While an unprecedented snowstorm in Texas exposes greed and corruption, the movie of the week (Feb. 14-20, 2021) is “Snowpiercer”.
Enter Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, a post-apocalyptic film about class warfare set in the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe.
The year is 2031. A radical, last ditch effort to reverse the effects of global warming goes horribly wrong, plunging the planet into a catastrophic Ice Age that led to global extinction. Humanity’s last survivors now live out their days on a luxury train known as the Snowpiercer — equipped with a perpetual-motion engine — that circles the world carrying a microcosm of society before the world died. It’s so dangerously cold outside that stepping outside the train would lead to near instant death.
The train’s poorest residents live in windowless darkness, extreme overcrowding and absolute squalor in the train’s caboose, while the 1% enjoy splendor and excess at the front of the train. The more privileged passengers worship the train’s owner, a wealthy industrialist named Wilford, with a cult-like devotion. Meanwhile, the disenfranchised poor are planning a revolt. They plan to fight their way to the front of the train, where they will demand their share of the good life.
Oscar Winning director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), in his first English-language feature, co-wrote the script with American screenwriter Kelly Masterson. It’s based on a 1982 graphic novel, “Le Transperceneige,” by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette.
THE RIGHT FILM FOR THE RIGHT TIME
Prior to the events of the film, a billionaire inventor named Wilford (an inspired bit of casting that I won’t ruin here) had the foresight to see where humanity was headed. Thus, he built a high-speed luxury train that could circle the globe without stopping or suffering the effects of the weather outside. He loaded what he could of humanity on board. Some earned their way on board on board as as result of their financial status. They live in comfort in the head cars, dining on steak and sushi, while enjoying all the amenities and luxuries of life before the apocalypse.
While Wilford did permit some poor people on board his train, he gave them only the barest of essentials to survive. Stuck in cramped quarters, the tail-enders endure inhumane conditions — living under harsh military rule and forced to subsist on protein bars made from a stomach-turning ingredient. Meanwhile, it’s the job of Wilford’s assistant, Minister Mason (the always brilliant Tilda Swinton), to remind everyone on the train of their place, stressing that, “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” while referring to the poor passengers as “ingrates” and “freeloaders”.
Empathy, compassion, and charity for those less fortunate appears to be virtually nonexistent in this enclosed ecosystem.
After eighteen years of suffering, the people in the back are ready to revolt.
Curtis (Chris Evans) is their brave but reluctant leader. While similar insurrections have failed in the past, Curtis’ elderly and disabled mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt), has a plan. One of the passengers, Namgoong (Kangh-ho Song), was one of the train’s original engineers before turning into a junkie. He knows how to override the complicated system of locked doors to help with the forward progress. Curtis and Nam, along with a small army that includes Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Nam’s daughter Yona (An-sung Ko), set off on the treacherous journey to the head of the train and a final confrontation with Wilford.
As the group advances, we are treated to some stunning visuals and some truly thrilling action sequences, including a first-person look at a bloody brawl that takes place in a pitch black car, as seen through night-vision glasses.
There’s a striking and sobering visual parallel between the opulence of the cabins at the front of train — bathed in bright colors and breathtaking beauty — and the dismal, murky grey tones of the grime and filth coated world at the back of the train. While the rich are living their best lives, the poor are barely living at all.
While it’s easy to see this dystopian class system in black and white terms — good vs evil, justice vs oppression — Bong Joon-ho does not let us off the hook that easily. A hero harbors a dark secret, and a villain makes a compelling case for the ends justifying the means.
For better or worse, we are inevitably shaped by our environment.
Good intentions are often paired with crippling baggage. And the ethical lens becomes hazy when every day is a fight for survival.
Once Curtis has completed his journey — witnessing the full extent of both horror and hedonism — he realizes the sacrifices that have been made to maintain order on the train. And he understands that the odds have been long stacked against him.
In Snowpiercer‘s bleak reality, no demographic seems to suffer as much as the children. Whether through blind indoctrination or unspeakable abuse, the train’s most innocent are taught to fear and hate.
And this leads to the film’s final devastating realization that it’s not hope but fear that keeps the society thriving.
WHY IT MATTERS
With exhilarating fight scenes and emotionally-investing characters, Snowpiercer is a great film on its own. But it’s also important for what it has to say about human nature, self-determination, and survival. Bong’s fast-paced, thrilling narrative poignantly highlights humanity’s worst tendencies — including a selfish disregard for both nature and our fellow man.
In interviews, Bong has discussed the themes of the film, including how big business tries to both use and control nature. The theme of climate change in the film was not part of the original graphic novel source material. Bong added it because he felt it was such an important and current issue that needed to be discussed and explored — but in a way people could understand without feeling like they were being lectured. Thus, we get an action movie in which corporate power takes extreme measures to attack the climate, instead of overhauling the way they do business for the sake of the world. Human civilization is sacrificed for profits.
As Bong explained, “This created an opportunity to talk about the political ideas involved and really examine human nature and why those systems exist. What would we actually discover if they were taken on? We don’t know because it’s so large and affects billions of people.”
“Salvation” in the film comes in the form of injustice and oppression for many.
The wealthy passengers exploit the human resources of the train, not for mere survival but for convenience and luxury, much the same way wealthy politicians and corporations have participated in the exploitation of the planet for greed. The poor aren’t just denied the same benefits as the middle and upper class. They are actively targeted, treated with malice and contempt, provoked to anger and then savagely punished for fighting back.
There’s no need for the cruelty; it serves no functional purpose. But by convincing themselves that the needy are a burden to the society — that they are subhuman — it shifts the responsibility to help them away from those in a position to do so. It alleviates the guilt from inaction and allows those with means to continue to thrive.
Bong also stated he intended Snowpiercer to show the contrast between the artificial environment of the train and the natural environment outside. While the man-made ecosystem is ultimately unsustainable, nature finds a way to come back. Yet, before we humans wash our hands of responsibility in the face of nature’s resiliency, it’s important to note the bleak underlying message of the film:
With its provoking take on an income-inequality class system and environmental destructiveness, this nearly decade-old film feels more relevant than ever.
The havoc wreaked by the extreme winter weather that hit Texas did not come as a surprise. Ten years ago, energy regulators warned the state’s electric-grid operators that they were ill-prepared for an unprecedented winter storm. And for decades before that, climate scientists had cautioned that a warming planet would cause climate chaos, resulting in unusual weather events like this one. Despite the warnings, the state was unprepared, and the avalanche of systematic failures sent a chilling reminder that we are not ready for what’s coming.
A freak snowstorm may not seem like a side effect of global warming, but scientists say warming in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on the planet, may be weakening the jet stream that typically keeps cold air deep in the northern hemisphere. This weakened jet stream allows freezing air to drift down to lower latitudes. In 2020, while eyes around the world were focused on COVID-19, the U.S. experienced 22 weather and climate events that each cost more than $1 billion, eclipsing the previous record of 16 in one year.
These climate disasters will be increasingly difficult to manage as global warming intensifies.