Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 at the Movies: Snowpiercer

[Blogger’s note: Please beware of spoilers here, folks, I talk a lot of specifics about the film in the following review…]

Since 1927 and the premiere of the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, the science fiction cinema has frequently obsessed on the ever-widening gap between society’s most fortunate people and society’s most unfortunate people: the haves vs. the have-nots. These two constantly-clashing groups might be defined (and separated) by barriers of class, race, occupation, or wealth.

The new genre film Snowpiercer (2014) continues this long-standing historical tradition -- also seen in recent efforts such as In Time (2011) and Upside Down (2013) -- and very much proves itself the film that Elysium (2013) hoped to be.

Snowpiercer is a far more effective film than Elysium, however because its central metaphor simply works better. The core conceit is cleaner somehow, and therefore more readily grasped.

In the future year 2031 as imagined by Snowpiercer all that remains of mankind during a new Ice Age huddles on a self-sufficient train that goes around in an endless loop -- thus never reaching new territory -- while the ultra-rich live at the front of the train and gobble up the lion’s share of the resources.

Meanwhile, the poor folks dwell in the back of the train, and literally must sacrifice an arm and a leg just to maintain their meager, impoverished existence. To survive, to have a life worth living, means storming the front of the train and staking a claim.

Notably, Snowpiercer possesses nuances and depth not seen in the populist Elysium because it recognizes an uncomfortable truth about changeovers in social order. Even if the lower class somehow ekes out a win here, it is likely that things won’t change much for the vast majority of the people.

The very nature of life on this post-apocalyptic train -- a balanced, closed system -- in some crucial sense seems to reinforce the inequality of the status quo. 

The poverty-dwelling heroes of the film believe that “it will be different” when they control the train for themselves, but instead they find only the temptation to be co-opted and assimilated. This becomes their moment of truth.

Accordingly, those who survive the long journey from caboose to front compartment must reckon with two options. 

They can either continue a life that is familiar, only occupying a slightly-different (but still enslaved…) position. Or they can blow up everything and start fresh.

Yet because of the nature of human life, there’s no guarantee that “starting fresh” will create anything more equitable than the class stratification of this train hurtling down the fast track to nowhere.

In a significant fashion, Snowpiercer -- though based on a graphic novel from 1982 called Le Transperceniege -- reflects our 2014 political weariness and cynicism. The movie dwells in that gnawing, familiar sense that no matter which party is driving the train, things won’t meaningfully change for the least fortunate of us. We all just keep going around in a circle, and the rich stay rich while the poor stay poor. 

This notion is played out explicitly in the film by the revelation of a secret alliance that exists between the humble, seemingly moral leader of the poor (John Hurt), and the privileged, “creator” or engineer at the front of the train (Ed Harris).  They are colluding to maintain this society, even if it is a distinctly unequal society.

A clever pastiche of dystopian cinema and one rich with allusions to productions from Robert Altman’s Quintet (1979) to The Matrix Reloaded (2003), Snowpiercer succeeds as a driving, action-packed work of science fiction art not only because its central metaphor resonates with our current “makers vs. takers” national dialogue, but because the narrative is structured in recognizable, even classical terms. 

To wit, the journey of discovery undertaken by our protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans) in this terrible future from one revelatory train car to the next -- and one level of hideous existence to the next -- alludes to old stories such as The Divine Comedy, a work which charts and describes the various and sundry levels of Hell itself. 

Only here, of course, the hell is of one of our very own making...

"We go forward."

A scientific initiative to stop dangerous global warming goes awry in the near future. 

Particles known as CW-7 are seeded in Earth’s atmosphere to stop the climate change, but instead they accelerate a freezing process. In a short time, a New Ice Age commences, and all life becomes extinct save for a few survivors on a trans-continental train.

Seventeen years later, in 2031, a new society is long-established on that train. The rich elite live in the front section, using up resources and living in leisure and comfort.  At the rear of the train are the folks who boarded for free and who live in squalor, eating mysterious black protein bars for sustenance.

In 2024 there was a failed revolt among the passengers on the back of the train, and now a new one is brewing under the auspices of a man named Curtis (Evans), his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), and an old man, Gilliam (Hurt). They free a security expert, Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) from prison, along with his daughter, and he helps them to open the sealed doors to forward compartments.

Heading relentlessly for the train’s fore, Curtis and other survivors uncover the car where their food is prepared, and a car filled with heavily-armed soldiers.  Later, they pass through a school that teaches the elite’s propaganda, an aquarium, a green house, and other signs of a decadent culture that thrives on keeping them not just poor and hungry, but angry.

Finally, Curtis makes it to the "sacred engine" at the train's fore, and meets the engineer of the society and the vehicle.

This time we take the engine."

Class warfare rages on a futuristic train in Snowpiercer. One privileged overlord, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) boasts open disdain for the people who live in the vehicle’s aft section.  

She informs them in no uncertain terms that they are takers. 

They “suck on the generous tit” of the train’s engineer -- a real “maker” -- named Wilford (Harris). And in real life, going back at least to the 2012 election, we have seen American politicians use virtually the same language to describe 47% percent of our population as moochers...all because they think they are "entitled" to food.

Who among us is not entitled to eat?

Mason also refers to those seeking a better life as being “violent hooligans.” They should just be happy for what they have, she believes and “know” their “place.”

And what is their place?  

They're "shoes," Mason informs them.

When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed,” she also notes. 

Mason seems to argue, then, for a kind of natural law; one where the chosen few -- at the head of the "body" -- engineer a less-than-pleasant reality for everyone else.  

The elites must have someone to prey on, after all, to show that they are better than everyone else. To this end, they indoctrinate their children with hate-laced propaganda.  An indulged child in school, for instance, observes: "I heard all Tail Sectioners were lazy dogs and they drink their own shit."

In other words, the 99% are less-than-human. Today, we see a certain brand of talk-radio and cable television host similarly de-humanizing people of specific demographics. The targets have been different at different times in American and world history, though right now it is immigrants who are being compared regularly to disease-ridden, inhuman savages.

Yet at the same time that the elites lord it over the poor in Snowpiercer, the beleaguered masses must have someone to blame or hate, or rage against too...to keep them distracted from the job of really changing things. They have their gatherings, their plots, their protests, and occasionally their riots, but the world doesn't seem to change.

Curtis believes this revolt will be different however, because he intends to capture the  train's sacred engine. Curtis wants to seize the means of energy production in other words, that maintains the luxury of the elites. 

The train engine, therefore, is a metaphor in the film for industry, or even the economy as a whole. Seize control of it -- nationalize it for the people's use instead of the oligarchy's -- and powerful will take note. Destroy the capacity to keep rich people wealthy and distribute resources equally...and it is a new day.

But as Curtis learns, it is not that simple.

Uniquely, the real problem between the haves and have-nots arises on the train when Mason refuses specifically to recognize the humanity of the 99%’s children. 

These kids are mere resources to be taken away (so as to assure the continued survival of the elite) and not treated as true individuals, or as people with families. The taking of two innocent children is the demarcation point for the revolt: the slope leading from poverty and dissatisfaction to recognition of literal enslavement and an attempt at overthrow. 

The message here seems to be that people will put up with a lot of shit from their overlords if they are scratching by. But start messing with their kids and all bets are off. I believe this is so because children are non-political in every way, and so to transform them into political pawns is a truly despicable and craven thing.  

And -- yes indeed -- treating other people's children as "enemies" (or worse...as disease-carrying vermin) is something that is happening in America too. I'm not saying Snowpiercer  anticipated the crisis at the border we are now enduring, only that the film speaks fluently in a language and national context that we, at this juncture, readily understand.

What makes this all so insidious, however, is the fact that the ruling elite actually helps to foster the revolt (as it did previous revolts) for its own agenda. Wilford plans to thin out the population, and to provide the easily cowed folks of the aft-compartment the illusion that change has been made.  The poor can then rest satisfied that they made a difference, and that things, suddenly, are fairer. 

And yes, this idea very much reflects the pivotal scene with the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded.  There, as you may recall, a revolutionary, Neo (Keanu Reeves), learns about the Order of Things.  He learns that the A.I. machines have destroyed Zion before, and repopulated it with humans, and started the cycle all over again, always crafting a new, better system of control.  

Curtis learns essentially the same truth from Wilford in Snowpiercer. Revolts have been staged or arranged by Gilliam and Wilford, at the front and back of the train, and each time, a new, better “order of things” emerges, with the elite more firmly in control.

Ultimately, this is why the film is more effective than Elysium proved to be. Snowpiercer suggests that the elite will throw the poor a bone now and then to quell them, but beyond offering sacrificial goats, they offer nothing of value.  The system continues, and tightens its grip on the masses.  There are no winners and losers, only level after level of control. Dystopian systems aren't simply overturned and made better because a new master takes over.  Life is infinitely more complex than that "happy" ending could suggest.

In some ways, Snowpiercer actually feels a lot like a (smart) amalgamation of other science fiction pictures particularly those of the 1960s and 1970s.  The Ice Age future with mankind on the brink of extinction clearly echoes Quintet, a film involving Paul Newman as a last survivor of the human race following global cooling. 

In both cases, the next generation or perhaps last generation plays a crucial role in the narrative. In Quintet, a pregnant woman, Newman’s mate, is killed, thus leaving no hope for the future. Only entropy awaits instead. In Snowpiercer, the children are stolen and made slaves, again a sign of a future if not without hope, then certainly without freedom or liberty.

Similarly, Curtis and his friends at one point in the narrative take over a train car where they learn the secrets behind their food supply, these gelatinous black blocks they eat. It is not a pleasant discovery, to say the least.

The rebels learn that they are eating something not entirely appetizing, and though the secret of the food supply is not the same as the one revealed  Soylent Green, the nature of  the revelation is similar.  The people are being sustained and nourished by a dreadful, disgusting source. In both cases, we also witness a sort of industrial process by which the awful food is prepared, out of sight of the consumers.  The masses are being fed by the elite, but what they are being fed is monstrous.

The most unique comparison, however, is a visual grace note -- a brief moment -- that seems to compare astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to engineer Wilford in Snowpiercer.  

Near the end of 2001, Bowman (Keir Dullea) travels through a mysterious Stargate and ends up in a world made for one. He sits alone, eating from fine China and drinking wine, on the verge of his evolution into something greater than mere human.  Around him, he sees signs of a technological world (a glowing tiled floor) and a traditional one (decorated like a Victorian sitting room). This is appropriate, because his going to carry the legacy of humanity into his new form, as the Star Child.

In Snowpiercer, we witness Ed Harris as Wilford -- similarly dressed in a robe over his clothes -- alone at a dining table with fine china and wine, in his exclusive world of one.  Like Bowman, he is depicted in a setting that seems to straddle both future technology and conventional or traditional decorations.

But unlike his Kubrickian, space-age predecessor, Wilford is not on the verge of evolution at all. Rather, he has embraced the draconian "natural order" that imposes constant balance -- a constant status quo -- and thus, finally stagnation and entropy.  

The images are very similar, but portend virtually opposite meanings. Bowman is on the verge of becoming something great. Wilford is about to be brought down, along with his entire system of control.  

Snowpiercer also features some terrific and even stirring action sequences, and it is this aspect of the film that will thrill many viewers the most, I suppose. One brutal fight in a tight train car -- undertaken in a dark tunnel, no less -- is brilliantly staged and shot.  And another sequence, involving the rapid-fire laying down of barrels or drums to prop open conquered compartments, almost rises to the same level of crazy ingenuity.  

There's also a strong sense of discovery underlying the film's narrative structure, and this quality keeps the viewer engaged.

Each new open door means an entrance into a different world. Sometimes, the new world is awe-inspiring (like the aquarium car), sometimes it is nightmarish (like the school room with a gun-toting teacher and the brainwashed students), and sometimes it is just bizarre, like the hedonistic realm of the elite, lost in their drug-filled reveries.  

This story structure -- a new world opened with each new door -- is what specifically reminded me of Dante, and his famous, literary tour of Hell, where readers met sinners of every variety known to man. With some imagination, the train in Snowpiercer fulfills the same function, especially when Curtis reveals -- in heart-wrenching terms -- his own terrible personal sin.

 This is truly a train of the damned, in more ways than one.

There's much to write about regarding Snowpiercer, and frankly, I've only scratched the surface.

There's an element of the film that concerns how idealism gives way to practicality, or -- again -- entropy. We all believe that we will be generous and equitable when we "get to the top," but is that true?  You don't really get to the top unless you're willing to step over a few backs.

Similarly, the film suggests there is an idealism inherent in"storming the train" that doesn't necessarily survive to the difficult task of "governing" the train. When you're starving, you just want to eat. It's a simple goal. When you have responsibility for a thousand lives and an eco-system, however, there are trade-offs, and other things to consider.

It would have been very easy to make Snowpiercer a sort of rabble-rousing, popular movie filled with easy or facile answers about life. Instead, the makers of the film understand that life isn't that simple, and -- working with a clear, focused metaphor in the form of the train -- add on layers of thematic and narrative complexity that make us realize we're all riding a runaway train of sorts, and that, finally, it may not even matter who's driving the bloody thing.


  1. One of my favorite, and most thought-provoking, films of the year for me.

  2. Still angry I missed this at the theater.