I need to put it on record that I reject the phrase “income inequality” as one of the most bloodless euphemisms for the immiseration of the working class you can find. Like the word “middle class” it skates over the core issues of how capitalist social relations enrich a small minority at the expense of the great majority. It’s also a phrase that has enjoyed an awkward stint in the spotlight lately, with bestselling books, documentary and fiction films, and almost incessant news coverage since it became clear that “economic recovery” is never relevant concept to the vast majority. Even comparatively well-off First World workers have experienced only dim prospects, and the state of proletarian politics in the United States, despite all of this publicity, has remained dire.
Snowpiercer can’t be pigeonholed as a populist thriller, since it is luckily much more eccentric than didactic. Loosely adapting a French graphic novel, writer-director Bong Joon Ho guides us through the cars of a perpetual motion train containing all of Earth’s remaining population. Everyone outside froze to death after a misguided geo-engineering project goes awry, leaving most of the people who survived in the grip of a social Darwinist ruling class who are unafraid of using drastic measures to keep the train’s population in check. At the time of the film, there had already been several failed revolutions aimed at evening the score. Now, a new crew of agitators led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) make another attempt. Almost all of the film takes place in the metallic confines of the train, and the narrative progresses in a linear fashion from what is essentially the ghetto caboose to the opulent front cars. Formally, the film is largely effective, mixing visual styles and a variety of camera techniques that, while eclectic and sometimes disorienting, keep the film comprehensible and compelling on a surface level. For the first half or so, as the filmmakers illuminate the passengers’ suffering and their early encounters with the fascist thugs sent to pacify or exterminate them, Snowpiercer shows flashes of brilliance. Over time, however, its ability to surprise or even entertain diminishes, to the point where I had lost all interest in the final minutes. By that time, the film I had started watching two hours earlier was no longer running and another, far more banal, work had taken its place. Suffice to say that it changes from a story about an entire society to a story about one man’s revenge against another man, and the scope of the story progressively narrow, losing sight of its original stakes until the ending moves in several incompatible directions, muddying what should be clear as crystal.
Early scenes do a magnificent job of elucidating the fascist nature of the train. Exploiters at the front of the train live in a constant state of crisis; their resources are limited and, while they cannot exterminate the back passengers, they need to keep them in check. A charismatic leader named Wilford (Ed Harris) forms the literal and formal head of the train, and though he lives in a palatial front car, he imagines himself equally burdened by his responsibilities. Far from some cynical profiteer, he now imagines himself as the savior of humanity, who, like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, happens to be in the train business. His mental labor is all that appears in his accounting; without him, there would be nothing left but snow and ice. When Tilda Swinton’s Mason, a kind of liaison between the front and back cars, appears early in the film, every word from her mouth is blatant mystification. Everything about the train appears divine to the people at the front, all flowing from the Gnostic mind at the front. Of course, the concrete fact of the train’s brutality is glaringly apparent to the less fortunate passengers. I would argue that Mason and Wilford are true believers, convinced in mind and body that they are the upholders of a righteous order in which all have their proper place. And though the perpetual motion engine at the front of the train is a marvel of engineering, Wilford and Mason––and the rest of the privileged passengers––treat it as a mystical artifact, an uncreated deity with its own consciousness. To an extent, the revolutionaries also fixate on the engine, but only in a far more pragmatic way, as the final goal they need to capture. This reading is complicated by the end of the film, which (literally) ruptures the entire story, but it holds strong for most of the running time.
Snowpiercer spends much of its time showing the audience how Wilford and the Engine’s fetish cult is transmitted and reinforced, including a wild, absurd scene in a schoolroom. Under the guidance of the chipper teacher (Alison Pill), the children watch propaganda videos, sing jingoistic songs, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into their studies. They’re not too recognizable as schoolchildren, and bear more resemblance to what 1950s educational films thought children should be like, but it’s an unnerving, insightful scene nonetheless.
At first, I hesitated to classify the train’s social relations in a strictly Marxist fashion, since the back passengers were not producing surplus value or profits for the front cars. However, this could not have been more mistaken, based on a reductive and misplaced notion of what surplus value could mean. In particular, I overlooked the fact that the front cars seemed to have a routine “draft” in place, taking children from their mothers to keep the system going. In that way, the people of the back, especially the women, reproduced the system quite literally, providing an expendable surplus that had to be managed but ultimately served the decadence of the front. The film even has a mother named Tanya (Octavia Spencer) who plays a major role in the fighting, though the manner in which she dies irks me to no end. She dies as a sacrifice so that our white savior and protagonist can advance, and unfortunately the film largely focuses on his own personal struggle to the detriment of the people he fights with, to the point of showing them as helpless victims once the end of the journey approaches.
Despite the film’s endorsement of revolutionary violence, it has a terribly loose grasp of combat strategy and tactics. Because the film ultimately focuses on Chris Evans’ character and one or two other major players, it loses interest in the revolutionary war fairly quickly. This dulls the drama and, more importantly, makes the characters of Snowpiercer look like bumblers. They ignore obvious traps, make no precautions to protect gains they’ve already made, and send almost no forces forward to the front for no discernible reason other than dramatic convenience. Bong Joon Ho and company would rather take us on a photogenic tour of the front cars than show the inevitable bloodbath that would ensue. It certainly makes the people more believable as helpless victims, but exposes them as cut-rate revolutionaries. Paired with a late-film plot twist torn straight from The Matrix Reloaded’s Architect scene, it almost obliterated my political enthusiasm for the movie.
All the same, it would not do to dismiss Snowpiercer out of hand. It’s rare enough to see films with even this rudimentary consciousness at work, particularly in a commercial setting, and its opening scenes are truly excellent in formal and political terms. Alternately ridiculous and sublime, clunky and tight-wound, it’s a decidedly mixed work that remains largely enjoyable, especially compared to pseudo-progressive schlock like The Wolf of Wall Street. For future reference, I am planning on doing critical surgery on that debacle within the next year, so keep watch.