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]

Notes

[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.

References

Sartre, Jean Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” 1946. Marxists.org reprint, 2005. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

6 thoughts on “Mankind is Something to be Overcome: A Review of Snowpiercer”

  1. You are so articulate about this I’m not sure anything I would say would measure up, but I’d read some interesting commentary on the fact that there’s no real reason for the segregation on the train. Why have a lower class and an upper class if the train can actually relatively easily support them all? because they can. The entire existence is so damn arbitrary. That’s what I got out of it, most of all, I think.

    1. Thank you! The class structure is really arbitrary, isn’t it? It sort of functions as a nod that “hey, this is still Earth 2014 in here,” but at the same time it seems really rigid and cruel. I sort of wonder if it makes more sense as a relic of the story’s French history–like, is class more rigid there than in America, where we take the idea of social climbing for granted (even though it doesn’t happen all that much)? My searching turns up a lot of stuff about the French Revolution (obviously class was super rigid before that), but it’s harder to determine what has happened since then–the extent to which the revolutionary ideals are adhered to. On the other hand, would there have been a revolution without the oppression? I don’t know. I think Foucault said there is always a possibility for rebellion in society but it seems less likely here. It would have been a different type of film, anyway.

      1. you should post this on Tumblr in the #snowpiercer tag. there’s been a lot of interesting meta, and yours is one of the more well-thought out ones I’ve read. a lot of people have compared the movie to Ayn Rand’s work. *shudder*

        I don’t have any deep thoughts about the movie, mainly because there is so much cultural subtext that I know I’m missing — like the fish and the axe right at the start of the Yekaterina Bridge fight. I would sound ignorant no matter what way I tried to articulate it.

        1. I posted the link on Tumblr, can I post the whole article do you think?

          Anyway, I’ll admit I have a very superficial understanding of Rand’s philosophy (I’m tempted to say it’s because she has a shallow philosophy), but I don’t see it. Or, certainly, if we view for example any of the mains (Curtis or Wilford) as examples of the strong, Howard Roark-type men, nothing positive comes out of their actions–it’s very bleak.

          That thing with the fish and the axe was weird, wasn’t it! I also wondered–could the sushi be the same fish? If fish are so precious they can eat only one or two a year, why waste it to stick an axe in? But also, I don’t even know what cultural context to try to apply to this–a French book with Korean director and (mostly) Western (but non-French) cast. In which culture does the fish episode originate? I really want to take a look at the original graphic novels, I think that would be enlightening. Maybe I can arrange to get a copy.

  2. also, I think you’re the only person I know who *isn’t* referring to Chris Evans as Captain America. 😀

    1. Haha…my bad habit of course of only seeing one film per year, I haven’t seen either Captain America or the Avengers yet! But you have talked such great things about them, I will have to see what I can rent.

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