Following in the footsteps of recent allegorical and dystopian films such as The Hunger Games and Elysium, Bong Joon-Ho’s summer blockbuster Snowpiercer offers a scathing critique of today’s status quo. Loosely based on a French comic book from the 1980s, the film is being heralded as an exciting repudiation of the deep and devastating social inequality of our times. Indeed, Snowpiercer’s dramatization of armed class struggle will resonate with a wide variety of contemporary viewers. Unfortunately, Snowpiercer is a mediocre movie, at best.
At times it is heavy-handed, illogical and outright sloppy. The film is saved, however, by its imaginative conclusion which challenges audiences to critically reflect on strategies for social change. Thus, despite its flaws, Snowpiercer remains a revolutionary film worth watching.
Snowpiercer is set in 2031, 17 years after an attempt to reverse global warming backfired and left the earth a frozen and uninhabitable wasteland. Predicting that humans would fail to stop global warming, an engineer named Wilford (Ed Harris) constructed a 1001-car passenger train that could accommodate a number of survivors as it perpetually circled the globe. The survivors, known as “passengers,” were issued different tickets: the elite inhabited the comfortable and luxurious front of the train while the poor masses were relegated to the overcrowded tail.
Those in the tail lack any form of meaningful social mobility. The train is managed on behalf of those in the front by a Margaret Thatcher-esque character named Mason (Tilda Swinton) who rules over the train with an indomitable iron fist. She constantly preaches at those in the tail to simply accept their lower-class status. Nevertheless, a resistance movement is organized by Gilliam (John Hurt) and led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans of Captain America fame) after passengers from the front of the train steal a boy away from his mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer) in the tail.
In a series of carefully calculated attacks, Everett’s team of revolutionaries, which includes mechanic Namgoong Minsue and his girlfriend Yona, push through the different compartments of the train. Facing a new form of repression from elite mercenaries in every car, the rebels make their way to the front where they kill Mason and gain access to the engine controlled by Wilford. In the engine room, the rebels learn that the train’s operation relies on the slave labour of children, including that of Tanya’s stolen son, Tim (Marcanthonee Reis).
Where Snowpiercer departs from the usual dystopian sci-fi flick is in its unexpected conclusion. It appears that the film will end with Everett, the white male lead, rescuing the exploited children and taking control of the train in a “the last shall be first” moment of revolutionary triumphalism. Instead, the film subverts the audience’s expectations and offers an alternative resolution. Once Everett confronts Wilford, he is shocked to learn that Gilliam actually helped organize the resistance as part of a larger plan to depopulate the tail to restore the train’s necessary balance. Wilford then offers Everett a leadership role with perks in exchange for ensuring that the train’s status quo will continue in perpetuity. Instead, Everett refuses and sabotages the train, killing almost everyone on board, in an effort to derail its current course. In the end, Tim and Yona – interestingly both people of colour – are cast as the only survivors. These two then leave the train to face almost certain death in the cold, only to discover that there are signs of life outside the narrow confines of the train.
Snowpiercer, then, not only asks audiences to reflect on the nature of today’s social inequality but also to radically rethink the tactics and strategies of popular struggle. The film’s final message can be read as a damning critique of the seemingly narrowminded and dead-end strategy of attempting only to reform capitalism rather than fighting to establish genuine socialist alternatives. In doing so, it derails both cinematic expectations and the status quo.
This article appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Canadian Dimension .