Snowpiercer seems to wear its allegiance to past film dystopias on its sleeve: the wise old man played by John Hurt is named Gilliam, which for all I know may be straight from the French graphic novel, Transperceneige, that the film is based on, but given the look and feel of the thing certainly brings to mind Terry Gilliam’s black comedy version of Orwell, Brazil (1985). It hearkens back to the dark junkyard aesthetic of Brazil and of Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen (1991), with which it also shares the theme of cannibalism. As an action film it also calls to mind another grungy post-apocalypse of yesteryear, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), with filthy teeth everywhere and a grim, tormented anti-hero (played here by Chris Evans) at the center of the storm, not to mention a train hurtling across a desolate landscape. But in Snowpiercer the train is the whole world, and director Bong Joon-ho has created from these familiar scraps a deeply-layered world of his own.
This is a carefully structured movie that is even better the second time through, because Bong has built things in such a way as to expose deeper layers once you’ve been through the story once. Structurally there’s so much going on it’s difficult to unpack it. The train works as a metaphor for a lot of different things, and not just a metaphor but a symbol. There’s the socioeconomic symbolism in which the lower classes are in the rear of the train, the middle classes in the middle, and the Randian genius-engineer Willeford (Ed Harris) in the engine car. There’s the narrative metaphor in which the rear, middle, and head of the train represent the beginning, middle, and end of the story. There’s the film symbolism in which each car is like a frame of film, each frame necessary to create the illusion of continuous motion. There’s the videogame metaphor in which each car represents a new level in the game that has to be conquered before the players can move on to the next car/level, with the promise of final victory at the top level.
Bong’s got a lot on his mind in this complicated set-up. We learn right away that humanity tried to solve the problem of global warming by releasing carbon-capturing chemicals into the atmosphere, and that this caused the world to freeze, killing almost all life on the planet. The only surviving life is on a train endlessly circling the frozen globe. So humanity has killed the environment, and now is reduced to exploiting itself in the pocket universe of the train. The rulers of the train exploit those in the rear in a brutal, authoritarian fashion. This drives the exploited to revolution, which is just as brutal as the oppression. The action of the film is painfully, gruesomely violent, which in the end seems to be considered the nature of the human beast. Torturing, exploiting, and killing is what we do. This is not a happy, feelgood story. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and thus it’s all about who is the top dog.
Global warming isn’t the only environmental idea explored, but the attitude toward environmentalism is ambivalent. Humans destroyed the world through technological hubris, thinking they could fix a problem by applying more of the same industrial methods that caused the problem in the first place. Furthermore, on the train the rulers, especially Wilford, are environmentally aware. They know their closed ecosystem requires a fine balance, with everything carefully controlled so that all the right elements are in the right place in the right numbers. This is how the social stratification is justified: it’s a way to balance the environment. So, as in Ken MacLeod’s novels, there’s a sense that environmentalism is a reactionary, conservative mindset. Conservation is conservative.
Indeed, politically the film comes close to nihilism. It’s a look at the heart of darkness, and there are no real heroes in it — or at least the heroes aren’t good people. People will do anything to survive (an attitude played to the comic hilt by Tilda Swinton as Wilford’s vicious and cowardly lieutenant, Mason), and the irony of it is that the will to live is ultimately a self-consuming, cannibalistic process. Global warming is only one example of how the will to survive and increase causes extinction. The film explores the alternative of altruism, in which self-sacrifice of the individual allows the group to survive, but ultimately altruism is shown to be a temporary strategy that does not create ecological balance. A deeper death instinct is at work, and if Bong finds a kind of human comedy in this fact, it’s definitely the nightmarish kind. Laughs that stab. In the end, people have behaved very badly toward each other, and there’s no escaping the hunger driving that bad behavior.
I say the film comes close to nihilism, but I do think the sense of humor prevents it from complete nihilism (as opposed to The Rover, for example). Wilford is only one of the many ways in which the story seems to comment on itself as a story, and he is nothing if not an Author figure. Wilford is a monster, but he really does seem to understand how the world works. He has a sense of wonder regarding his own creation that seems to reflect Bong’s own attitude toward the film. There is something beautiful about this crazy nightmare that no one, not even the author, is in complete control of. The very final image is one of both wonder and deadly danger. Life goes on, but not all life.