a_560x0Snowpiercer is the most political film of the year. And likely to be one of the most misunderstood.

Snowpiercer is also very weird, which you’d probably expect from a South Korean sci-fi post-apocalyptic action film based on a French graphic novel that stars Chris Evans (Captain America) and Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia).

The basic plot of the movie is that in 2014, an experiment to counteract global warming (which is based on a real plan) causes an ice age that kills nearly all life on Earth. The only survivors are the inhabitants of the Snowpiercer, a massive super-luxury train, powered by a perpetual-motion engine, that travels on a globe-spanning track. A class system is installed, with the elites inhabiting the front of the train and the poor inhabiting the tail.

When I say this is a “political” film I mean it in the Platonic sense of an ideal polis based on the best form of government that leads to the common good. Snowpiercer is an extended political fable about the polis, albeit one that includes scenes of hatchet fights between people carrying torches and people wearing night-vision goggles.

Last week, Snowpiercer was released in eight theaters in selected cities and on video-on-demand. Because of the rave critical reviews (it’s currently at 95% approval on Rotten Tomatoes), it’ll like be going into wider release.

If you haven’t seen it yet, lower your expectations. While visually interesting and, at times, thought-provoking, it doesn’t live up to the hype (director Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 monster flick The Host was similarly over-praised).You should also be forewarned that it’s rated R for violence, language, and drug content.

If you have seen it and still wondering what exactly it was about, read on.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t like spoilers, stop reading now. Seriously. Massive spoilers below. Stop reading now. Don’t say your weren’t warned.

There are two ways to understand Snowpiercer, the right way and the wrong way. Here’s your guide to both:

The wrong way: As an Occupy Wall Street-style parable about economic inequality.

The right way: As a parable of Darwinian economic and political determinism.

Yes, Snowpiercer is about class warfare. And yes, it is about economic inequality. But it’s not the parable you may assume.

For starters, there is a complete lack of both economic equality and social mobility because none exists in nature. “Curtis, everyone has their preordained position, and everyone is in their place except you,” says Wilford (Ed Harris).

Curtis isn’t in his position anymore because he still believes concepts such as justice and equality have meaning. What he’s missing, as Wilford makes clear, is that equality doesn’t matter. It’s a Darwinian world and what is needed for survival, says Wilford, is balance:

This train is a complete ecosystem which must respect the balance. Air, water, food, people. Everything must be regulated. For this, it was sometimes necessary use more radical solutions.

Wilford goes on to explain that the balance can only be achieved by two ways: Either by natural selection or political manipulation. Over the course of its 18 year history, the train has had three “revolutions” instigated by Wilford and his partner in the back of the train, Gilliam. The two political masterminds understood that they needed to “maintain a balance between anxiety and fear, chaos and horror, for life goes on.”

Class warfare was the ingenious method of maintaining the population. The people in the front of the train can never grown too comfortable, for fear the back might rise up and take their place. And the down-and-out in the back are given just enough hope in a future regime-change that they don’t fall into complete despair.

By having a controlled “revolution” every five years or so, the political manipulators (Wilford and Gilliam) could let the Front and Back kill off just enough people to maintain the balance.

In essence, Wilford and Gilliam accept the validity of Darwinian social determinism, but believe it can be controlled and maintained more “humanely” by implementing a political solution (i.e., planned revolutions that cull the population).

 

The wrong way: Seeing Curtis as the primary hero.

The right way: Seeing Curtis as the secondary villain.

In the beginning of the film, we identify with Curtis and assume he is the hero since he is championing the ideals the audience believes in, such as equality, fairness, and justice. But by the middle of the film we start getting a different impression of Curtis.

Once he allows his loyal friend Edgar to die so that he can capture Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), we realize he has too much of the True Revolutionary about him to be heroic. By the end of the movie we start to see him for what he really is: a man who will do almost anything—even eat human babies—in order to ensure his survival.

Ironically, Curtis discovers that survival requires maintaining the status quo. To survive, Wilford tells him, he must become the new leader.  “Without you, Curtis, humanity ceases to exist.”

After briefly considering the option, Curtis decides that maybe Namgoong Minsoo is right. Maybe it is better for humanity to discard their current polis and take a chance on a return to nature.

 

The wrong way: Thinking Namgoong Minsoo provides a solution.

The right way: Realizing that Namgoong Minsoo is as deluded as Curtis and Wilford.

Namgoong Minsoo is the third way. While Wilford represents the Status Quo and Curtis the Revolutionary Replacement, Minsoo is the Rousseauian anarchist. He doesn’t want to keep the current system and has no illusions that Curtis can offer a better political alternative. Minsoo wants to blow up the system (literally) and return to a Rousseau-style “state of nature.”

This seems reasonable enough until you realize that his “solution” is even more misguided and utopian than the alternatives.

 

The wrong way: Believing it has a happy ending

The right way: Seeing the ending as ‘Christian’ (in a sense)

After Minsoo destroys and derails the train, only two kids survive. The movie ends with Minsoo’s drug-addled teen daughter and a 5-year-old boy from the back of the train staring at a polar bear.

In an interview about that ending, the film’s director Bong Joon-ho says:

The idea of there being multiple generations of people on this train is a key one. There’s an expression in the film: “train baby.” Those are the two kids that survive, the ones that only knew life on the train. Someone like Curtis or Nam, they lived on Earth, then boarded the train. These kids have never known what it was like to step on the earth. So it’s almost like Neil Armstrong touching down on the Moon when they leave the train for the first time. They have no memory of what it’s like to be on the Earth. For them to procreate, it’s going to take a little time. So, for me, it’s a very hopeful ending. But of course there are so many deaths, and so many sacrifices … it’s not so sweet. But those two kids will spread the human race.

Um, no. No they don’t.

I’m a firm believer in authorial (or directorial) intent, but an ending has to fit with all that has come before. And there is simply no way that those two “train babies” could survive and “spread the human race” in a snow-covered barren wasteland. Nobody could. Bear Grylls, the greatest survivor on the planet, could live an extra day. Maybe. Those kids, however, would be eaten by that polar bear within five minutes.

So the end of the movie is really about how one political ideal tried to trump another, while a third destroyed both. And then everyone was eaten by polar bears.

Surprisingly, this makes for a very Christian ending. Snowpiercer is certainly not a “Christian” movie, but it could be considered Christian in the sense that it tells a parable that ends with a Christian truth: there can be no redemption without the Redeemer.

 

The wrong way: Taking this South Korean sci-fi post-apocalyptic thriller too seriously by seeing Big Themes that aren’t really there.

The right way: Not taking this South Korean sci-fi post-apocalyptic thriller too seriously but seeing Big Themes that are (if you look closely) really there.

Update: At National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg engages with my review and disagrees with me about Curtis:

This strikes me as a bit unfair. We learn about his one-time desire to eat babies from a heart-wrenching story told by Curtis himself. He says the thing he hates about himself most is that he knows what people taste like. We learn that he was saved — as in he regained his soul — by seeing the self-sacrifice of Gilliam and others who literally chopped off their own limbs so that lives could be spared and the hungry might eat. Witnessing this act was quite clearly was transformative for Curtis. He was born again as a better man. Carter finds Christian themes in the film. This struck me as the most obvious.

Fair point. Maybe I was being too harsh on Curtis. Goldberg also adds:

As for Gilliam, the most revealing thing he says in the whole film is that Curtis should cut out Wilfred’s tongue the moment he sees him. “Don’t give him a chance to talk to you.” (I’m quoting from memory). That advice implies — I think — that Gilliam is not quite the partner Wilfred thinks he is (and that Carter assumes he is). If Curtis followed Gilliam’s advice, Curtis would have never been clued into Wilfred’s ideological scheme.

When I watched the movie, I missed that line about cutting out Wilfred’s tongue. If that’s true — and Wilfred was lying about their chummy relationship — that would indeed change some of my reading of the film.

What say you, reader? Is Curtis a hero or a villain?


  • http://www.vilepickle.com David

    Perhaps the most over-analyzed film of all time, and it was just released! Take it for what it is: an awesome sci-fi B movie with an absurd premise that happens to have some… interesting… political messages. My expectations were met.

    • Anisa

      I agree; also very condescending to think people won’t “get” the film. It was a good watch. I only left annoyed at the inconsistencies with Edgar’s back story. He remembered eating steak as a baby?

      • penguine

        He remembers eating human meat. That’s why curtis told him to forget the taste. When curtis talks about the people cutting off their arms and legs for people to be able to feed themselves before they got the bug-bars.

  • William Hamblin

    I suspect the train is North Korea and Wilford is the Dear Leader.

  • Dillon Fox

    Excellent analysis my dear Watson.

  • http://ptsnob.com/ Dan Heaton

    Great job with this analysis. I don’t agree with everything you said and like the movie a lot more than you did, but I also think you’re hitting on some key points. The idea of Curtis as the villain who helps to destroy humanity is intriguing.

  • Paul Schumann

    Sounds good, thanks for the review!

  • KateNE

    Found the movie to be entertaining and thought-provoking to be sure. One question, was Curtis’ extreme reaction to what the protein bars were made of (insects, right?) a plot hole? Considering that he admitted to eating babies early on in the train’s existence, it seemed a bit of an over-reaction…

    • Kenshin

      They were cockroaches, and he had been eating them for just under 18 years. i could see that reaction being reasonable.

  • Chris

    Great review.

    I saw Curtis as the primary hero. I see his thinking as purely logical with the intent of ensuring the survival of humanity. When he admitted to cannibalism, he was clearly ashamed of his acts and only acted on his instincts for the sake of preserving himself. The scene where he could either save Edgar or capture Minister Mason was just your classic decision based on saving one person at the expense of everyone else. At the end, we see Curtis sacrifice his arm to fulfill a promise he made to save another passenger’s son. I don’t see how Curtis being a secondary villian is even an option here. After all, it was Chronohead that destroyed the train. It was his bomb that caused the avalanche. If the engine had stopped the train would just coast to a halt and everyone would still be alive.

    It was pretty cut and dried to me, after all the symbolism of course.

  • http://www.farfetching.com Evans McGowan

    Excellent insights and I wish I didn’t have such high expectations going in… I definitely agree on it getting overhyped! I still found it enjoyable and captivating, though. I read Curtis Everett (Curtiss “courteous, polite” mixed with Everett, “hardy, brave”) as the classic Greek tragic-hero: one who does his best in the given circumstance, overcoming the odds only to be eventually overwhelmed by the “fates” or his “destiny” as Wilfred (etymology: “will, peace”) describes it. He makes it to the end only to realize he’s been played… by everyone. Gilliam (an alternate form of William and part of Wilfred’s name… dual role/connection?) does warn Curtis to cut out Wilfred’s tongue and not believe anything he says. Perhaps he doesn’t want Curtis to know he colluded with Wilfred? Or he just knows Wilfred is cunning and will talk his way out of anything (and talk Curtis into taking the job?). I do wonder if Curtis would have accepted his fate if it weren’t for Yona (Hebrew: Dove, and the train did remind me of an “ark” of sorts…) showing him the kid – he wasn’t ready to give up the match to blow up the door/train before then. It came down to the children, and the act Gilliam made to save the baby burns so deeply within Curtis that he remembers it, channeling that memory a la Luke channeling Obi-Wan Kenobi after his death to do what needs to be done… even if it means the whole system must come crumbling down. Our political system is what makes us civilized and yet it also forces us into savagery almost unimaginable in an uncivilized state… a Catch-22. It’s an ambiguous ending (perhaps there were other survivors? Perhaps they could use fire to melt snow and ward of polar bears) save that nature does go on… even if we don’t.

  • Nick

    The movie fails. There was simply no point to the tail section. What balance did the tail section serve?

    • mike

      If you think of the train as a spectrum. You have the dirtypoor on one end and the cleanwealthy in the other. Two opposites of the spectrum. The two ends balance each other out.