WARNING: The following blog post contains a lot of spoilers. If you have not yet seen Snowpiercer and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.
Snowpiercer has been called a sci-fi action film. It’s hardly sci-fi. If people insist on referring to it as a sci-fi film, those people will have to admit that it is based on very bad sci-fi. The movie begins with the premise that Mankind finds a way to combat global warming with a man-made chemical that is used to cool Earth’s atmosphere. And cool Earth’s atmosphere it does. So much so that the whole planet undergoes a new Ice Age period, thus leading to a mass extinction of life as we know it. At least until the very end of the movie when a polar bear appears on screen thus throwing that whole “mass extinction of life as we know it” plot right out the window.
That the audience is expected to believe that scientists would not have tested this Earth-altering chemical ad nauseam before it is unleashed into the stratosphere is ludicrous. Even more ludicrous is the fact that the audience is told to believe that the one thing that not only survives but also supports what is left of humanity in this freezing hell is a train that is running around the world non-stop.
Snowpiercer is a good sci-fi film just as much as Animal Farm is a reliable farmer’s almanac. That being said, just like Animal Farm is a wonderful allegorical story, so is Snowpiercer. There are those who might say that Snowpiercer is bad allegory because it doesn’t resemble the real world that we live in today. Those critics are not wrong. The movie doesn’t resemble the real world that we live in today. However, Animal Farm didn’t resemble real life 1940s English society that the English used to live in either.
I watched Snowpiercer about two weeks ago and when the movie ended, two thoughts occurred to me. The first thought that occurred to me was that I had just witnessed a very rare find – a movie that respected the audience’s intelligence. The second thought that occurred to me was that most people are seldom ever honest about what we know and almost always dishonest about what we don’t know. In other words, most things that most people claim to know, especially in regards to the social sciences (such as politics, economics, and philosophy; themes that this movie touches on), are a pretense of knowledge.
As such, because this movie operates on the assumption that the audience is intelligent, and then proceeds to touch on themes that are, unfortunately, subjected to mind numbing subjectivity, the conclusion that I reached was that there were going to be many people who were going to watch this movie through the lens of very dumbed down current event stories that they might have watched on the news.
|Because everyone knows how a mob has always traditionally been associated with intelligence.|
That there are only a small number of movie reviews for Snowpiercer that claims that the main theme that the movie focuses on is class warfare, a far too simplistic overview, is most likely due to the fact that Snowpiercer has yet to be shown in movie theaters outside of Korea just yet. It’s only a matter of when before harebrained newspaper columnists who see themselves as enlightened populists decide to hail this movie as a rallying call for the Occupy Movement. Yes, class warfare is certainly one of the topics that the movie explores but there is so much more than what meets the eye.
Like Animal Farm, what Snowpiercer does is to challenge totalitarianism and all of the little despotisms that exist within it. Taking on the position of opposing totalitarianism while not living in a totalitarian state hardly seems edgy. However, another more subtle criticism that the movie deals with is the morality (or the lack thereof) of political leadership regardless of what stripe it comes in. More on this later.
Throughout the whole movie, there isn’t a single element that has not been somehow affected by the totalitarian nature of the train’s leadership. From the very beginning of the movie, the audience is made to dive right in to the deep end of the tense environment that surrounds the tail section of the train – the claustrophobic Dickensian world that is home to the train’s poorest inhabitants. Crammed into a tight, squalid space, these individuals, including the movie’s main protagonist, Curtis (played by Chris Evans), live, if it can be called that, a miserable existence.
Revolution is boiling beneath the surface and it doesn’t take long for the audience to sympathize with the tail enders; as the audience’s blood is churned and made to call out for bloody revenge when we see an anonymous guard brutally smashing his rifle’s butt into the face of an unarmed elderly woman. Considering the real life events that have unfolded around us, such as the Arab Spring and the various anti-austerity protests that we have seen throughout Europe and the United States, it becomes easy for people to root for the tail enders, while at the same time jumping to the conclusion that the movie is about the oppressed 99 percent fighting for justice against the tyrannical 1 percent.
People who claim that this movie is an allegorical indictment of the inherent injustice that exists in capitalism are missing the point of not just the movie but the very nature of capitalism itself.
Many anti-capitalists would jump to tell anyone who is willing to listen that income mobility that is claimed to exist in a capitalist economic system is a myth – that one’s economic fate is predetermined by the socioeconomic status that one is born into and has no opportunity whatsoever to move up that proverbial ladder. The fact that there are immigrants who arrive in developed countries with very little money and very little knowledge of the local language, who nevertheless persevere and rise in those societies or that many of their children excel in school and go on to obtain professional careers and establish businesses does not seem to detract those anti-capitalists from their religion.
The fact that economic classes exist in capitalist societies is undeniable. However, the anti-capitalists’ insinuation that the members who make up those classes are static is nothing less than willful ignorance.
Whereas the thing that anti-capitalists claim to fight against does not actually exist in real life societies that practice capitalism, it does exist in Snowpiecer’s world. In Snowpiecer’s world, one’s socioeconomic fate is preordained by the tickets that everyone had purchased (or not purchased) before the train embarked on its non-stop seventeen-year journey – fist class, economy, and free loaders. Even the children of those who are born on the train, long after the events that initially took place for this story to be set in motion, are forced to live in the stations that their parents had first found themselves in. “The people at the front of the train are the head and those at the back of the train are the feet,” claims Mason (played by Tilda Swinton), one of the movie’s deliciously evil antagonists, who hisses with authoritarian finality, “Know your place, keep your place!”
The social system that the train operates on is based on a medieval feudalistic system, which is enforced by brutal violence. This is hardly a capitalist society.
When people watch this movie without thinking more deeply into it, it becomes easy to assume that it is about a war between the haves and have-nots, a situation that capitalism purportedly permitted to exist. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Capitalism, by its very nature, requires political freedom, which includes, among other things, the opportunity for socioeconomic mobility. Snowpiercer was not an indictment of capitalism, but rather an indictment of tyranny.
In another sign that this movie’s challenge is toward tyranny rather than capitalism, the audience is shown how the tail enders receive their food. During meal time, the tail enders who are constantly hungry and malnourished are assembled by the guards and counted each time so that they may be rationed the appropriate amount of food – brown gelatinous bars, which are simply referred to as protein bars. It is later revealed that none of the tail enders was informed what those protein bars were made of – mashed cockroaches (the movie never explains where all those cockroaches came from).
In the real world, since the mid-nineteenth century, the countries in the world where famine occurred have been the countries that were run by tyrannical regimes that attempted to control, distribute, and ration food and farming based on political decisions. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the Kim Dynasty’s North Korea, Mao Tse Tung’s China, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Ethiopia, Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s Somalia. In the past one hundred and fifty years, every single famine that the world has bared witness to has been the result of, to use a euphemism, political mismanagement.
However, toward the end of the movie, it is later revealed that the tail enders’ diet did not consist of only these mashed cockroach bars. When Curtis explains his motivation for wanting to take his revolution all the way to the front of the train, he reveals that there was a time when he was forced to eat human flesh.
In the frantic early days when the train was about to begin its journey as it raced against the oncoming Ice Age, the tail enders who didn’t buy a ticket but were fortunate enough to board the train were left with no food to eat. As a result, when hunger set in, they began to cannibalize each other. Curtis mentions that he knows what human meat tastes like and that “babies taste the best.” He confesses that when Edgar (played by Jamie Bell), his second-in-command, was a baby, Curtis almost killed and ate him but was prevented from doing so by Gilliam (played by John Hurt), the tail enders’ elder leader and Curtis’ mentor and father-figure, who cut off his own hand for the hungry tail enders to eat in exchange for letting Edgar live. It was only after many people had been cannibalized and had voluntarily amputated their own limbs to feed each other that they were provided rationed protein bars.
In Snowpiercer, the train is the country, which is ruled by a tyrant; the people forcefully imprisoned in their stations under the penalty of death. The people’s malnourished state and their being forced to eat bugs and each other is a story that we have seen far too many times on the news (here, here, here, here). As Curtis recounts his past experience in having eaten human flesh, he says that though it makes intellectual sense for the tail enders to show gratitude for being allowed to board the train and live, considering the hell that they were forced to live through, it was impossible to feel one iota of gratitude. It is impossible not to sympathize with him.
Another theme that the movie touches on is the manner in which the train’s leaders treat the tail enders. Early on in the movie, a mysterious, plump looking woman who wears a bright yellow coat, in stark contrast to the sooty grey that surrounds the tail end of the train, enters the scene with several armed guards. Carrying a simple tape measure, she measures the height and width of two small children and wordlessly whisks them away to the front of the train. Before the woman can take the two children away, however, one of the child’s parent throws his shoe at the woman, reminding the audience of a similar event that occurred in real life when a desperate man threw his shoe at the most powerful man in the world.
Such lawlessness, of course, cannot go unpunished. The train’s inventor and chief engineer and Dear Leader, the mysterious Wilford (played by Ed Harris), sends Mason to punish this act of rebellion. Before the shoe-thrower’s sentence can be carried out, a punishment which appears to be a method that the Saudi government would have adopted had the Arabian peninsula been covered in permafrost as opposed to sun-scorched sand, Mason gives a speech, which the audience feels has been given to the tail enders many times before. In the first sign of Wilford’s cult of personality, not unlike the kind of praise that is showered on North Korea’s Kim Dynasty, Mason offers glorious praise to Wilford, stating that he is merciful and kind. Therefore, any sort of rebellion against such mercy and kindness is that much more magnified and thus cannot go punished. “Know your place, keep your place.”
It is later revealed toward the end of the movie that the woman in the yellow coat took those children to the front of the train in order to work as slaves. Wilford explains that in the train’s seventeen-year journey, parts have needed to be repaired and replaced. However, in that time, parts that are needed to keep the train running have “gone extinct” and that therefore, small children are needed to crawl into tight spaces that no adult can squeeze into in order to manually repair the train constantly. In other words, the tail enders are treated no better than cattle. They’re fed just enough to be kept alive, they are “disciplined” when the need arises, and they are used as beasts of burden.
As for Mason, she offers a microcosmic view of what abusive political power can do to a human being. No one in the world is born evil. As such, Mason must have, at one point in her life, been a sweet, innocent, and good-natured child. Had Mason possessed any of these characteristics, however, none of it was present by the time she makes her first appearance in the movie. Mason is shown wearing large spectacles that gives her an insect-like appearance, sports a thick Yorkshire accent, and her lips are drawn in with only a pale edge of flesh left around the imperious line of their opening; a mouth to issue orders.
Everything about Mason – her looks, her dress, her mannerisms, her speech – shows that she is the end product of having possessed despotic power over the lives of others for a long period of time. She is cruel, mean, petty, and expects the people that she stomps on and treats like trash to be grateful to her. It is the price that tyrants have to pay – sacrificing their humanity for power, and reason for delusions.
The movie could have offered just a simple solution – “The tail enders succeed in their revolution and once the tyrant and the haves have been taken out, all the tail enders whose rights as human beings had been stripped away live happily ever after.”
But once again, the movie treats the audience like intelligent adults. In a short scene, after Gilliam listens to Curtis’ plan on how he plans to lead his ragtag revolutionaries to the front of the train, he slowly and cryptically asks “And then what?” It is a deep philosophical question that has no easy answers. However, Curtis has no time for all that. “We kill Wilford,” he says without hesitation; as though somehow that is the solution to all of their problems.
But that is a question whose weight has been far too understated in this movie – “And then what?” This same question is currently being asked in Egypt and other Arab nations. So the mob finally fought back and showed the world that Hosni Mubarak was nothing more than a paper tiger. And then what? So the mob got back together and showed the world that Mohamed Morsi wasn’t even half the paper tiger that Mubarak was. And then what? Judging from what we see on the news, it hardly seems that the Egyptians have found their happily ever after fairy tale ending.
“And then what?”
As Curtis and his ragtag team of revolutionaries fight their way into one car after another, they begin to see whole new worlds that the tail enders had not even known to exist in their wildest dreams. And with each progression they make, the more decadent the scenery becomes. Initially, we see a whole train car that has been fitted to serve as a horticultural orchard that grows fruits. In another car, the entire car is used as an aquarium that the front enders harvest twice a year that they may eat fresh fish while at the same time making sure that the fish are culled in moderation in order to avoid population crashes. This theme gets explored again later.
In other cars, people enjoy Swedish saunas and in others, they binge on alcohol and drugs as they rave the night and day away. However, the most surreal car that the revolutionaries enter is the school car. In this car, which is designed as a preppy grade school classroom, an overly cheerful and hyper teacher (played by Alison Pill) leads about a dozen or so students in their lessons. However, the lessons have less to do with maths or grammar but instead focuses on singing adulatory praise for Wilford; again, not unlike the education that we find in tyrannical regimes like in North Korea (here, here, here).
Although this movie is certainly an allegorical tale that criticizes tyranny, and not capitalism as anti-capitalists would have people believe, it is difficult to know for sure what kind of economic system exists on this train. We never get to see a trade transaction. We see food being rationed out, which implies that production is centrally planned but the scene where the decadent rich binge excessively on alcohol and drugs implies that, assuming that production is centrally planned, there is an underground economy of sorts that circumvents the central planning authority, which seems impossible considering the fact that they are all on a train which no one can get off of.
What we do know for sure is what had been hinted to us earlier at the aquarium scene and later spelled out toward the end of the movie – population control is enforced and based on Malthusian principles that would have made Paul R. Ehrlich proud.
|Paul R. Ehrlich|
What’s important to remember about the aquarium scene is that the fish in the aquarium are culled in moderation twice a year that the upper class may enjoy eating fish while avoiding crashing the aquarium’s fish population. When Curtis finally meets Wilford for the very first (and the very last) time at the engine room, whose design looked like a minimalist version of a Plaza Hotel suite, Wilford reveals that Curtis’ revolution had been planned and orchestrated all along by him. Throughout the movie, Curtis receives notes from an anonymous source from the front of the train, which goad him to keep fighting on. It turned out that the person who was sending Curtis those notes of encouragement was none other than Wilford himself.
So why would Wilford foment a violent revolution that is aimed at himself? He explains that he did so in order to ensure that the violent proletarian revolution would occur, thus requiring both the tail enders and the upper class to kill off one another so that the population of the train, both the tail enders and the elites of the upper-class section, is kept in check. Wilford reveals to Curtis that he had to make this choice because he could not wait for natural selection to take its course; had he done so, the exponential population growth would have outpaced the arithmetical level of food production, which would have caused everyone to slowly starve to death.
In the real world, Malthus limited his apocalyptic prediction to limited food production. However, despite the fact that those predictions were proven to be false even within Malthus’ own lifetime, his views never really went away. In fact, neo-Malthusianism has been the rallying call for many of the world’s modern-day environmentalists, such as the aforementioned Paul R. Ehrlich who made a similar (debunked) prediction in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. In his book, he predicted that hundreds of millions of deaths would occur per year throughout the 1970s and he insisted that the only way to avert this catastrophe was through mass population control “by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”
|Killing millions to save millions? Makes perfect sense.|
However, as we all know, instead of the global-scale famine and widespread death that Ehrlich predicted, the 1970s witnessed a modern agricultural revolution, which continues to this day. Despite a doubling of the world’s population, food production continues to grow as technological innovation creates more and more food on each acre of farmland. As mentioned earlier, the people in the world who suffer from starvation and famine suffer not because of a lack of food but because of, again with the euphemism, political mismanagement.
In the real world, Malthus, Ehrlich, and other similar-minded people have been debunked. But what about aboard the Snowpiercer? Does Malthus’ apocalyptic prediction bear any weight for the train’s inhabitants? Sadly, yes. Firstly, food production can only occur in the train, which, unlike fertile farmland, cannot be expanded or tilled. Secondly, and more importantly, as the only human beings left on the planet are all located inside the train, trade with the outside world is impossible. What that means is that food production is clearly limited and that the train’s inhabitants have no choice but to be self-reliant.
In some ways, the situation that the train’s inhabitants find themselves in is similar to North Korea’s juche system, an ideology which all but destroyed North Korea’s economy and social systems. Considering the heavy security apparatus that Wilford employs (which bears parallels to North Korea’s million-man army) who mostly carry rifles that have no ammo (which bears parallels to North Korea’s ammunition shortage) whose job it is to pacify (which bears parallels to North Korean soldiers being used to terrorize the people into submission) the hungry tail enders (who bear parallels to North Korea’s hungry citizens), the fictional world of Snowpiercer bears striking resemblance to the Malthusian reality that is North Korea’s juche ideology.
|The reality that is juche.|
Under such conditions, not only does the culling of people become possible, it becomes necessary. It is the full blossoming of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, the philosophical school of thought that calls for “the greatest good for the greatest number,” which when one thinks about it, one begins to realize that it is one of the most vicious slogans ever foisted on humanity. Utilitarianism is a horror because it never defines “good” except that it is whatever is good for the greatest number. Who, in any particular issue, decides what is good for the greatest number? And why does numerical superiority immediately mean that it is the good? It is a horrific philosophy but in North Korea and aboard the Snowpiercer, its horrors take a backseat to its necessity.
The difference between the leadership that oversees the Snowpiercer and their real-life counterparts in North Korea is that the former was forced into its predicament by a rapidly changing climate that was no longer conducive to human survival whereas the latter voluntarily chose to create its own hell. Differences in matters of choice aside, however, it does not change the fact that both leaders are guilty of overseeing the mass murder of their own peoples. This was the movie’s stance on Mathusianism; it is a philosophy that legitimizes mass murder and one that is only possible in a tyrannical regime.
Lastly, the movie touches on the morality of the two leaders of the train – Wilford who rules with an iron fist from the front of the train and Gilliam who preaches (and practices) self-sacrifice from the back of the train. Of the two, Wilford is easier to analyze.
When Wilford and Curtis meet for the first time, besides admitting that Curtis’ revolution and all the previous revolutions that came before were pre-planned efforts at keeping a check on the train’s population, Wilford tells Curtis that everyone on the train has their place; it just so happens that his is at the front of the train. He then says something remarkable to Curtis. While wearing what appears to be a silk robe and cooking a steak dinner in his engine room, which, again, looks like a minimalist version of a Plaza Hotel suite, Wilford says to the clearly exhausted, soot-covered, malnourished, and bleeding Curtis that he, too, has to bear a cost for being at the front of the train; that contrary to what Curtis might think, Wilford isn’t very happy with his lot in life either.
The audience could easily sneer at the irony of Wilford’s self-pity. However, I doubt that Wilford was being disingenuous. In fact, it is very likely that Wilford is the most self-aware and honest character in the entire movie. Unlike Mason, Wilford doesn’t suffer from any kinds of delusions. He knows what he wants and he knows the price that he has to pay for it.
What he wants is power; he simply wants to rule. The cult-like manner in which his henchmen worship him is proof of this. He is not destined for happiness; and he knows this. He simply wants to rule. In order to rule, Wilford had to design the world that he wanted. It wasn’t just the train that he designed. He designed a world of obedience – a world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess Wilford’s thoughts. A world where no man will hold a desire for himself, but will direct all his efforts to satisfy Wilford’s desires. However, Wilford’s thoughts and desires and everyone else’ desire to fulfill his thoughts and desires is nothing more than a circular logic. He wishes to rule and they wish to be ruled. And the wheels of the bus go round and round.
But to get what he wants, he has to pay a price. The price that he has to pay is that he has no purpose except to keep the people, the very people whom he despises, contented. He has to lie, flatter, praise, and inflate their vanities and vulgarities. He has less independence than even the mediocrities that he rules over. At least his henchmen rule over the tail enders and torture them for whatever sadistic pleasure that they derive from it. Wilford, however, is far too intelligent and self-aware to stoop to that level of stupidity and barbarism. He merely uses people for the sake of what he can do for them. It’s his only function. He has no other private purpose. It’s the price that he has to pay for power.
|An empty shell of a man|
Gilliam, on the other hand, is a more complex case study. Contrary to Wilford’s regal appearance, Gilliam looks disheveled and wears what appears to be sackcloth. In some ways, it’s what I have always imagined John the Baptist to look like. Furthermore, due to his message of self-sacrifice, which he also practices, at least an arm and a leg have been voluntarily amputated to feed the tail enders before they were provided with their mashed-cockroach protein bar rations. His arm has since been replaced by what looks like a crook handle from an umbrella while his leg has since been replaced by a broomstick.
For all intents and purposes, Gilliam seems to be Wilford’s polar opposite. However, during Wilford’s fateful meeting with Curtis, it is revealed that both Wilford and Gilliam were actually friends and had been cooperating with one another from the very beginning; Wilford running things from the front of the train and Gilliam from the back of the train. Though they seldom met face to face, it is revealed that they spoke to each other regularly on the phone in the middle of the night. This was how Wilford knew to send those notes to Curtis to incite his revolution. This is when we realize that Gilliam and Wilford are not actually polar opposites, but, in fact, are mirror images of one another. They are the two sides of the same coin.
In essence, whereas Wilford was demanding that everyone sacrifice their thoughts and their desires to his will, Gilliam was demanding that everyone sacrifice their thoughts and their desires to each other. The difference is whom people are being demanded to sacrifice to. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the people are being demanded to make sacrifices. And it stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there is someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there is service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters and he intends to be the master.
However, Gilliam’s idea of ruling over the masses is more perverse than Wilford’s. According to Gilliam’s notion of self-sacrifice, the world that he envisions is one where the thoughts and desires of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thoughts and desires of the man next to him who in turn will have no thought or desire of his own. It is a world where everyone is subjugated to the will of everyone else. It is a world where people are slaves to each other, a world that does not even offer the dignity of serving a master.
Wilford’s message was that the individual has no rights; that the Führer, him, is all that matters. In the order that Wilford offers, no private motive is permitted. The only motive that he permits to exist is that of service to him.
On the other hand, Gilliam’s message is that the individual has no rights; that the collective is all that matters. In the order that Gilliam offers, no private motive is permitted. The only motive that he permits to exist is that of service to the masses.
Both men fixed the game from the very beginning. Heads – sacrifice. Tails – sacrifice. It doesn’t matter whether they give up their soul to the Führer or to each other; so long as they give it up. So long as the people accept that self-abnegation and self-denial are considered uncompromisable and sacred values.
Self-sacrifice, however, cannot continue to exist without a leader to collect the alms. In the real world, traditionally, there have been two kinds of leaders who collected these alms. As different as they were, however, like Wilford and Gilliam, they have always been but mirror images of each other. The leaders have always been either God or Society. The people who reaped the alms for the leaders could not, however, be mere mortals. We are mere mortals and no one knows better than us just how imperfect that we can be. The reapers had to possess a certain kind of moral or political authority over the rest of us. As a result, they have been given various names over human history – Priests, Commissars, Kings, Parliamentarians, etc.
So long as individuals are not free to choose to live our own lives the way we see fit, it doesn’t matter whether we serve God or the Führer or the Proletariat. At the end of the day, we are all just slaves waiting for our turn to be called to the altar.
That is the ultimate question that Curtis had to answer. Is the human race worth saving if we’re nothing more than slaves to each other? The only correct answer is “No.”
After the train is destroyed, we see that all the main characters, the good, the bad, and the ugly, are all dead. It’s all well and good. All of those characters’ hideous morality were the end result of a putrid philosophy. No good could have possibly come out of their survival.
The only two survivors are a young boy and a slightly older girl, two characters who were born on the train and whose total combined screen time couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes. With the train and its contents destroyed and everyone who had been on board dead, the odds of survival are overwhelmingly stacked against these two young children.
However, whether or not the human race survives is irrelevant. What is relevant is that they are free and that their survival depends on their own independent minds. This is the movie's final message: the importance of freedom; damn the odds.
From what I have read online, not only has this movie yet to be released outside of Korea, there isn't even a release date. Furthermore, according to Collider.com, the Weinstein Company, which owns the rights to distribute Snowpiercer in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, wants to cut twenty minutes from the movie, specifically from the bits that give character details, ‘to make sure the film will be understood by audiences in Iowa... and Oklahoma.’
Though I am not sure how this movie will change when it is released in the rest of the world, I sincerely hope that the changes will not detract too much from the movie’s overall philosophy. This movie is special because it is intelligent and because it treats the audience as though we were intelligent. To lose that would be to sacrifice what makes this movie special in the first place. And that would be a terrible shame.