One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. – Ecclesiastes 1:4
With everything going on in the world, especially in the last month, Snowpiercer addresses many ideas both familiar and important to a 21st century human being: immigration, voting with your feet, class warfare, resource control.
I saw this movie at the behest of a friend, and we brought our wives along for the ride. What transpired over the next two hours was nothing short of mind bending and a suspension of reality.
I often find that the movies I most enjoy are the ones I’ve never heard of, or seen a trailer for. I had no clue what to expect. That’s what made Cloverfield such a wonderful surprise to me.
It’s a rated R film, but I think it could have easily been PG-13* with the removal of maybe two violent scenes. It’s not an R film in the same sense as Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down; those are completely different breeds of violence. This movie’s violence is 1/10th of those. There’s spattered blood, and unpleasant sounds of violent impact, but not much else in terms of visual gore.
There’s not a single sex scene or stray breast to be found in the entire film, and that’s refreshing considering how porn-ified rated-R movies are becoming in this new century.
Though the movie was comical, and it’s message was obvious, it was done in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. I got the feeling throughout the film that someone was trying to teach me something outside the obvious, and it’s not very often that a modern Hollywood film is trying to teach you anything at all.
To teach an audience is much more risky than trying to shock, entertain, or wow with special effects. I applaud the film’s director and writer, Bong Joon-ho for stepping out with this very different type of story.
If you care anything about world history, politics, social justice, or economics, this movie is for you. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s on iTunes now, and you can rent it for a few dollars. Watch it, then read on.
*Update 08/23/14: After watching it a third time, having my mind cleared after writing this post, I have to take back that PG-13 comment. It’s still on the low spectrum of R, and less gory than the two comparison films I mentioned earlier, but its still deserves its R rating due to some very dark themes and consistent use of bad language.
Spoiler Alert: The rest of this post is filled with movie details, so read on at your own risk.
Chris Evans is a real American hero. I’ll never forget his performance in one of his lesser known roles, Sunshine (2007), and all the times he put either the mission, others, or humanity before himself. If shit hits the fan, I want Chris Evans sent to clean it. Do I want him with me on a mission? I’m not sure, I’m suspicious of strict utilitarians.
The last time I saw Evans, before Snowpiercer, was during the 2013 Oscars when he was wearing a suit with shoulders way to small for him. I know because the same thing has happened to me once, and it’s a sometimes unfortunate part of the tailor trying to make your suit too slim-fit, or lifting a few too many weights and not planning ahead. Anyone with attention to detail can easily spot the difference between a well tailored suit, and a bad one.
Evans’ face and voice have tended to typecast him as an “American hero” type, whether it’s The Human Torch, or Captain America. Had the producers waited a few years, Evans would’ve been cast in Armageddon alongside Bruce Willis. I guarantee it. He would have replaced William Fichtner as Colonel Willie Sharp.
Evans is well aware of his comic book hero status, and when he’s done with is contractual obligations to Marvel, he’s made it clear that he’s pursuing directing. In Snowpiercer, he still plays the American hero, but it’s a bit more nuanced and darker, much like Sunshine, and he’s good at it. Not everyone has the ability to play both Superman and Batman, so more power to him.
There are many other notable and recognizable actors and actresses. As an aside, am I the only one that still distinguishes between those words? I’ve heard the phrase, “She’s a great actor,” so many times that I’m not sure if it’s an effort to be politically correct and to equalize men and women, or if it’s just a matter of ignorance like “I should ‘of’ known.” Someone please let me know.
I’m about as much a film connoisseur as I am a calamari connoisseur, that is to say I’ll order calamari at every restaurant I visit, but I’m not going to travel out of town to try some restaurant’s famous calamari. Even so, I did recognize faces like Tilda Swinton (Chronicles of Narnia) Ed Harris (The Rock), and Jamie Bell (Jumper). I’m not familiar enough with their work to make much comment, with the slight exception of Ed Harris, who’s been around much longer and is quite famous for playing the American villain in his films.
The synopsis of the movie is that a failed chemical solution to global warming, CW-7, has frozen the world, and a remnant of the human population survives aboard a train with a perpetual motion engine. The train was designed by an eccentric billionaire railway tycoon named Wilford — who is basically worshipped like a god — and only incidentally serves to preserve a remnant of humanity due to the over-engineering and excess that the inventor put into the train’s closed-ecosystem. The train is basically a Biosphere 2 experiment that actually worked.
When I left the theater, I was thrilled and confused. Thrilled because of what the movie was saying about the world in which we live, and confused because I’m wasn’t sure I’d never watched a movie as eccentric in it’s delivery. After watching it a second time, I have to say with some confidence, that this is going to be one of those movies that is required watching in a history or human psychology course.
The train is the world, and we are the passengers.
It’s pretty straight forward. The fun part is how the film addresses the nuances of how and why our world works the way it does.
The cars in the trains have multiple meanings. They represent different classes of people, as well as nations themselves, and access to resources.
You have the poor class, the incarcerated class, the police class, the military class, the middle class, and the wealthy. You have first world nations, and you have third world nations. You have nations in control of vast resources, and those just scraping by at the mercy and generosity of the higher classes.
What I found intriguing is how all the classes/nations work together to keep the train running.
The Poor and their future
“For ye have the poor with you always…”
– Jesus, Mark 14:7
You have the the poor, who are basically living in Hell, but you also have the leaders of the poor and you get the sense that whoever runs the train knows that you don’t mind living in Hell, so long as you get to be the Devil.
As the citizen of a developing country, I kind of get what it means to be contented with Hell so long as you’re the Devil. As I look back on Nigeria, I see leaders both political and spiritual that would rather fly private jets to Germany or Saudi Arabia to get treatment, but it doesn’t enter their mind to build a state of the art hospital in their own country. I see a wealthy class who thinks things are “manageable” because they’re able to eat and get those scarce job positions to their relatives. Meanwhile, the country burns around them. There is only growth at the top. No trickle down.
Snowpiercer takes time to addresses the control of information and history, and I think the real life parallels are purposeful and evident, because the movie’s director, Bong Joon-ho, has lived his whole life just south of the most repressed and controlled nation on the planet, North Korea. A country who’s destiny has forever been intertwined with that of South Korea.
Even the aspects of how Wilford is depicted as more-than-human to the poor, mirror what many already know of the world’s most secretive country.
The future of the poor in the film is so often determined by how much access to information they have, and the important characters’ knowledge of past history.
Is it any surprise that the two incarcerated characters — the only incarcerated characters we meet — are addicted to drugs, the same drugs that the wealthy class use with impunity?
The Police/Military Class
I found it peculiar how the police and military classes were more than happy to kill and die for the wealthy classes, so long as they had the right to wield a form of power and kill with impunity.
There are four types of people who join the military. For some, it’s family trade. Others are patriots, eager to serve. Next you have those who just need a job. Then there’s the kind who want the legal means of killing other people. – Jack Reacher (film)
I’ve always said, “If you want out of the cycle of poverty; if you can’t find a job and don’t want to beg on the streets, join the military. They’ll pay you, they’ll feed you, and they’ll house you. You’ll get free medical and dental, and they’ll even give you regular haircuts.” Though, all that comes at a cost, and it’s a roll of the dice as to whether you’ll be the one that pays it. Artillery is no respecter of persons.
The fact is that the police and military classes stand as a buffer between the wealthier classes and everyone else. To force your way up the socio-economic ladder (or into another country) is a violent and destabilizing act, and it’s always met with resistance.
They took our jobs!
The Wealthy Class
The film addresses the idea of divine right. It’s said over and over, that we’re all placed where we are in the cars for a reason. That we must accept our placement on the train, in our own “particular preordained position.”
Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head, you belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. – Mason
It’s an interesting parallel how every once in a while, the wealthy cars are forced to take children from the poor cars to work in the engine, in order to sustain their way of life. The children are small, so they can fit into the tight spaces in the engine, and keep things running smoothly. Why use the rich kids when you can use the poor kids?
The main problem Bernie Madoff had was not that he ripped people off. The people on Wall Street ripped everybody off in 2008 and they all got away with it. The problem Bernie Madoff had was that he ripped off rich people, and that will get you in a lot of trouble, right?
– Cenk Uygur
How much of our American way of life and the price of our goods is possible without sweatshops and child labor in Asia? How much of Dubai is possible without the migrant labor camps?
The delicate ecosystem
“Precisely 74% of you shall die” – Mason
The humans on the train are treated the same way that forests are treated. Every few years, if there’s too much underbrush, a small forest fire to clear it all out is seen as a good thing. If it doesn’t happen naturally, the fire department does it on purpose. These are the constant wars that happen on our planet. These are the constant revolutions that happen on the Snowpiercer.
Every so often, there’s a manufactured uprising that takes place on the train to control the population. Every so often, the conductor of the train must be replaced. Someone new must take the helm and run the world. These represent the rise and fall of superpowers on the world stage.
I consider the the conflicts around the world, and how many of those are “controlled” brush fires, that help avert a major forest fire, like a world war? Is it even possible to avert a major world war, or are they inevitable?
Do long periods of peace lead to laziness, unreliability, narcissism, and entitlement in humans? Do all those vices then lead to large scale sobering conflict? How often does this repeat itself?
How power corrupts
As you watch, you’ll notice how the tail sectioners are introduced to the finer things in life as they move forward. You notice how it makes them soften up a bit.
The old leader says something important, right after officially passing the torch to Curtis:
When you get to the narrow bridge, big gate with a W on it. Wilford’s behind there. Don’t let Wilford talk. Cut out his tongue. – Gilliam
There’s the obvious reason of guarding against being seduced by power, but there’s also the more subtle reasoning that Gilliam has a few things to hide about his complicity with Wilford.
This might be a stretch for some, but I noticed toward the end of the movie when Namgoong Minsoo speaks to Curtis about not wanting to open the last gate, I couldn’t help but tie it to space exploration and realize how silly space exploration seems to people with more immediate and practical concerns.
Minsoo: Thank you for the story, Curtis… But I don’t want to open the gate. You know what I really want? I want to open gates. But not this gate. That one. The gate to the outside world. It’s been frozen shut for 18 years. You might as well call it a wall. But it’s a f***ing gate. Let’s open it and just get the hell out.
Curtis: And freeze to death? What, are you f***ing crazy?
Minsoo: What if we don’t? What if we could survive outside?
Forgive me. I’m the guy who looks at Steve Nash and see’s Robert Zubrin. If you get that comparison, without having to google it, don’t waste any more time and friend me already. I’ll buy you lunch and we’ll talk space exploration.
Generosity and Humanity backfired
The story of how the lowest class boarded the train was that they were never on the train to begin with. The world had already fallen to pieces when Wilford decided to stop and let a band of survivors aboard the train rather than let them freeze to death.
Years later, the poor class no longer cares about the past, and demand equality, better food, and better treatment. They aspire to take over the train entirely. To move forward to the front, to the engine.
I see the same failed generosity of nations toward one another. Wasn’t it the Mujahideen that the USA provided both weapons and training to depose their Soviet invaders, only to have them turn around and declare jihad on the USA years later?
The film shows how both the benefactors and beneficiaries are not completely in the right or the wrong. Rather, there is a complex web of history that doesn’t guarantee that an act of kindness will be repaid or remembered as such when dealing with large groups of people, especially as the old die and the young grow.
I’ve always had an end of the world fantasy scenario play in my head. It’s based on human nature. Say there’s a zombie apocalypse, and you’ve prepared for it by some stroke of luck, foresight, or intelligence. You have a castle or mansion, a hydroponic greenhouse, solar panels, well water, weapons and arms, stockpiles of food, farm animals and horses, and about 10 acres all walled in and secure. You have enough relatives and house staff to run everything and survive this brave new world. Then by chance a band of desperate survivors, on the brink of death comes across your “solar powered castle” (did you see that movie too?).
Out of love and humanity, you allow this group of maybe 50 people to stay with you and live under your protection. They eventually become comfortable, and clean, and used to food and water and shelter, and some sort of communal work.
Now keep in mind that they’re staying in your house. This isn’t public property. This is your actual home. You paid millions for it, using dollars that you worked for while there was still civilization. You were the hard working ant, and they were the carefree grasshopper. You have a deed to the house. You had the foresight to “go green” and live sustainably off-grid. You and your spouse stay in the lavish master bedroom. Your children still have their own rooms in your huge house.
Maybe it isn’t feasible to house 50 extra guests in or near the family quarters, maybe you decide against it out of a desire to protect your family from a group of strangers you don’t know so well. So you provide them with enough tents that the overflow of refugees can stay outside.
Over time, you realize that help isn’t coming. Civilization isn’t coming back. What happens when your now comfortable “guests” have legitimate issues to raise. Does their presence in your private property entitle them to a democratic vote in the event of a disagreement?
Who gets the guns? Probably family members or trusted family friends, probably people living in the actual “castle.” You have some vested interests to preserve, after all. Who makes the rules, is it you, the intelligent and wealthy homeowner? Aren’t you a de-facto king or dictator? Haven’t you just unwittingly created a mini class system? How long will that system last?
Seventeen years after you rescued those desperate band of survivors on the brink of death, who probably are now 100 or more in number due to human reproduction, can you still call them “guests” and kick them out of the safety of your walls?
Seventeen years later, can you still say, “You wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for me,” and they’d still just accept that and simmer down?
I personally see no solution other than surrendering at least part of the ownership of your 10 acre property and instituting some form of government. I see no way of holding your “guests” accountable other than using force of arms. No way of keeping lasting peace without some form of social contract that ensures the possibility of a “flow” between the classes, or the ability for the guests to be able to build themselves more permanent shelters on your property. How much do you tax them? Do you tax them at all?
With the knowledge that the only reason everyone is alive is because of you, and inevitable repeated occasions of ingratitude, insults, whispers, and sedition, how would you feel about sharing your goods and property with everyone else?
If you were a refugee infant who knew nothing of the real world, and you grew up in a tent, while the children of the benevolent millionaire grew up in the castle, how would you perceive the fairness of your situation. How would the next generation after you perceive it?
The movie is about human nature. It’s about our world. It condenses all of human history onto a train.
It’s not your average movie. It’s not traditional storytelling. I kept thinking, they can’t die, they’re a main character! I gave up after the third “important character” was killed.
It’s not pretty. It’s not feel-good, or warm and fuzzy. But it’s a good ride, and you might come out questioning how literally your world runs the way it was depicted in the film.
It’s refreshing to see a movie keep you engaged not by special effects, but by mind-altered storytelling. The movie plays as though you’re watching a normal film, but after having sniffed a good batch of Kronole.