Mankind is Something to be Overcome: A Review of Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer poster. Via.

Somewhat to my surprise, since I’d already seen a movie this year, I found myself seeing Snowpiercer this past weekend. I am still not sure what to make of it; it’s a hodge-podge. The film is based on a French comic book (Le Transpierceneige, created by Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand), directed by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, produced by Korean producer Park Chan-wook, (among others), filmed in a studio in the Czech Republic with glacial shots done in Austria, starring a cast of mostly quite famous American and British actors with a few Korean faces thrown in for good measure—names you might recognize include Chris Evans[0], Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and John Hurt. If you’re into Korean films, you’ll recognize some of those actors as well–Song Kang-ho is kind of a big deal. Or if you’re face blind it will all be kind of a weird mishmash to you. Sorry.

Let’s go to the synopsis. Warning, this review contains spoilers for basically every major plot point.

The film kicks off in the rearmost compartment of a train. Following an attempt to stop global warming around 2014, the last remnants of humanity are crammed onto a high-speed train that circles the globe at a rate of once per year. After eighteen years of this, Curtis (Evans) has had enough; after watching an unidentified woman in a yellow jacket take two of the tail car’s children for unknown purposes, he decides it is time to launch a revolution. Accompanied by his gang of misfits, including an 18-year old kid named Edgar[1], an old man with only one arm and one leg named Gilliam, an angry black woman named Tanya (mother to one of the taken children, Timmy), a sad and wild-haired man named Andrew who has one arm (father to the other taken kid), and a sassy tattooed martial artist called Grey, they kill a bunch of the guards and manage to burst into the prison car where they release Namgoong Minsoo, designer of the locks on the train car doors. They offer him drugs (a solid industrial waste product called Kronol) in exchange for him opening the doors on the way to the engine.

As an aside, it seems weird to have a) have the prison car between the tail and the rest of the train, and b) have the guy who designed the locks in prison. If the prisoners are all in suspended animation, it’s a shorter trip for the guards if the “economy class” car is before the prison. And wouldn’t you want to keep the lock designer happy to prevent him doing EXACTLY WHAT HE IS ABOUT TO DO?

Anyway, Namgoong lets his daughter (Yona) out of another cell and they agree to head for the front of the train, although Namgoong makes it clear that this isn’t his first choice. A few cars later, after discovering what goes into the protein blocks (hint: not the stolen children, as I initially assumed), they get into a long and bloody battle with axe-wielding guards in scary knit balaclavas. The cinematography here is really great—the train goes through a tunnel, giving the director an excuse to shoot in “night vision” as well as regular light, and the fight choreography is similar to the hammer scene from Oldboy.[2] At the end of the fight, Curtis chooses to let Edgar die in order to capture Minister Mason, who is apparently the only government official on the train and who acts as a go-between from “the people” to Wilford (the engineer/train owner). There are several interesting set pieces as they continue to advance up the train, but I don’t really want to summarize everything. The short version is that it is repeatedly impressed upon them that the train is a closed ecosystem—like the biosphere experiment—and balance must be maintained. A bunch of Cutris’s friends die, because that’s what happens in ensemble films with multi-racial casts. And then, just like that, the survivors (Curtis, Namgoong, and Yona) are outside Wilford’s (played by the amazing/creepy Ed Harris) door.

Let’s talk about Wilford for a minute. His name is very interesting to me—a combination of “will,” which brings to mind all kinds of Nietzschean imagery (the will to power, i.e. Nietzsche’s conception of ambition, whatever it is that drives humans to be all they can be), and “Ford,” which brings us around to “Fordism,” which is either a clever way of expanding the market for your product by bringing your workers into the middle class or a truly diabolical way to keep your workers impoverished by encouraging them to buy the very product that they’re making (further separating them from the means of production as you go) and convincing them it’s all their idea.[3] Having become an overman[4], Wilford is not interested (as Zarathustara was) in educating the people about overcoming man (or Christianity, I guess). Instead, Wilford has recreated the world within the train, and it’s a peculiarly Calvinist one he’s come up with. As has been reinforced throughout the film, people are born into a role and remain there until they die.[5] Everything that happens on the train is essentially under his absolute control.

At this point, the revelation that Curtis’s little revolution was stage-managed by Wilford should come as no surprise to the viewer. Curtis gets, in a short span of time, offered the opportunity to take over for Wilford (because he’s also an overman, I guess, or because Wilford likes the cut of Curtis’s jib or something), and he finds out what has happened to the missing children (hint: the train is running out of pieces). The camera pulls back a bit and gives Chris Evans a chance to really ACT. Curtis has eaten babies, seen his friends die, seen children put into small compartments to perform questionable feats of engineering. . . it has been a rough couple of days. And then, suddenly, we are reminded that Namgoong and his daughter are still in the hall outside Wilford’s room, and Namgoong is planning to use the Kronol to blow a hole in the side of the train to escape through.[6]

So here we have a choice presented to our hero. Side with the power, the authority, the DEITY of the train, or side with the tiny, crazy, chaotic element against the authority and all it stands for. On the one hand, a dictatorship is not a great way to live, but they are surviving under Wilford’s leadership, and arguably his choices are. . . at least somewhat necessary. On the other hand, they’re not really living, sitting in darkened bunks day after day as the world clicks by under their feet—the world they inhabit is not one that affords them access to the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences.[7] And—well, live free or die hard, baby.

Curtis of course makes the choice to choose anarchy instead of autocracy, and he and Namgoong huddle together to protect Yuna and Timmy (remember Timmy?) from the explosion. The train derails, killing (probably) everyone except the kids.[8] A few minutes later, we see Yuna and Timmy regain consciousness and step out into the snow, where they see. . . a polar bear, proof that life has, as Ian Malcolm put it, found a way.

Act, Chris, act! Earn that Oscar nod! Via.

Aside from the fact that if you are seventeen years old and have lived on a train all your life, you are probably unprepared to deal with the realities of meeting a polar bear in the wild, what does this ending actually suggest to us? Of course, opposing autocracy is portrayed as a brave and bold move, but the result is not so much anarchy or freedom as desolation. Even if the earth is now inhabitable again, two people do not a gene pool make. And of course the actions of the anarchists may have in some limited sense have aided a few people, but Curtis and Namgoong just killed an awful lot of people who were not given a vote on what they’d like to see happen. In a certain (utilitarian) sense, choosing autocracy here is really the better choice, since after becoming leader, Curtis could have made more controlled decisions to bring a more democratic system of government to the train, and even an end to the train ride.

Of course, fuck utilitarians, am I right? Philosophically speaking, the choice is really supposed to be a non-starter. Choose autocracy and you lose your humanity but keep your life; choose anarchy and you die a human death, because is there anything more human than one man standing alone against an incredible power that will totally kill him at the end of the act?[9]

One other way that the choice can be viewed is as a rejection of Calvinism and a turn towards Sartre’s theory of radical freedom. While Wilford’s world contains within it the imputation that all the inhumane stuff—the eating babies, killing people to maintain a balance in the environment, the protein blocks, the general terribleness—is all justified because that’s the way the world is. You are either elect (first class) or not elect (coach), and that’s your place in the world forever and ever amen, and then whatever baby eating you have to do is pre-ordained and therefore doesn’t affect you getting into heaven. On the other hand, Sartre saw freedom as an integral part of humanity, and, as the man says, “existence comes before essence” (itals. in original, Sartre, 1946). That is a fancy way of saying that by exercising choice, man creates himself, his life, his personage, his. . . destiny seems like an inappropriate word, so let’s say his life. Curtis, having been borne though the train like a leaf on a stream is now, finally, able to make one true choice. Perhaps the first choice of his life.

What I was really struck by was the total uselessness of it all. The civilization of the train, if you can call it that, doesn’t give any reasons why human beings are worth saving at all. At best, they are a summary of the terrible, petty, terrified parts of human nature, all huddled together in a desperate attempt to survive, going nowhere fast. Maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of Cosmos, but what really is the point of human survival? Ultimately it means nothing; the sun will go nova in a billion years and nothing of us will remain.
Let me put it another way. I have a dear friend who once told me she found that thought comforting—no matter how badly humans fuck up the planet, fuck up each other, in the longest of long runs, it’s totally irrelevant. Saving my own incredibly present fear of death, I can see her point. Watching this film, I was reminded of the futility of the struggle, and found myself asking, “Why wait?”

Was it a good film? I don’t know. You should see it though. Unless you just read my review, in which case I totally spoiled the ending for you. Sorry about that.[10]


[0] He was in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which I think I actually saw. Here, he’s made up in the way that Hollywood makes up very attractive men to be somewhat grubby and broody, so you know it’s a Serious Film with Thinking and Implications and whatnot.

[1] It is a little disconcerting to hear that name on the screen, when everyone knows that Edgar is the big black mop of a dog who is currently sleeping on the floor behind me as I write this.

[2] The original Oldboy, not the pointless American remake.

[3] Like many things, it depends on who you ask. What Ford (or Freud, as he occasionally allowed himself to be called) actually did was pay his workers enough that they could buy the cars they were producing.

[4] Alternative translations are a bit loaded—Superman or Übermensch. Smooth rhetoric aside, I do think that from the way the character is portrayed and from a lot of little details I don’t have space to discuss, we are meant to understand him as an overman. However, beyond that, he didn’t get the name by accident, you know?

[5] And then what? Not covered in the film. Presumably fed to the fish.

[6] There is of course debate about whether or not the endless winter has settled down enough for this to be a tenable plan. Namgoong claims that a plane wreck he has been looking at is increasingly uncovered each year—apparently there are no climate scientists onboard who might confirm or deny this assertion. Having lived through many a Wisconsin winter, I can say I sided with Namgoong, but also he could have found a better place to put his plan into action than when cruising through the mountains.

[7] It does give them the opportunity to eat things like babies and legs though. So there’s that.

[8] I felt very sad at this point that the amazing aquarium that they all walked through probably got smashed and all the fish died.

[9] Hint: Last time, he got nailed to a tree. Or, as I put it to my friends, you don’t get to be a Christ figure and die a nice death at home of old age surrounded by your family and children.

[10] I just wanted to note that every time I typed “autocracy” during the writing of this review, I typed “autocrazy” instead. That seems appropriate.


Sartre, Jean Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” 1946. reprint, 2005.

Viroqua Triathlon Race Report

Ok, Viroqua Triathlon race report. I’m going to try to keep this short because I’m pretty tired and I got stuff to do. Got up at 4:30 in the morning (a time I’ve concluded should not exist) after a few hours of fitful sleep, ate a poptart, and dragged out of the house by a few minutes after 5. I’m glad I took extra time to pack everything up and put my bike in the car the night before, because triathlon requires so much gear and preparation that trying to do it at 4:30 would have led to me driving off sans helmet or something terrible like that. I had actually planned to leave the house by 5, assuming the drive was 90 min, so I would arrive by 6:30. The drive was actually longer than that, and I had to stop for gas. It got a bit nerve-wracking, actually. I was just pulling into the outskirts of Viroqua (a town with a “watch out for horse-drawn buggies sign on the main drag, as well as actual horse-drawn buggies galloping along) at 7.

At 7:10, I arrived at the pool. There were a few bike racks set up, so I dropped my bike off and ran inside, where no one seemed too concerned that we were 20 minutes away from the beginning of the race. Packet pickup went quickly enough, and I changed into my swimsuit and set up my transition area in about 15 minutes total for all three activities, so that by 7:28 I was standing on the deck of the pool. I was in the first wave of swimmers (at the time, I assumed that this was because I registered super early so I couldn’t convince myself not to do the tri. More on this later though.). We were assigned two to a lane in a really nice six-lane pool. I was in lane 1, and it was really wide—we probably could have gotten another person or two in without issue. The way the pool was set up, there was a wall with an opening in it that led to a shallower area (probably for water aerobics), and consequently the pool was super warm, at least in comparison to the pool I usually swim in, which is kept at 81 degrees. So everyone gets in the pool, the lane counter explains how everything works—eighteen laps, I’ll signal when you have one more using a kickboard and then signal when you’re done, have fun and good luck. I was a little nervous, suddenly feeling unsure about decisions like wearing my earplugs in the pool, wearing my watch, signing up for a tri when I’m obviously not a triathlete. . . . Pretty normal pre-race jitters, I guess. A few minutes after 7:30, the race director got on the microphone and talked and then we started.

Because of the nerves, I was feeling out of breath by the time I got to the end of the first lap (unusual for me). I guess I was probably pushing the pace, and also trying to do flip turns, which is always a bit stressful in a new pool. I consciously slowed myself down, focused on my stroke, and decided to stop with the flip turns for the time being. Things improved. By the time I hit nine laps, I was really moving—I passed the guy who was sharing the lane with me. I felt like I was flying, super aerodynamic despite the watch. I finished the swim in 17:24.3, the second fastest swim split!

Transition was run out the door and down to the transition area, dry off as fast as you can, regret the choice to try to put on tight spandex tri shorts over wet legs, hop about like an idiot, make sure your ear plugs get into your bag of stuff, grab the bike, duck underneath the rack of bikes because I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing, and sprint for the exit. 2:53.8. I think this is comparable to other tris I’ve done. (Actually, I just looked it up, my first transition in my first tri was 5:05, but I had to take off my wetsuit and I dropped my chip and all kinds of terrible stuff. I apparently didn’t blog about my other tris.)

The bike course was really pretty amazing. The first five miles were mostly downhill with a few rolling hills I was able to get up without issue. I knew ahead of time that there were only two really serious hills on the course. The first came a bit before mile 10, I think. According to MapMyRide, it was a 4.3% grade, which is pretty steep but not as steep as the hill I do hill repeats on. I knew it was going to be trouble when I was listening to the RD give me a description of the bike route, and when he said, “And then you turn left on Helgerson Road,” some guy standing behind me said, “Oh man, we have to go up Helgerson Hill?” Hills that have names are not fun hills. In person, it seemed very, very steep, that kind of lung-sucking climb that makes you grab the handlebars of your bike and bend over and just gasp to try to get through it. Sitting up straight is a better strategy though. Also, as I slowed down, a gigantic cloud of bugs came to attack me. Awesome. The second hill was longer but less of a climb (1.9%) and I went up it without any issues—it was actually almost fun compared to the first hill. As I was just getting to the base of the second big hill, some of the first sprint racers started to catch me. One asked if I was in the Oly. I said yes and that it was nice to see someone, since I’d been basically alone for the last ten miles. She mentioned that there were only six people doing the Oly, and only two women (so that was why I was in the first wave). I knew the other woman had gotten out of transition a few seconds before I did and was really fast on the bike, since I hadn’t seen her since. So at that point I knew I was basically racing for second place. Maybe she would have a bad run and I’d be able to catch her.

The best part of the bike was going past all these little small-town Wisconsin buildings. I passed a very small white clapboard church with a steeple, and a small graveyard behind it. It was like biking through Our Town. As I crested a hill, a flagger shouted to me, “Don’t worry, it gets better from here!” and then added, as I was almost out of earshot, “And then it gets worse again.” An accurate description of life. I finished the bike in 1:23:31, a pace of 16.8 mph if you believe their course measurement of 23.41 mi, and slightly slower if you go with the 20 miles my watch measured it at. Yes.

T2: Put on your shoes, blow your nose, remember to take off your helmet and go. 1:48.5.

As I was coming over the last small hill on the bike course, I’d seen the lead woman who was quickly overtaking the kid I’d shared a lane with (the run shared the same road as the bike course). She was really moving, so I knew I wasn’t going to catch her. At the same time, I’d passed another woman who was doing the Oly (turns out there were more than two of us) at around a mile into my run, so I had to push it a little to make sure I didn’t get caught myself. The run was a 10k on an out-and-back course—it ran almost entirely downhill to the turnaround, and almost entirely uphill back to the finish. I feel like I’ve learned two things from ultra running—the first is, always stop to fix small problems before they become big ones. And the second is, run with the terrain when you can, because it will totally turn against you. So I did the first 5k really fast, I think I was running 8:30s. The turnaround was a guy sitting on the bed of his pickup with his puppy. I got a glass of water from him and headed back. I passed the other runner who was on her way out to the turnaround and we attempted to high five. I cheered on a lot of the last few bikers and told them they were only a mile from the finish, and they cheered for me. It was cool and overcast, and the rolling fields and small houses made it feel like a Grant Wood painting. I slowed down to a 9:10ish pace on the way back because of the hills. With about one mile to go, my legs were pretty done. But then I got a little more downhill and made a respectable finish. Run time was 55:14; total time was 2:40:52, well below my goal of three hours.

My awesome post-race selfie, for those (Mom) who didn't see it on FB.
My awesome post-race selfie, for those (Mom) who didn’t see it on FB.

It turns out that there were in fact seven athletes who competed in the Olympic tri, five women and two men. The lead guy was out of the pool and out of transition before I managed to get to transition, so I never even saw him—he finished in 1:59:xx. The last woman, who must have been so far back I don’t even know if she’d started the run by the time I finished it came in at 4:04:xx. The age groups wound up a bit weird (why was it Men 20–29 but Women 26–35?), but I was the only woman in my age group and consequently got a medal. Overall I finished fourth of seven participants and the second woman of five. The woman who beat me did the swim in almost exactly the same time (she was a few seconds slower than I was), then did the bike in 1:11 and the run in 44.5 minutes. So clearly there’s something to aspire to.

And that’s it. I had a sweet roll from a local bakery, put my stuff back in the car, and drove to Green Lake for my husband’s family’s family reunion. Conclusions: All the time I spent doing 5×100 at I-want-to-die speed in the pool paid off. I should have spent more time pushing myself to go faster on the bike and working on hills instead of just training for distance. Running track has helped me keep my speed decent, despite the high training volume; my legs felt good and I think I would have been faster in a non-tri race. I can’t say I was sorry to get up this morning and “only” run without having to do a brick (a workout where one does at least two of the three tri disciplines), but I’ll miss some of the variety of triathlon training as I transition to getting ready for my last big race of the year, the Antelope Island 50k. Of which more later, because this “short” race report is now suddenly 1,800 words and I need to go make myself some dinner and maybe walk the dogs. Thanks for reading!

Episode 4: Calypso

20140704_100403-EFFECTSLeopold Bloom. Let’s talk about him. Let’s talk about how awesome he is.

Okay, first I have a confession to make. When I first read Ulysses, I did not think that Leopold Bloom was that awesome. I thought that he was kind of a failure. Now I am convinced he is one of the best characters in literature. I was I think 20 or 21 when I first read this book. Now I’m 31. Could be me that has changed.

I will give you a little warning here: I’m going to talk a lot about Bloom, and mention some things that are alluded to here but not really revealed until later on, as well as some things that are just flat out not mentioned until later on.[1]

Who is Leopold Bloom? Is he someone special, or “just this guy, you know?” (Adams, 153). Bloom is often referred to as an “everyman,” but I think this is a disservice to him. Bloom is a complicated fellow, a wanderer on the streets of Dublin, a man who may in fact become a hero. Bloom is our Odysseus.

We meet Leopold Bloom in his kitchen. He is up early; later today he will be attending a funeral for a friend of his, but now he is preparing breakfast for his wife, Molly[2]. He talks to his cat[3] while making Molly’s toast, and eventually decides to walk around the corner to buy a kidney for breakfast.[4] At the butcher’s shop, he ogles the maid from next door. When he gets home, he brings Molly her tea and the post, and they chat about various subjects. Although he nearly burns the kidney, he manages to save it and has his breakfast while reading Milly’s (his 15-year old daughter) letter to him. After eating, he steps out into the garden; there has been a drought, and the plants are overgrown[5] and in need of tending. Then, in one of the scenes that got the book marked as obscene, uses the jakes.

We actually learn a lot about Bloom from this day-in-the-life section. We see that he cares for Molly, but get a sense that something strange is going on between them (for example, he notices Molly has hidden one of the letters she received at 4.308). He thinks about their son, Rudy, who was stillborn (see 4.418–20), and we get the feeling he is still sad about it. We also see that he’s a curious person, and he seems like someone who has spent a lot of time reading, although his hypotheses are not always correct (for example, his discussion of cats’ whiskers at 4.39–42). Bloom also thinks about mortality, especially in light of the funeral of Paddy Dignam that he is shortly to attend—he’s genuinely sad about the death. Bloom is not an educated person the way Stephen Dedalus is with his command of several languages, but he’s interested and engaged in the world around him. We actually see him engaging in some interesting Orientalist fantasizing about being “[s]omewhere in the east” (4.84):

Wander through awned streets. Turbaned faces going by. Dark caves of carpet shops, big man, Turko the terrible, seated crosslegged, smoking a coiled pipe. Cries of sellers in the streets. Drink water scented with fennel, sherbet. Dander along all day. Might meet a robber or two. Well, meet him. Getting on to sundown. The shadows of mosques among the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of the trees, signal, the evening wind. I pass on. Fading gold sky. A mother watches me from her doorway. She calls her children home in their dark language. High wall beyond strings twanged. Night sky, moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen. A girl playing one of those instruments what do you call them: dulcimers. I pass.

Probably not a bit like it really. Kind of stuff you read . . . (4.88–99)

There are so many interesting things here I can’t spend time on all of it, but in brief: the “cries of sellers in the streets” mirrors Stephen’s note that God is “[a] shout in the street” (2.386) from episode 2. The language itself conjures up very beautiful images. And finally, the rejection at the end of the passage means that Bloom has more insight into the truth of (i.e., the lie behind) Orientalism than Buck Mulligan.

One of the things this episode really shows is how effective stream-of-consciousness narration can be. Without necessarily understanding all of the stuff I’ve mentioned above, we are allowed to perceive many of Bloom’s thoughts that prepare us for the later truths. For example, we see him notice the missing letter, but don’t grasp immediately why it’s significant. We understand that he had a stillborn child, but don’t immediately grasp the impact this has had on his life. These small points prepare us for the revelations about Bloom’s life in the rest of the novel, as well as symbolically setting up certain themes. Narratively, Joyce manages to accomplish all of this without having to actually tell us anything more than what a normal morning at the Bloom household looks like—a neat trick.

The other important theme introduced here is that of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls. As Bloom explains, “Reincarnation, that’s the word . . . . Some people believe . . . that we can go on living in another body after death, that we lived before. They call it reincarnation. That we all lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet . . . . Metempsychosis . . . is what the ancient Greeks call it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance” (4.361–86). Bloom is actually off a little bit here at the beginning—metempsychosis is as he says at the end, “the passing of the soul at death into another body either human or animal” (Merriam Webster, s.v. “metempsychosis,”, whereas reincarnation is “the idea or belief that people are born again with a different body after death” (Ibid., s.v. “reincarnation,”[6] Recalling that we are dealing with a work that has strong thematic ties to the Odyssey, this theme may begin to make sense.

Next time: Sex, drugs, and religion, what fun.


[1] For those wondering about how these essays are being constructed, I am constantly wrestling with the issue of discussing the episodes qua episodes versus discussing the episodes qua the book as a whole. Here, I’m going to do the latter a little bit.

[2] Short for Marion, née Marion Tweedy.

[3] For a number of reasons, I really enjoy the little moments with animals that turn up in Joyce’s works. Stephen watching a dog running on the beach in the previous section, Bloom’s interactions with the cat—all of them strike me as very well observed. In addition, for historical reasons, it’s interesting to me to see how people interacted with their pets at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[4] In what may be the first of many reminiscences, I want to note that in honor of this scene, my father once went out and got himself a pork kidney and cooked it while my mother was out on call. Although my parents didn’t keep strict kosher, they did eschew pork products; as my father told the story, Mom wasn’t pleased when she got home and found out about the kidney. (To be fair, this may have had something to do with my father’s chronic inability to remember to wash the pans he’d used after he cooked, rather than the kidney qua kidney.)

[5] As any English professor worth her salt will tell you, the overgrown gardens are a metaphor for the relationship problems between Molly and Leopold.

[6] People being slightly off on things they say is another theme in the book—for example, Bloom occasionally misquotes a piece of an aria as “Volglio e non vorrei” (I want to and I wouldn’t like to) rather than “Vorrei e non vorrei” (I’d like to and I wouldn’t like to).


Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In The More Than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide. Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press, 1993.