infects every frame of Snowpiercer, the recent South Korean film that was barely released in theaters. It’s basically an extended metaphor of all human relations since we created civilization—societies that have been almost always ruled by a small group of elite individuals who control and manipulate large swaths of other people so that these elite can live in comfort and luxury.
The premise of Snowpiercer is that a catastrophic ecological disaster has taken place, leaving the Earth a frozen wasteland. The last groups of survivors are left riding a train that circumvents the globe nonstop with a perpetual motion engine; it was devised by a mysterious industrialist who created the train to ostensibly preserve some form of human life. There is a strict economic class system on the train where the elite thrive on the suffering of the leftover masses.
The film starts in the back of the train, where desperate people hidden by rags terrorize and fight each other to stay alive. Every now and then the doors to the rest of the train open and heavily-armed police led by an Ayn Rand lookalike terrorize everyone to make sure they don’t get too uncooperative. They also sometimes kidnap people from the masses they find useful (creative types, people with potentially valuable skills, young children), and take them past the mysterious doors, never to be seen again. The worthless masses in the rear of the train are basically the source of raw materials used for the elite to prosper, a group of human live stock. They also distribute a purple slime bob of food to keep everyone a couple of feet away from starvation.
But hungry people don’t stay hungry for long. A rebellion is brewing, led by a man named Curtis, who’s been on the train seventeen years, since it was created after the world disaster. He seems to have kept some integrity and morality in a situation where there is none, but towards the end of the film he breaks down when he reveals what he’s had to do to survive. It involves picking out the weakest among those around you as the source of your “dinner.’ It’s not pretty, and you can’t help looking at him differently after that, as you and I would if forced to recognize we’d probably also kill others to survive if we had to. If it meant saving your child’s life, would you kill a random innocent person? Would you torture them? Morality only exists nominally in civilization. Head back to the state of nature and it’s a free for all bloodbath again.
The initial battle scenes between the Les Miz-types and the American Gestapo SWAT team are serviceable, but when they break into a clean, well-built and maintained kindergarten classroom, where a teacher is instructing disciplined, light-skinned little girls and boys why they are exceptional, the film becomes something far more than a sci fi/action flick. This is the first instance that the dispossessed see how the elite on the train have lived for years. And there is more to come. Later, they break into a train car where there’s a rave scene of hyper-beautiful, spoiled teenagers on ecstasy and shrooms having the laziest, most disorganized orgy imaginable. And then there is the front of the train. Picture the room at the end of 2001, where David Bowman eats his dinner in a robe and waits for an explanation. There are no words in Kubrick’s film. There are words in Snowpiercer. It’s what we’ve known and feared and hoped for all along.
When Curtis breaks through to the front of the train on his own, he pulls back the curtain to the see the wizard controlling everything. Played by a notable character actor you might be surprised to see, the man welcomes Curtis and makes him a drink. They then sit down to a nice dinner, leagues away from the protein slime served to the vast majority of the train’s population, and he then explains to Curtis the way things are. Without revealing too much, the suspicion you’ve had in your daily life for years comes true: reality does not exist in the moment, because everything has now been coopted and manipulated to create certain outcomes. And you all the while were left thinking that you somehow had free will and the ability to change things.
Someone described the film as “bleak as hell.” I don’t agree entirely. It’s certainly dark and intensely cynical, but the despairing and hopelessly nihilistic ending the tone of the film seems to be preparing you for does not occur. Yes, granted, it doesn’t end with everyone sitting around a campfire eating smores and singing “Born Free,” but there is a possibility given here that a different sort of existence might be achieved eventually, and a more equal society created.
And that’s where my philosophical difference is with the film. Um, what? There’s something to be hopeful about? Really? I read a headline recently that said humans have killed half of all living things on Earth since around 1970. Is that right? I don’t know for sure. But ever since I’ve read that, now as I plod and stumble through my daily life, running errands, going to work, interacting with others, there is one thought that strikes me often: “Gee, are they sure it’s only half?”
I’m not a harbinger of doomsday though. The world is going to be around for a very long time, maybe even until it’s consumed by the sun in millions of years. And human beings won’t go extinct anytime soon. We’ll figure out some way to continue raping the Earth and each other to stay alive. However: the elite that governs us is getting smaller and harder to reach, while the world for the rest of us is basically going to be the back of the train—a crammed compartment of your oil, my oil, no your water, no my water. We’ll be bickering back and forth about the culture wars and won’t notice how screwed we are until it’s too late and the train’s already moving.
But, on a certain level, isn’t it comforting in a way that there could be a small group of elite Skull-and-Bones-types controlling all human events? A conspiracy gives the illusion of control, that human beings can influence things on a grand scale, even if it’s self-serving. I mean, what’s the alternative? Just a clusterfuck of random chance and oppressive societies forming in disparate parts of the world because that’s just how things are? You mean there is no conspiracy? Evil is just a byproduct of evolution, and the complex inequality we see today is just an advanced form of the single-cell organisms we were millions of years ago in the primordial ooze of adolescent Earth consuming and destroying each other to stay alive just because that’s what life does?
The only goal life seeks is to perpetuate itself and create more life that resembles it, so that offspring can create other things that resemble it, and on and on ad nauseam. Is this a good thing? Is more of what has always been and seemingly all that ever will be progress? Why is something better than nothing? Can’t an eternal void be attractive too? Is the computer I’m typing this screed on really an intrinsically good thing? What had to be destroyed in order to create it? My ability to write this and you’re opportunity to read it has blood on its hands at some point in its creation.
And the elite master class, the “they” we resent and all refer to in our daily moments of frustration and bewilderment, they probably won’t admit it but they’re as baffled as to what’s going on as we are. They just don’t have to face it because they’re delirious and drunk from stuffing their bellies with the flesh and blood of everyone else. There is no direction or pattern to history. It’s just one horrible thing piled on top of another. Sometimes it’s REALLY horrible, but I try to keep a positive outlook and hope it’s just mildly horrible. And what does the future hold?
Get used to eating slime, I guess. Is that the answer? I don’t know . . . I mean . . . uh . . . no wait . . .
Egh. You’d think I’d have seen that coming.