Sunday, 20 July 2014

Snowpiercer: Is Revolution Justified?

Joonho Bong's Snowpiercer has been the subject of much discussion among movie bloggers recently. It's an interesting film, although a bit strange at times. It's certainly got a lot of interesting stuff going on although you could argue it has its flaws. I'll confess that the film could have benefited from having a stronger female presence, arguably on both sides. I mean, are they really discriminating by gender under these circumstances?

On the one side we never see a single female soldier working for Wilford even though given how limited their people are you'd think they'd take anyone who could pick up a gun. There are a few women who wield guns on the enemy side but half the time they only seem to come in when they're really needed.

On the other, we've got these revolutionaries going up against impossible odds and there's only two women in the group? One of whom they only took because it was a condition to get a man they needed to co-operate. I would have thought given their circumstances they'd need all the help they could get. Were there really no other women in that group of people who were willing to help?

Still, that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm more interested in looking at the themes of this movie. Everyone's been doing a review on this film, it's good, it's bad, so if I'm going to discuss it I'm going to find something new. As strange as it may have gotten at times it was certainly compelling, with some interesting visuals and creative environments, but at first it looks like it's just going to conform to the standards of a typical dystopian narrative.

It's an age-old formula: a dark world run by an oppressive government who lives in luxury while the working class lives in horrible conditions. One way or another, a hero is forced to stand up to the ruling parties, starting a revolution and ultimately making way for a better future. We've seen this plenty of films: Metropolis, Alphaville, Logan's RunThe Running Man, Total Recall, Dark CityThe Hunger Games, ElysiumDivergent. In fact if anything it's harder to find dystopian movies that don't conform to this formula than to find ones that do.

At first glance, Snowpiercer looks like it's going to do this same kind of thing, but with the twist that it's all happening on a train. To take over the train (which also means the world given the circumstances), you have to take over the engine. Since our heroes are in the very back of the train, that means they have to go through each car to get there.

In the last few cars the main characters are living in horrible conditions. They are regimented by soldiers, living in cramped conditions, fed nothing but "protein bars" (and that came later on, Curtis talks about how they initially had to resort to cannibalism). They are forced to present their children, some of whom are measured and then taken away without explanation. Admittedly, the reasons why turned out to be slightly more bearable than my imagination, since I initially assumed that Mason had resorted to using children as a source of food.

Still, it seems very clear-cut. Mason is apparently running the train, making what seem to be excuses to keep her in power. She presents an analogy in which she talks about how you wouldn't wear a shoe on your head, because it belongs on your foot: according to her, the people in the back are the shoes, she is "a hat" and that everyone has their place where they have to be to keep things working. Naturally, Curtis doesn't take any of that and the revolution commences.

At first it's a success, but already things are getting risky. Curtis correctly deduces that the soldiers don't actually have any bullets because they "went extinct" years ago and the guns are meant more as a psychological weapon than a physical one. It seems very much that they know full well they have no chance but are still doing whatever is necessary to maintain power. Still, in order to test his theory, Curtis has to literally force a guard to try shooting him. If he was wrong, it would have been a disaster.

The guards are easily overpowered and the crew begins working their way through the train, but things get increasingly dangerous. They manage to recover the designer of the train's security systems and bribe him to help get to the engine, but that proves to be easier said than done when the next big obstacle turns out to be a single hallway full of large men with axes. The result is more or less complete and utter chaos. Both sides suffer heavy losses. A large portion of the rear passengers are killed (and as punishment, even more are executed). By this point most of his people are dead (including a close friend), but Curtis has no choice but to keep pushing on.

Meanwhile, Mason acts like a dirty coward. One of her officers is caught and the man holding him demands they surrender. The officer pleads for them to comply so that he might live, but Mason is barely phased by his throat being cut open. She is captured without much trouble, at which point she resorts to pleading for her life. They take her with them for a short time and she does reveal information that they didn't have access to (why their plan to use the water supply to influence negotiations wouldn't have worked, for instance), but it soon becomes clear that she's not actually in charge.

It's all the mysterious "Wilford" who runs the engine, and to whom she answers. If anything, the way she stubbornly talks about how "merciful" he is, it almost seems as though she herself has been brainwashed into believing in this system, much like the kids seen when the group is led into a classroom. This area provides quite the contrast to everything seen before it. It's all bright and colorful, with a very cheerful atmosphere, which makes quite a leap from the bleak, grey world seen before.

Many of the kids say horrible things about the people in the rear. The pregnant teacher is delightfully teaching them about how important the train is and how without they'd "all freeze and die", singing songs about it and having it happily pointed out when they pass by several frozen corpses just to make sure that the kids understand the severity of the situation.

Furthermore, the staff also has no objection to setting up a massacre of the revolutionaries right here in plain view of the children. Even the teacher pulls out a gun, which brings us to one particularly brutal moment when she is dispatched by one of the protagonists throwing a knife into her throat. This particular moment is one that does lead to a questioning of the morality of the situation: specifically just how much is too much?

It's cost most of his people just to get Curtis this far. Now his same people have had to resort to stabbing a pregnant woman (killing both her and by extension the baby). That's not exactly a moral thing to be forced to do. In addition, it's around this point that they end up murdering Mason in cold blood. These are still the "good guys" who have to do this.

They're not exactly great people to begin with either. Curtis wants to redeem himself but he does explain that he's done a lot of horrible things in his life just to survive, and ultimately that's what it's really come down to. By this point it's less about right and wrong, and more about trying to stay alive and keep going at all costs. This may have started as a revolution but even the "good guys" have to do horrible things and suddenly they don't seem so good anymore

As the revolution proceeds, things get increasingly heated. We see them pass through car after car full of people living in luxurious lifestyles, many of which start to feel a lot less like the desperate struggle to survive established at the beginning. Nearly everyone that remains of Curtis's followers are killed by a seemingly invincible henchman, and suddenly it comes down to him alone. He finally reaches the engine, at which point he gets into conflict with the one guy who remains when it turns out he had an entirely different plan: stocking up on a flammable substance to blow a hole in the train and escape.

Now this film could have easily gone in a different direction, but the way it opted to go is a fascinating one. Curtis makes it to the engine alone, where he meets Wilford, who turns out just to be a human being despite all the buildup. The Engine turns out to seem quite pleasant, it's private, and fairly spacious, although there is some discomfort with Wilford's assistant constantly pointing a gun at Curtis.

Now Curtis wanted to bring equality to the train, but in the end it turns out that's not possible. The whole revolution was planned from the beginning. Wilford was working with one of the key players in the revolution to make it happen the way it did. The sad thing is ultimately Curtis has to face the brutal reality: the hierarchy established really is the best way to keep the train going and to preserve order. There is no alternative; they even have to resort to child labor because there's no way to replace certain parts. Taking over the train, as Wilford wanted, would mean simply taking his place.

This is certainly something that often becomes a problem with real revolutions. The French Revolution, for example, was supposed to overthrow a tyrant, but ended up using fear to incite support and when it was over one of its key players took power and brought about a reign of terror perhaps even worse than what came before. Arguably the same deal with the Russian Revolution, which was meant to liberate the people, then Lenin died and Stalin managed to work his way into power, becoming one of the most brutal dictators in history.

Even with the most noble intent, revolutions are prone to corruption and often end with just a change in power followed by things going back to the way they were before, if not in fact worse. Similar themes were explored in the movie Duck, You Sucker by Sergio Leone, which also had a scene where Rod Steiger goes on an extended rant about this very subject.

Now, this film could have ended like any dystopian narrative, but it's interesting that it opted for something different. There is no optimistic outcome. If anything, the film ends on a very ambiguous note, wherein the train is destroyed. It creates a massive wreck, some of its cars fall over cliffs and tumble around. Only two characters are explicitly shown to survive, we never find out if anyone else did, and it's not clear what their future is.

Considering the damage done it's very likely that a lot of people were killed. That aquarium was probably destroyed, along with the gardens, and it was explicitly said that no life remained on Earth (although the presence of a polar bear suggests the faint possibility that isn't completely true). One man had found evidence that the snow was melting, perhaps if this revolution had never happened the train would still be running by the time the snow finally melted enough that life could be restored. As it stands, we can only speculate on just how much good or harm it really did.


  1. A brilliant article John :) I just had to watch this after seeing nearly every blogger I follow review it. I found it pretty odd at times too, but I learnt that it's based on a French graphic novel, and that justified it a bit for me.
    - Allie

    1. I didn't realize this film was based on a graphic novel until I found some pictures while collecting stills for the article.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Great write up! It was definitely odd, but I enjoyed it so much. I liked how really no one on that train was innocent. It seemed kind of fitting for the situation. But you're right about a stronger female presence. (Though I did love seeing Octavia Spencer beat some people with a tire iron.)

    1. I suppose you could argue that if anything, the fact that nobody was truly innocent made Curtis's ambitions all the more meaningful, since I got the impression that the whole time he's been trying to redeem himself for the things he resorted to doing (murdering an innocent woman, resorting to cannibalism) after the apocalypse happened.

  3. Brilliant write up, it was a very unusual film, but I had such a blast watching it. I loved the inner themes and that the main female protagonist was Octavia Spencer.
    My favourite scene was the bit with Alison Pill haha.

    1. Yes, that scene was pretty weird. It was interesting how they made use of such jarringly bright colors after the very drab look of everything before.

  4. Great review John. Your review was of Snowpiercer was one of the best I've read on this movie.

    1. Well, it's not really a review. Often with new release movies, especially ones that are getting talked about a lot, I like to try and find other things to say than just whether the film was good or bad, in this case doing more of an analysis.

      I did a similar approach after seeing Under the Skin, where instead of writing a straight-up review I wrote an analysis of its central character.

      Still, thank you for your feedback. I'm glad you enjoyed my little study of this rather peculiar film.