Humanity does not operate under the same inherent restrictions as the rest of nature. It bends nature to its will, breaking the rules that govern otherwise unregulated populations in the wild, throwing off population and resource balances to feed it’s wants. At the same time, while mankind harnessed the knowledge of mechanical engineering, we fail to accept or even acknowledge the applicability of these tenants to our own existence. We know and understand how the world works on a biological and mechanical level, but we live outside of it, in opposition to it. Passion, morality, and something we call “justice’ are our guiding principles, even when they create irreconcilable conflicts with the rules of the universe.
It is lucky, then, that we live in a world of plenty that gives us a level of elasticity in terms of the backlash that will visit us for our appetites. You, Snowpiercer, posit a world in which that comforting buffer of plenty is removed by an eternal winter, then you sit back and watch as the laws of nature slowly begin to tighten a noose on the small clutch of survivors left alive. Using an entertaining mix of science fiction and action elements you smuggle a terrifying and effective tale of humanity’s basic weakness into our cinemas, springing it on an audience that is most likely woefully underprepared to receive it.
It’s a sneak attack of social commentary that operates all the more effectively because it wraps itself in the bloody rags of a rousing revolutionary tale. The Snowpiercer is a perpetually running train that traverses the whole globe, which has been left long dead since an attempt to cure global warming results in a never-ending winter that has ended all life on earth. At the head of the train is the sacred engine, the mechanism by which life is even possible. Also at the front of the train are the rich and privileged, the passengers who were able to buy a ticket back when the train was a luxury liner. The rest of the train is stocked with fully-functioning ecosystems and machines to provide for every possible want, all balanced in perfect harmony.
Sitting at the end of this so-called rattling ark is the tail section, a collection of 1,000 steerage-class refugees who live in filth and squalor, subsisting on protein bars of dubious provenance provided by heavily armed guards. This indignity is compounded by the way that their numbers are thinned now and then by the people up front, demanding skilled entertainers to play music for them, or children for so unknown purpose best left unguessed. To the people up front the citizens of the tale are just another pool of resources to be pulled from. It’s a pressure cooker environment that boils over, resulting in a violent revolution led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and Gilliam (John Hurt).
You tell the story of this rush toward freedom in a way that is both engrossing and deeply unsettling. Your director, Bong Joon-ho, who co-wrote your script with Kelly Masterson, has an almost sadistic sense of tone and pacing. The world of the tail section is established so ruthlessly and fully that by the time the turning of the crank finally snaps the wires holding chaos at bay, one can barely refrain from cheering as though the men on the screen were fighting in the name of those watching in the audience. The camera work, sound design, and the performances all conspire to elicit a sense of divine purpose to the “Curtis Rebellion.”
It all feels communal and righteous and earnest, but the more the fighting goes on and the more that the exhaustion sets in, the more we begin to see the truth under it all. In this world, not just the world of the movie but the world in which we live, all communal efforts are only contingent upon the shared destination of everyone moving with an otherwise personal force. It may seem as though the battle here is just between the haves and the have-nots, but in reality the battle is comprised of as many sides as there are individuals to fight it. Lovers avenging their fallen partners, parents looking for their stolen children, soldiers hoping to maintain order, the powerful looking to keep their control, hungry people in search of bread, beaten prisoners looking to strike at their warden, junkies working for a fix. These are our warriors. These are our armies.
The twists and turns of the plot are harrowing and riveting. The visuals are stunning and visceral. The music is perfectly matched to the tone. But the real draw to you, after two viewings, are the ideas at play. The questions posed, all of them embodied by actors who seem to be drawing from different genres but all of whom bring their best and somehow create a stirring and cohesive portrait of a world brought under an incredible strain. Their stories are at once hilarious, heartbreaking, and infuriating. It’s compelling, its entertaining, its a good time at the movies that warps and twists and curdles into bitter intellectual poison.
The most ingenious aspect on display here is how everyone eventually betrays their supposed side. The broader dogmatic rules of the war are thrown to the side when personal desire comes to the fore. So as the numbers of our warriors gets winnowed down, the will of the respective movements is replaced by the objectives of fewer and fewer people. A societal tale becomes a deeply personal vendetta. Two men who sit at the table to hash our the resolution of a conflict are not representatives of their given causes, but the arbiters of their own desires, as it is at the end of all wars.
A train only has one engine which pulls all cars forward in the same direction, but humanity is not a train. In truth, the concept of humanity barely even exists as we see it. If the billions of collective entities which comprise the illusion of humanity move in the same direction, it can be attributed more to chance than to any collective will.
You create a harrowing vision of the future, Snowpiercer, one made all the more unbearable to contemplate by how true it is to our present.
With terrified respect,
Brian J. Roan