Disclaimer: You guessed it, spoilers.
Hey look, today we’re going to be talking about a film by Bong Joon Ho, you know, that guy who was thrust into the spotlight for winning that big award thingy for making Parasite. But we’re not here to talk about that movie, as awesome as it is. We’re here to talk about one of his earlier projects, one that carries his hallmark anti-capitalist messages, and by all accounts somewhat of an odd movie. Snowpiercer was an expensive and ambitious project (costing around $40 million USD). It was a Korean-Czech studio collaboration headed by a Korean director yet mostly featuring Western actors; an unconventional setup yet one that ended up making a fusion that felt not-quite-typical for an action movie of this kind.
The story of Snowpiercer is not an original conception of Bong, though he did co-write the script with Kelly Masterson. It is based off of a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. The backstory given to us at the beginning, in a short snowy background scene lasting no longer than a minute, is that humanity attempted to solve climate change by deploying a cooling chemical in the air. Unfortunately, this ended up being catastrophic in its own right, as the cooling went too far and reverted Earth back to an Ice Age.
It was a solution that never addressed the core cause of the problem, and only threw nature into further disarray. Doesn’t that sound familiar in real life? Instead of reducing emissions, let’s build seawalls and decimate ocean life, instead of reducing the heat and droughts, let’s just install air conditioning! Problem solved, right?
Well, of course not. And as a result, all of humanity was now living on a giant privately owned passenger train originally meant for tourism – the Snowpiercer, which did a loop around the globe every year.
The train is a microcosm of society; makes sense since it was the last remaining vestige of society. Separated into clear class structures, with the high class at the front and the lower class at the back, we are first exposed to the terrible conditions and abuse suffered by the lower class, with the showcasing of some choice atrocities like freezing and shattering the limb of someone acting out of line, and child abduction for seemingly no reason, because that’s what aristocrats do, I guess.
We see from the very beginning the darkness shed upon the back carriage both through cinematography – literal darkness – and the torture they must suffer through every day. They’ve been planning for a while, but at the moment they must make a vital decision, they call the bluff.
I won’t go so in depth with character analysis though I did feel that the acting and costume design were very well done. The main character, Curtis, did seem a bit out of place looking extremely charismatic, with a nice clean beard, and seemingly healthy – something that was discussed by Bong as he claimed that the hardest thing about working with Chris Evans, the actors, was trying to hide his muscles because it wouldn’t make sense for someone who eats so badly to be just that jacked. Otherwise, I won’t say much else and I’ll assume that you’ve watched the movie anyways.
What is so critical to this movie is the constant showcasing of the violence, the death, and the setbacks that the revolution faces at every turn. That’s nothing out of the ordinary for an action movie, but what keeps tearing at the viewer is the constant desire to turn back. I felt, at so many points during the movie, that maybe the revolution was not such a good idea after all. Who knows if it’ll work in the end, and really, there are so few people left on Earth, it’s terrible to risk it all even for a noble cause. It’s not smooth and it’s not triumphant. Every victory is permeated by sorrow as another key character dies and the numbers dwindle around Curtis, Namgoong, and Yona. The trope’s use here is so effective because the permanent losses of characters we connect to tempts both the viewers and the characters to fall into a cycle of regret.
Because of this, its criticism of the status quo and capitalism is actually much harder to see in this movie compared with many other contemporary leftist media. A lot of people might look at all of the death and suffering, and indeed many morally questionable things done by the revolutionaries and genuinely believe that they were just a bunch of terrible hooligans who didn’t know their place. If this movie was not told from their perspective, we might even truly denounce them as the villains of the story. As such, many people who aren’t well-acquainted with leftist discourse and don’t know of Bong Joon Ho’s ideology could interpret this movie as being pro-status quo.
Near the end, it is also revealed that the revolution was planned – conspired between the conductor and an old man who pretended to be of the lowest class. In the name of population control, the revolution was allowed to continue even if the elites really did have enough power to quash it at any time.
In our current society, so too does this happen; those with political power tend to let the voices of rebellion be heard, and let them get somewhere – but never far enough. And putting “good people” into the highest spots of power does nothing if they do not remold the system. Curtis was tempted, but he knew very well what the outcome would be. It took the intervention of another radical thinker within his group to make the final decision to blow it all to pieces.
The events afterwards don’t answer these questions clearly either. After derailing the train, we only know of two survivors. Now they have to survive in brutal cold, even if it was no longer bad enough to freeze their bodies in 2 minutes. There are signs of life – but where next? We are given hope, but we know in the back of our minds that it is so easy for the remaining humans to be done for. Starvation, hypothermia, even animal attacks and disease… can they really survive? Was it better to simply carry on with business as usual, and was the revolution truly just a big dramatic end of humanity?
Yet Bong is most definitely trying to say to us that revolution is necessary. Our constant feelings of doubts as more characters get killed off are then contrasted with constant reminders of what the alternatives may be – more torture and suffering, being forced to eat nothing but insect-made protein bars, and at the center of it all, children like little Timmy being stolen from their parents into child slavery to keep the Engine running.
The movie is being honest about the costs but also the necessity of such a revolution; it breaks away from the propagandistic imagery utilized by authoritarian regimes on both sides of the political spectrum. It acknowledges that the solution is not perfect, but given the situation there are no better alternatives.
To boil it all down on a personal level, the most pressing and impactful part of this movie was that it caused me to realize my own weakness. Despite my analysis, beliefs, and the full knowledge of how this connects to real life, I know that deep in my heart I am not ready yet. I know that no matter how much I read, discuss, or even participate in politics, protest, and helping others, I am still too comfortable with my current place in the system.
There is so much more I could be doing about such a crisis, yet I sit at home playing video games and thinking that buying less meat is good enough of a green contribution for myself. I stock money in investment accounts, each of them responsible for funding my education, my retirement, my living costs – all running off of the blind faith in ever-increasing stocks and indexes.
Sometimes I truly question it – is such a revolution the only way? Maybe I shouldn’t be so much of an extremist…? Perhaps the authors I’ve read are all talking out of their asses, and maybe I should just stick to my lifestyle and let market forces and tech solutions fix everything.
But then I remember what got people onto the Snowpiercer on the first place; a failed attempt at using technology to solve climate change without addressing the core cause of it. What resulted from it? The majority of the population culled and the lucky few forced onto a perpetual stagnation, fueled by unethical child labour just to survive. We must be constantly reminded that this is our current track. Nothing we do under the power of the engine will help us thrive in the brutal truth outside. And we all know that the Eternal Engine could not possibly be eternal; the Snowpiercer could not possibly run forever, just as so-called economic growth cannot continue for eternity.
I’ll consider myself a success when I can honestly say that I am willing to derail the train. But the honest truth is that I’m still a coward.