by Bob Schofield
Sometimes I look at the news and think the world is eating itself. It happens pretty often, but this year more than most. There’s been a lot of viciousness in the air, and little to feel enthused about. It’s the same old story, really. There are people with too much money, too much power, and too many lies, using all three against a lot more people who have nothing to their name. This isn't new, but somehow the seams feel like they’re straining in a way they hadn’t before. I wonder if that’s really the case, or if it's just that I’m getting older, angrier, more cynical. The last thing I want to be is the guy waiting for the world to end with "I told you so” tattooed on his face. Still, there's a pessimistic voice in me I can't ignore. Sometimes I just think it’d be easier to run away, or at least be alone, but there’s nowhere to go. The moon’s too far away, and I don’t know how to swim. If only I could clear my head, or let things get quiet. My thoughts would become steady and soothing. My head would be a clean white room.
There's a moment at the end of Snowpiercer where Curtis (Chris Evans), alone for the first time in seventeen years, enters just such a clean, white room. He's fought long and hard to reach it, lost just about everyone he knows in the process. He's staring into the engine, the "sacred engine" that powers the train that has been carrying the last vestiges of humanity, huddled inside for nearly two decades, trapped as moving parts within a caste system extending in all its rigidity down from the front to the wretched, overcrowded tail section. The world they travel is a frozen waste. Everything outside the train is dead, and, after Curtis and his fellow oppressed tail section passengers stage a bloody revolution, most of the inside is dead too. I see Curtis’ dirt smeared face as he stares into the engine, the soft machine that powers the world. It is row after row of white cylinders, moving in slow, perfected harmony. There’s a low and sonorous humming. The light is blinding after so much darkness, so much grey and filth in compartment after compartment. I’m reminded of Dante reaching the beating heart of the universe. I think of ancient cosmologies. I behold celestial spheres.
Snowpiercer works because of its momentum. It goes beyond the obvious symbol of the train, beyond layers of thematic content, and bleeds into Joon-ho Bong’s filmmaking on a technical level. The camera doesn’t let you catch your breath. The film is a marvel of cinematic efficiency. It opens with a series of overlapping soundbites and a single intertitle, informing us that a chemical released into the atmosphere with the intention of halting global warming has, ironically, frozen the earth and terminated all life. The only survivors have crowded inside a massive train, continually circling the globe. The camera opens on crystalline stillness, a planet in the grip of absolute zero. Then the train screams past. Cut to the filthy metal walls of the tail section. We are on board now, traveling the grim, grey world within the world.
We meet Curtis, and his sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). They rescue security expert Namgoong Minsoo (Kangho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko), who are the only ones that can open the giant, computer-sealed gates separating one compartment from the next, the haves from the have-nots. John Hurt emanates a quiet dignity as Gilliam, the requisite wise old man. He is a calm but inhuman presence, shambling around on makeshift prosthesis. He has no hands, just the crook of a cane or umbrella. His legs are pipes and crutches. He’s a strange, almost humorous sight. One of the film’s many grotesques. What exactly happened to Gilliam? You would wonder if the film didn’t move so quickly, if the viewer was not immediately swept up by the obvious injustice perpetrated against the tail section passengers, and invested in Curtis’ plans to take the train from the mysterious and dictatorial Wilford, and set things right.
But the brilliance of Snowpiercer, what stops it from being just another fast-paced sci-fi/action flick with modest blockbuster aspirations, is the ambivalent undercurrent that runs through the film, and, most interestingly, runs in direct opposition to its momentum. The faster everything gets, the more uneasy the viewer becomes. The conflict between the front and back of the train is always escalating, and lines between good guys and bad guys blur in the process. By the end you’re barely able to pick sides, and asking bigger questions. You wonder what the point of it all is. What can be gained by fighting when so many are left dead? What value is there in surviving when people treat each other like this? You ask yourself if maybe it’d be best if both sides wiped each other out. Maybe people are the plague. Maybe earth should be left alone, one big and quiet popsicle.
It’s a testament to the film that it rushes headfirst towards this place of complexity, especially as an action film. It’s always easier with white hats and black hats, but the truth is nothing is that simple. Revolutions are a messy business. That’s a matter of historical fact. It doesn’t take much to tip them toward monstrousness. Monday’s freedom fighter is quite often Tuesday’s dictator, but so much of what corrupts a resistance movement in the real world is contextual and specific. What makes Snowpiercer special is that in its intense linearity—both Joon-ho Bong’s fast-paced direction and the literal one-way train the film is set on—a unique situation is created in which the mechanisms of revolution, circular violence, and moral corruption can be seen in their essence. You’re staring at a cross-section of human viciousness. When the world is a small moving box, its variables are limited, and the film works as a control group. Like any good piece of science fiction, Snowpiercer is ultimately a thought experiment.
So you cannot help but believe Curtis when he tells Edgar, “We’ll be different when we get there.” You believe that he is a good, decent man, fighting for the basic rights of his fellow Tail Sectioners. You believe it because you think you’ve seen this before. Cinema is littered with gruff, reluctant white male saviors. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to assume you’re being handed another one. It’s almost comforting, and would certainly be the less complicated scenario. But after ninety minutes of witnessing a compounding of moral compromises, vicious pragmatism, and straight up butchery, you have to reassess your hypothesis. You have to accept that Curtis is right about himself. He is no leader, no hero, just a hollow sypher of a man, ruined by two decades in inhuman conditions.
Standing before the final gate, the one with the big metal W, Curtis smokes the last cigarette on earth, and finally explains to Nam who and what he is:
“You ever been to the tail section? Do you have any idea what went on back there? When we boarded? It was chaos. Yeah, we didn't freeze to death, but we didn't have time to be thankful. Wilford's soldiers came and they took everything. A thousand people in an iron box. No food, no water... After a month, we ate the weak... You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best… 18 years I've hated Wilford. 18 years I've waited for this moment. And now I'm here... Open the gate. Please.”
The idea of vengeance is the only thing that has kept this man moving. Yona, who was born on the train, asks him what his life was like on earth. Curtis tells her he can’t remember those first seventeen years. “I don’t want to remember anything before the train.” All that’s left in him is guilt and hatred, it’s eaten him alive. So Curtis won’t stop, or rather can’t stop, until he gets to Wilford, He wants that engine. He wants the world.
If the train is the world, then Wilford is its God. Or at the very least, its custodian. The train’s architect and engineer, he waits in the final compartment, on the other side of all the surreal decadence of the front section and its dilettante passengers. He lives more or less alone, and sparingly, overseeing his creation and the little people inside it from the confines of one small, sterile room. Played by Ed Harris, there’s a lean efficiency to his bearing, the kind of gauntness you see in very fit older men. His eyes are ice blue, and there’s nothing but cruelty behind those silk pajamas. Curtis has come here to kill him, to take his train, but Wilford is unafraid. If anything, he’s impressed. “You are the first person to travel the entire length of this train,” he tells Curtis. He doesn’t put up a fight. He just talks. Offers him steak, and the chance of a lifetime. He tells Curtis that he has become an old man, and needs someone to carry on his legacy. That person, he has decided, is Curtis. Slowly, methodically, he dismantles each and every one of the younger man’s assumptions. He reveals that Gilliam, who taught Curtis what little he knows about decency, had been working with him all along, just another moving piece. Every revolution was a manipulation, simply a means to thin the herd. The surplus population needed reducing:
“I believe it is easier for people to survive on this train if they have some level of insanity. As Gilliam well understood, you need to maintain a proper balance of anxiety and fear and chaos and horror in order to keep life going. And if we don't have that, we need to invent it. In that sense, the Great Curtis Revolution you invented was truly a masterpiece.”
Ever the engineer, ever the pragmatist, Wilford sneers and chews his steak. In his eyes, the world is numbers and balance. People are just parts, either to be used or thrown away.
In the heart of the engine, he asks Curtis two simple questions, “Have you ever been alone on this train? When was the last time you were alone?” For me, these are the most shocking lines in the film. Every time I hear them, the words rattle my core. It’s another instance in which Snowpiercer proves how solid its world-building is. In a world in which one thousand poor, underprivileged humans have been rattling around in the same two or three metal boxes for seventeen years straight, the concept of “privacy” would have long since gone extinct. And it’s this temptation for privacy, for solitude, that comes so close to being Curtis’ downfall. Wilford whispers his questions, now far more silver-tongued Satan than God the creator, and you see tears well up in Curtis’ eyes. They are tears of fear and gratitude. He is being offered everything he’s ever wanted, and is so close to taking it. Outside, Nam is savagely beating a Front Sectioner with a pipe. “You've seen what people do without leadership,” Wilford says to Curtis, “They devour one another.” How tempting to Curtis, to finally be free of all that brutality, of himself, to exist outside it and above it.
But escape is an illusion. Even one old man, alone at the head of the train he built, is still part of the mechanism, subservient to it. Wilford admits it freely. He runs a rag over the engine, tending to its cleanliness, just as much a prisoner as anybody else. Beneath their feet, small children are at work, sacrificing their bodies, one after another, as spare parts for the so called “Eternal Engine.” But the name is a lie, because nothing is eternal. Everything breaks down. What’s important is knowing when to accept this. When to stop fighting, and call it a day. I can’t think of an apocalypse movie that ends with as much bravery asSnowpiercer, the bravery to dole out the leanest sliver of hope, and admit that maybe the apocalypse isn't so bad after all. Maybe it's the better scenario. Maybe society is a lost cause. Who said people were such a great idea? The world, after all, is older and wiser and more creative than our little species could ever be. Maybe it’s time it tried something new, something besides a naked bipedal ape with a bunch of extra goo in its skull. The only things that walk out ofSnowpiercer alive are two innocent children, and a polar bear off in the distance. Like the train, the bear is magnificent and silent, and needs fresh meat to survive. Maybe that’s always going to be the case. Maybe either you face the monster that looks just like you, or the furry one out in the cold. After this last year we’ve had, I’m leaning towards the polar bear. At least the bear won't lie.
Bob Schofield is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June. He likes what words & pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.