I saw three films in a movie theater this summer, all science fiction. I will say that the last half of Godzilla was entertaining. I’m glad I was able to wake up and enjoy it. I was frankly surprised at how entertained I was while watching Guardians of the Galaxy. In addition to snappy dialogue performed with fearless eccentricity, the film owes a great deal of its success to the seemingly endless references to other sci fi movies. There’s even an allusion to Persis Khambatta’s shaved head in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). But the one movie I really wanted to see held the promise of something unique.
The story of the making and distribution of the film Snowpiercer is just about as good as it gets. Peter Sobczynski reports that a know-it-all distributor demanded significant cuts that were rejected by a filmmaker seeking to protect his artistic vision. In retaliation, the full-length film was given a limited release. Having seen the film a couple of times now, I can honestly state that the film seems a little too long. There is nothing wrong with long films, nothing wrong with patient films. Snowpiercer just runs a little too long.
As to the movie itself, if it was only still in theaters, I would be reluctant to divulge any pertinent plot information. However, I have a legally purchased copy in my video library at Amazon. Therefore, I will be discussing some plot elements and some reveals, including the ending. I do not plan to discuss too many of this movie’s qualities as a film. It is actually quite well made. That being said, Snowpiercer, just like most good science fiction, has a message to deliver. It operates with an ideology. But I find that ideology ultimately confused and problematic. If a movie is going to spend a great deal of time and effort shouting at me, it really should have something worthwhile to say.
I am not familiar with the original source material, a French graphic novel from the early 1980s. That being said, the film begins with an explanatory setup involving the governments of the world dispersing a substance into the atmosphere in order to combat global warming. As one might expect, things don’t quite as planned. The planet is plunged into a deep freeze that kills everyone and everything that doesn’t manage to make it onto a train that has been built by a mysterious billionaire. The narrative picks up in the year 2031, seventeen years after the catastrophe.
From the outset, it is easy to spot a Marxist (or at least anti-capitalist) critique in the making. Not only is there a clear class system at work, but the main henchwoman named Mason looks and sounds a whole lot like Margaret Thatcher, a political figure who played a significant if ultimately symbolic role in transitioning the Brits from a hereditary class system to one based on economic happenstance. As always, Tilda Swinton delivers a quality performance in the role of Mason. Ironically, her performance proves to be something of a distraction. As usual, she is so good that her amazing performance almost prevents one from asking why she is performing a version of Margaret Thatcher in the first place. Is this merely an allusion to cruel autocratic authority? Or, are we supposed to consider a specific set of economic circumstances to be at work?
What we do know in terms of the plot is that previous revolutions have taken place and ultimately failed. They failed because they never made it to the front of the train. The engine houses and is maintained by the mysterious billionaire named Wilford, the ford in the name clearly referencing a certain mode of capitalist production: the industrial assembly line. Before I saw the movie, several websites and movie reviews admonished me to not reveal the embodiment of Wilford. As a result, all sort of imaginings ran through my head, the most promising of which was a Ronald Reagan hologram. But no, the reveal was of something else entirely. I won’t reveal it here because it’s just not that interesting.
Adding further metaphoric layers, Snowpiercer also plays games with gender and taints its villains with a certain queerness. Let me be clear, queer villains are one of my favorite things in the known universe. They strengthen and embolden me. I wish there were more of them, frankly—but only in the service of something interesting, which is not exactly what is at work here. Mason is referred to as sir. This address could harken to a de-gendered military rank seen in other science fiction works. However, there is no respect for this character. In addition to being revealed as an utterly feckless middle-manager, Mason is subject to more than one gratuitous humiliation as the film progresses. No, the male gender address is simply used to further mark this character as unfeminine. It is an insult.
Two other characters are marked as queer. They are unnamed in the actual film, though the internet tells me the characters' names are Franco the Elder and Franco the Younger. While this naming strategy might indicate a familial connection, when the younger one rests his head on the other’s shoulder while gazing up with bedroom eyes, there is more than an implication of an extra-familial relationship. The fact that they are torture buddies—enforcers of punishment on the denizens of the rear cars—only heightens their queer encoding. There is also the fact that Franco the Younger meets his end when he is literally penetrated by a long object, which is a rare mode of death even in such a violent film. Finally, Young Franco’s death transforms the Elder into a super-human killing machine who survives and is resurrected until almost the last frame. In a film like The Road Warrior (1982), this queer villain inspired by vengeance matters at the end, not so much here.
The cast is blessedly multi-racial, multi-national, and multi-lingual. The language translators are deployed throughout the film to extraordinary effect. Director Joon-ho Bong uses the devices to convey a sense of difference without bogging down the dialogue in tiresome gadgetry. Having delivered one of the most charismatic child performances of all time in Billy Elliot (2000), Jaime Bell continues to roam in the adult wilderness of sidekick roles, though competently as usual. The film also could have made better use of the talents of Octavia Spencer and John Hurt. The hero, Curtis, is well played by Chris Evans, who is quite good looking. No, seriously, he is significantly better looking (better nourished, spends more time at the gym) than his comrades. With his full Chernyshevsky-esque beard and natural-fiber coat, Curtis is marked as ready to lead our revolution in the Siberian tundra and assume the mantle of a post-industrial Rakhmetov. But again, the question this time isn’t so much, what is to be done? Rather, why are we doing it?
We learn at the beginning of the film that certain individuals in the back of the train are periodically taken to the front and never seen again. At one point, two children are removed. The revolution begins when the proletariats in the back of the train remove the bottoms (we assume) and string together several empty barrels forming a pipeline that they wedge through the elaborate security car jamming the imprisoning mechanisms and allowing them to overwhelm the abusive guards. Just like the theft of children and Reagan/Thatcher-era references, the inversion of this pipeline alludes to the exploitation of natural resources. What better reason to start a revolution than exploitation? And to be clear, this first act is really quite exciting and the most engaging part of the film by far. After breaking out and releasing some helpful prisoners, the revolutionaries advance a few cars to discover the source of the protein blocks, the only food available to people in the back of the train. Considering what goes into American fast food, I must say that the reveal of the ingredients is the least shocking (or even interesting) part of the film.
The second of four acts, which runs about thirty minutes, contains an elaborate and sustained fight scene truly impressive in its brutality. Four people walked out of the theater during this part of the movie. Having seen it twice now, I am not sure at all what to make of it. Whatever the intent, it is desensitizing. For me, no death afterward, regardless of the character's import, mattered. This effect may be exactly what the filmmaker wanted. However, it’s what happens after the halfway point that I found surprising in its lack of ingenuity. The front cars are simply more spacious and represent a hodgepodge of decadence ranging in theme from the Victorian era to the Gilded Age to a 1980s-style New Years party. The depiction of children in the schoolroom scene actually reminds me of one of the most terrifying films ever made: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Again, showing such recognizable images may well be deliberate on the part of the filmmakers.
It is when the revolutionaries make it to the front of the train that the “truth” is revealed about many things, including what has happened to the children removed from the back of the train. Other various clues scattered throughout the film are admirably brought together. The most interesting revelation is that Wilford at the front of the train is in direct communication with the old revolutionary leader at the very back end of the train. The revolutions, it seems, are negotiated occurrences designed to maintain an equilibrium that allows their survival for a time longer. Every few years, they need to cull the herd.
These deliberate and planned revolutions/slaughters make a lot of sense considering the film doesn’t actually work as a Marxist critique. For one thing, while individuals are taken from the back of the train for various nefarious and exploitive purposes, no one actually produces anything. With one or two exceptions, this group collectively produces neither material nor immaterial commodities. Hence, there is no labor to exploit. All the classes, high and low, merely inhabit and consume. It is possible that consumerism emerges as the real critique by the end of the film. The metaphor whose meaning we have been seeking turns out to be a mirror reflecting an all-consuming culture. We consume sushi and crap, sometimes in the same day. We consume violence. We consume the thrill of civil disobedience and revolution. In a very tiresome monologue, we learn that the protein blocks are actually preferable to the previous food source. In one way or another, all consumption needs are met on the endlessly running train. And thus the real problem with the ending is revealed as the train along with (nearly) all its passengers is destroyed. (I did say I was going to give away the ending.)
Our Siberian hero (with the American accent) has made it to the front of the train only to learn that the leader he trusts in the back is colluding with the semi-mythical nemesis he now confronts. He also learns that his extraordinary leadership skills qualify him to be a potential replacement for the aging engineer. It is true that Curtis’s rejection of his potential role is the result of another Devil’s bargain he discovers has been made—one evocative of Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—to perpetuate the train’s operation. His sacrifice in this moment fulfills one story arc quite nicely, but is not actually connected to the catastrophic conclusion.
In the end, Snowpiercer conflates that which it should separate: revolution and vigilantism. Individual justice trumps social progress. The fate of everyone is consigned to the decisions of a few. Ultimately, the whole concept of class has been abstracted. It is no longer hereditary or monetized or racial (though the front of the train seems decidedly less diverse). People are simply located in a place on a train. What an interesting vehicle for considering class this film should have been. Yet the film doesn’t allow for the possibility of a rearranged social order, much less an understanding of why this outcome is inevitable. The Snowpiercer ideology is a null ideology. It is meaningless and nihilistic.
About halfway through Snowpiercer, the film stops asking questions and starts answering them. We learn what’s in the food. We learn how the upper classes live. We learn what happened to the children. We learn other things as well. Curtis, our hero, is a good guy: thoughtful, troubled, and competent. But none of that matters to the outcome. Perhaps, in that instance, the film actually is a mirror to the audience. The end of a consumer culture is its consumption, which is interesting considering that in the last shot, I was almost expecting to see a Christmas-time Coca Cola commercial.