Dystopian science fiction has an uncanny ability to come up with entertaining concepts that can contain far more narrative space than they ought to have. Such is the case with Snowpiercer, a 2013 film that I remember touted as a bit of an indie production by Bong Joon-ho that few in the U.S. saw when it first came out, but has since become a staple of speculative fiction. Based on a French graphic novel (that I am dying to get my hands on one of these days), Snowpiercer is about the last train on earth, perpetually circling a worldwide track in the frozen wastes of the post-apocalypse. It is about other things too.
A creative and insightful look at corrupt systems and the people in power who manipulate those systems to preserve inequality, Snowpiercer is not an uplifting tale. It’s not even really an instructional guide for how to undo those systems; it provides means to undo them, but despite uplifting moments, the film is overall quite bleak. It is less interested in solving problems than digging through the muck to expose the core of those problems and lay them, and the flawed logic preserving them, bare. It is a bloody, grimy, icy film, the sort of work one would expect to be too unpalatable to watch more than once, and which is more powerful in culmination than in full.
Dystopian stories like Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, 1984, Children of Men, The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Blade Runner tend to be easy to summarize because they hinge on a key twist or setup that highlights a singular point the author is trying to make. Snowpiercer shares a lot of DNA with these other stories, sometimes explicitly playing into the expectation of dystopian fiction where the function of a post-apocalyptic totalitarian society is dependent on one or more unthinkable atrocities hidden by lies. There are many of those revelations in Snowpiercer. In fact, they are used to pace the film.
However, what distinguishes Snowpiercer within this popular genre is its depth. Like many popular sci-fi/dystopian films, it is well-crafted on a technical and narrative level, but even when its superficial aesthetic fails, it offers plenty to uncover when analyzing the film beyond its entertainment value. It unfolds, touching upon such a vast array of political and philosophical concepts that to describe it even truthfully in its simplest terms as a story about a train where the lower classes live in the back and the upper classes live in the front is an gross oversimplification. It is about that, yes, but it is also about so much more.
3P Reviews Series: Snowpiercer
Spoilers: Yes. Many.
Audience Assumptions: None
Content Warnings: Mention of and reference to the apocalypse, drug use, school shootings, genocide
Part One: Ice
In the year 2014, in an attempt to combat global warming, nations released a coolant called CW7 to reverse the effects of cumulative greenhouse gases. Around the same time, a crackpot billionaire created a fully sustained trans-continental train that could keep running for decades without new resources. When the CW7 started to work too well and plunged the earth into an inhospitable ice age, this train, the Snowpiercer, became the only refuge for humanity. Some of the passengers paid for first-class tickets, while others became refugees in the tail section. Seventeen years later, the train is a closed system with a rigid hierarchy where the lower classes in the tail section are living in squalor under the watch of armed up-section guards. And something is about to give.
Curtis is the main character, a swarthy young man itching for a revolution but wizened enough to have more patience than his second-in-command, Edgar. Curtis listens to advise from Gilliam, an elder of the tail section who, along with a cluster of other amputees, keeps the peace in the cramped, crowded quarters. Gilliam helps Curtis devise a plan to push through to the head cars, guided by enigmatic notes passed to the tail section through the protein bars that serve as their food.
Before they can enact their plan, however, two of the children from the tail section, Timmy and Tony, are measured and taken up front, from whence no one returns. The initial chaos evoked by the children’s parents results in a passing comment that gives Curtis the willingness to push forward ahead of schedule: “put down that useless gun.”
Curtis correctly predicts that the armed guards are largely for show and that bullets are “extinct,” the last of them used up in another rebellion years earlier. The tail section passengers overwhelm their captors and move forward through the first set of gates to the prison section, where they find, with help from the red notes, an engineer named Nam. Nam and his daughter, Yona, are addicts of a volatile substance called kronole, which Curtis agrees to give them for each section Nam opens up.
The tail section passengers move forward as a group, headed by Curtis, Edgar, the parents of the missing kids, Nam, and Yona. As they move forward, they encounter a slight improvement in the train quarters, coming across the industrial car where their protein bars are made from insects, and lower-class cabins with windows. The latter are conspicuously empty, a mystery solved shortly thereafter when they run into lower-class guardsmen assembled a few cars further up. A skirmish in the dark of a tunnel leaves the tail passengers severely disadvantaged and the guards slaughter them like animals, until Curtis calls back for fire from the end of the train. Edgar is captured and Curtis chooses to abandon him in order to take a captive of his own, a front-section disciplinary named Mason. Edgar is killed, but Curtis stops the fight.
With Mason as their hostage, Curtis and a handful of others progress through increasingly elaborate cars as they move up-section, coming across remnants of the old world such as a functional greenhouse, aquarium, and dental offices, all full of things those in the tail section thought long extinct.
When they reach the schoolhouse, Curtis witnesses the indoctrination the upper-class children receive that cements their loyalty to Wilford and the train, and finds another note from his unknown helper. Workers from the front bring guns with bullets and attack the tail section passengers in the school, killing several of them. More guns brought to the back of the train free the captured guards, and Curtis watches on a television as his mentor Gilliam is executed.
Horrified and furious, Curtis kills Mason and charges forward, pursued by the ominous head guard who murdered Gilliam. They exchange gunfire and come to a head in the steam room car, where Nam subdues the head guard but more of Curtis’ crew are killed. Only Curtis, Nam, and Yona remain, the latter two still constantly begging for kronole as per the original agreement.
They pass through the first-class cabins, which are lavishly decorated and spacious, complete with cars exclusively for raves and drug lounges. Nam and Yona steal as much kronole as they can get their hands on, inhaling the whole while, much to Curtis’ frustration. When at last the trio reaches the door to Wilford, Nam refuses to open it.
Curtis berates him for being an air-headed junkie and tells him a story about why he hates Wilford so much and needs to see him pay. In it, he describes the first month in the tail section, before the guards provided protein bars. Chaos and brutality reigned, with cannibalism and infanticide rampant. Curtis describes a gruesome scene where one man killed a woman and took her infant to eat, only for Gilliam to step in and amputate his arm for the man to eat instead. Peace restored, tail section passengers continued to cut off and share their body parts to stave off group starvation until the protein bars arrived. Curtis then confesses that he was the man and Edgar was the infant, and that despite wanting to contribute his own arm to the cause in the aftermath, he never did.
Nam listens to his story, then tells him not to see Wilford, because revenge is pointless. Nam and his daughter aim to leave the train, believing the snow to be melting based on what they’ve seen on their journey up-section; he asks Curtis to come with them and reveals the kronole he and Yona have been gathering is not just for getting high, but for making a bomb to open the door to the outside.
Before Curtis can decide, Wilford opens the door for him and beckons him inside, carrying the matches Nam needs to ignite the bomb.
Wilford greets Curtis as an old friend, congratulating him on making it to the front of the train, and revealing that he was the one sending the little red notes. He wanted a revolution to cull tail section passengers, and was working with his business partner, Gilliam, to ignite one. Impressed by Curtis, he has decided to make Curtis his successor and have him watch after the engine. Curtis, defeated and betrayed, seems about to take the offer, when Yona runs into the room and pulls back a floor tile to reveal that Wilford has been using the tail section children as spare parts for the engine. Curtis gives her the matches and she ignites the kronole.
Curtis, Nam, and most of the other passengers die in the ensuing crash, but Yona and one of the children from the tail section have survived. They spot a polar bear in the distance, a realize life is possible outside of the train.
Part Two: Systems
It doesn’t take a doctorate to realize this film has layers. It’s about class struggle, not just on this train, but in any unbalanced social system. This is the core theme around which the rest of the film’s purpose revolves, but it also draws heavily from motifs like ecosystems, cannibalism, left- and right-wing politics, machinery, children, and cycles. All of these elements are wrapped up neatly in a story that serves to emphasize a simple but potent message: when self-sustaining systems are designed to hurt people, the only surefire way to change things is to destroy the system entirely.
Let’s talk about the ending.
The film ends with another apocalypse of a sort, leaving only two survivors who must start over again. Ultimately, what Curtis and Nam end up doing benefits few people and fixes nothing. The tail section passengers die along with the head section. Yona and the boy are alone, and may very well die even if the world is technically hospitable. We aren’t solitary animals; humans need other humans. What the film ends on is the possibility of hope, but it’s less of an escape than a reset. What’s to keep the same thing from happening again, should they rebuild society?
I find it curious that the film goes the destructive route, and I find its conclusion rather bleak because a blank slate does nothing to stop the horrors of the past from happening again. This is the fault of a mindset that sees the easy option — burning everything to the ground — and runs with it. It is a fault with this film as well, but less so I think, because it’s not really meant to be uplifting. Yona is stranded in a frozen wasteland, the train and its resources destroyed, her father and friends gone. She has nothing but the smallest shred of hope in the form of a polar bear. It’s a valuable portent, but not exactly a comforting one. The film could have chosen anything — birds, deer, goats, oxen — but it chose an apex predator suited to survive in much harsher conditions than humans. It’s almost a joke, given the bear’s association with global warming symbology; at least the polar bears are doing better. But it is a positive note nonetheless.
Much of this film is more complex than it seems on the surface. So much of it toes the line demarking gratuitous pretense, from the exaggerated costumes to the children working as machinery, to the absurdly opulent upper-class cars that are impractical to a surreal degree. The film is not realistic, but though I have my dislikes about it, I think it remains far stronger than overwrought short stories that aim for a similar simplicity. What Snowpiercer has achieved is tricky, because many people try and grotesquely fail: it has taken an allegorical story and used that as a blueprint upon which it has crafted a living world.
What on earth am I talking about? Here, watch this:
The climax of the film revolves around Curtis deciding whether to blow up the train or not. In order to create tension, the story needs a trigger mechanism — a Big Red Button that the protagonist’s finger can hover over while making the decision, or in this case listening to Wilford monologue. The trigger in this case is the matches.
A trigger mechanism is purely functional most of the time, a symbol of the impending explosion that the camera can zoom in on with dramatic music to put the audience on the edge of their seats. You therefore don’t need a lot of setup to introduce the trigger; it would be perfectly fine if the film showed Curtis or Nam stealing the matches from a table as they walk through the upper-class cars.
Except, they don’t do that. Instead, they give the matches a history.
The matches are Nam’s. He has two cigarettes he’s kept with him from the old world, and he uses the matches to light one so he can show off to the tail passengers. When he and Curtis have their heart-to-heart, Nam gives him the other as a gesture of solidarity. However, between these points, shortly after the first cigarette, a tail section child takes the matches and runs to the back of the train to play with them. Curtis doesn’t stop him in the moment, but remembers this at a key point in a later battle when the train goes into a long tunnel. The tail section fighters have no light and are being slaughtered by the better-armed guards with night vision goggles. It seems like it’s going to be a bloodbath, when Curtis remembers the matches and calls for the boy by name to “bring the fire!” Even though they‘re several cars away from the back, the tail sectioners are still all connected, and a relay forms to bring the leading fighters light. It’s a thrilling sequence that single-handedly levels the playing field and helps wins Curtis and his men the battle.
Ergo, the matches are more than a trigger; they’re primal, the tool of the masses, dangerous but warming, the thing that connects the present to the past, the children to the adults, the back to the front. They turn the tide.
And the matches are far from the only time elements in the film are used this way. One of the advantages of film is that it can tell a complete story in one sitting, like a short story. This means directors are often encouraged to go back through and link together as many elements as possible so that the story is a self-contained microcosm of polished story. Longer forms of media can do the same, but film is especially good at it, when directors take advantage of the medium’s unique merits. Snowpiercer is the result of using those merits, and using them effectively.
Multiple meanings for every component within the story, and a well-realized metanarrative built on an elegant framework, mean that Snowpiercer is easy to understand the first time through, but reveals many new things with each rewatch. Where most dystopian fiction of this sort is designed to be experienced only once and leave the audience with a powerful message, Snowpiercer rewards anyone who wishes to return to the story. Even when you know what’s coming, the process of getting there has new things to teach you.
Part Three: Direction
I cannot effectively separate the aesthetic from the story in this film. Maybe that’s appropriate; after all, despite how I sometimes break down my reviews, art is fundamentally cohesive. No matter how much you try to separate the writing from the cinematography from the editing from the acting, these things will always interact. They are what makes the story what it is, and experiencing one without the others is different than experiencing them together. However, I find that the most powerful points in the film, as well as the weakest, are often tied up in the aesthetic choices more than the plot, so I’ll give it my best shot to talk about the film’s visuals in particular.
Every Frame a Painting made a short video on how this film uses right and left profile shots to communicate choice, and once you realize the film is doing that, it’s impossible to watch it without imbuing those shots with meaning. These shots are not constant, but they are common, usually falling at key narrative points where there’s a confrontation. As with everything in the film, the artistic decision is as simple or complex as you want it to be; essentially, characters facing camera right, usually positioned on the left of the screen, are looking to the front of the train (because most of the action is filmed on the right side of the train), while those positioned on the right facing camera left are looking back. Some characters like Curtis and Mason switch position and may face either direction, but because the tail section is pushing forward and the head is confronting them, there’s a connotation of vulnerability, humanity, and the desire for freedom for the characters positioned camera left, and domination, power, and order for the characters positioned camera right. Characters looking to the left are therefore often looking down on the people in that direction, and separated from them, while characters looking right are looking to move to a higher standing and reclaim power. It’s a simple but effective way to communicate who has power in any one scene and show the affiliation of various important characters to it.
Curtis is the character most often illustrated this way, positioned as a character who is often in the middle of the camera and able to turn either way. As a member of the tail section, he is among the poor and weak, and leads them forward through the train. However, as the story goes on and Curtis personally gets further from the tail, he undergoes an ideological shift that is reflected in the cinematography. Curtis getting closer to the head means he becomes more like the people in these sections, able to look back on the tail sectioners as a separate entity with more authority and power than them. While the tail section remains a cohesive unit initially as it expends through the lower-class cabins, those at the front of the pack steadily become disconnected in their dash for the engine room, Curtis leading them. Curtis gets to witness and even participate in some of the pleasures of the upper-class cabins, and while these do not tempt him, the violence of the front does. He is paralleled with the brutish guard chasing him from the back of the train, and like the guard, Curtis takes up guns and kills without mercy, his rage building as he loses his companions, until he is nearly alone and his mission to save the tail section has become little more than an excuse for vengeance. This is the point where Curtis tells the story about being a cannibal, implying that what he has become in his journey through the train has seen him regress back into the monster he used to be.
The last time the lateral camera view is used, Curtis is positioned in the center of the screen facing right into the heart of the engine, with no one higher up in the train, and Wilford behind him, slowly pushing him camera right. The door to exit the train is behind him, camera left, so his decision to relinquish the control Wilford offers and look back is now not one of domination, but compassion. Curtis has gotten to the top of the ladder, so to speak, and presented with the option to fill Wilford’s role or topple the system, knowing it will lead to his death, he chooses the latter. He’s not too far gone in the end.
While this is the most dramatic film technique in the film, it’s far from the only thing that defines Snowpiercer‘s look. There are a lot of things going on at any given point in the film, but the confines of the space serve to unify the film’s style. Trains are tricky spaces to film in, as they’re long and narrow and allow for ample perspective shots, but can’t capture wide shots without leaving the vehicle. As no one leaves the train until the end of the film, there are generally two types of shots in this film; shots of characters moving through the massive tube they live in, and shots of the train speeding through the snow. Despite these constraints, or perhaps because of them, the film is beautiful, able to capture the emotion of characters’ faces, characteristics of each cabin as a unique space, and highly variable environments with disparate lighting and color.
The cabins end up looking more like separate rooms, and later in the film as the characters move toward the more extravagant cars, separate worlds. The bunks at the back of the train where the tail sectioners live are cramped, grimy, and poorly lit, with no windows and a post-apocalyptic air about them that implies everything here has been repurposed several times over. This aesthetic works its way into the character designs, with Gilliam using crutches and an umbrella as prosthetics and many of the tail sectioners dressed in rags. The car where their protein rations are made is similar in appearance, but mostly empty, run by a single man who seems to have been in isolation for years. It’s cold, sterile, and exactly the sort of place one would expect unappetizing gelatinous bars to be produced.
Later on, though, the cars gain surreal qualities reflecting the tail sectioners’ awe and disbelief at the disparity between their lives and those of the people up front. The greenhouse car looks like a science facility and hardly resembles anything that could fit on a train, and the aquarium defies believably. The aquarium in particular is designed to look like something out of Doctor Who, a space that couldn’t possibly exist on the same train as the prison-like tail section, with manta rays and water that reaches out seemingly to the same infinite depths as the sea.
And here’s where we run into the problems. For all my enjoyment of this film, there’s a point where its superficial elements exceed my taste for the depth it offers, and I find an uncomfortable disconnect between what I understand the film is saying and what it is showing on the screen. This is to do with the delivery of the story, which ranges from superb to awkward depending on the scene you’re looking at.
Take for instance the classroom. Objectively, I know that this scene is trying to communicate the way indoctrination works on the train and how disparate the lives of the upper class children are to those in the tail section. The parents of the two missing kids search the room, wondering if their children were taken to be integrated into the upper classes, but of course they’re not there. Wilford would never dream of letting the poor kids mingle with the rich ones. The room is bright and happy and welcoming, but to an uncanny degree; the children sing and repeat propaganda about the necessity of the train being exactly the way it is, and their teacher talks down to the tail sectioners in the same way as the children. The classroom also becomes a turning point that highlights just how unequipped the tail sectioners are, as armed guards use the deceptively peaceful car to cut down half of Curtis’ crew. Bullets are extinct for the guards of the tail section, who are themselves lower-class, but the upper-class guards are armed to the teeth.
That said, it has never really sat well with me. One of the disadvantages of segmenting scenes so much that they all feel like separate entities is that a few of them are bound to be duds if you aren’t careful to ensure there’s some aesthetic continuity. The schoolhouse scene is one of the most violent simply by way of the contrast between children and firearms (something I don’t think was meant to be as panic-inducing to a Korean audience as it is to someone who’s grew up with blackout drills in the American school system), but even before then, the portion consisting of fake smiles and singing goes on for a long time. I’m willing to forgive a lot in this film that others might find overdone, like the cannibalism story or the explosion at the end, but for me it’s the schoolhouse that finally makes me tune out. I can find redemption in the other less elegant scenes, but this one opts for an intentionally comedic tone that the film really doesn’t have a good handle on. There’s little in it I think would be missed if the scene were cut entirely, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t brief like the aquarium and greenhouse scenes before.
That said, I have a friend who absolutely loves this scene and finds the children’s song about dying if they go outside hilarious, so even the more fragile scenes of the film will have their advocates. I find disparity between what people like and dislike about the film to vary greatly, with some fixating on the middling effects, some disliking the redundant twists or basic main story, and others like me having beef with a specific scene they feel should have been cut. Similarly, praise for the film can come from all directions. The scenes with the fire relay and Curtis holding a guard’s gun to his head to prove they have no bullets are among the most thrilling moments I’ve seen in a film for years. There’s a lot to dissect with this one.
And yet, perhaps its greatest strength is its simplicity. It starts, it ends, it’s engaging through the middle, and for a story that seems like it should hardly stand out, its conceit is creative enough that it’s unlike any other film out there, even today. And it does that while painting the message that for all your society tells you about balance and necessary evil and the “natural state of things,” when the system you live feeds on the pain of others, it is always possible to break it.
What more can you ask for, really?
Series Breakdown Rating:
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 7