Future Template: Snowpiercer (2013)

In Future Template I want to look at stories that depict our future and analyze the pattern that most of them follow and what this tells us about our culture.

(spoilers ahead)

Snowpiercer (2013)
Starring Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Ewen Bremner, Ah-sung Ko, Alison Pill
Director of Photography: Kyung-pyu Hong
Music by Marco Beltrami
Edited by Steve M. Choe, Changju Kim
Written by Joon Hong Bo and Kelly Masterson
Directed by Joon Hong Bo
Rating: 9 out of 10

Snowpiercer is a fascinating and breathtaking science-fiction movie that has an intriguing premise which is explored to the fullest. The movie works so well because you feel how the filmmakers really dig into their idea, which makes the movie very rewarding since you never know what to expect next. From the outside it looks like some B-movie but the production values are excellent as the cinematography and the visual effects really work well. The acting is great, too, all the way through. Chris Evans might be at his best here, Tilda Swinton is just amazing, Ah-sung Ko is really good too and besides all the other great people here, Ed Harris and Alison Pill have short but very striking moments too. This is a fun, clever and exciting movie.

It is also a science-fiction movie and therefore it follows a certain template I like to talk about once in a while. Here are the basics that fit to an incredible amount of sci-fi movies:

  • starts with a dystopian scenario, often caused by humans in some way (or starts seemingly utopian but then turns dystopian), often ruled by some kind of authoritarian rule
  • a protagonist breaks through the system either by starting a revolution or by uncovering the government’s lies
  • at some point the protagonist is confronted with the idea that saving humans is not worth it because they are the source for all the problems
  • he (it is often a ‘he’) saves humanity anyway, ending the movie with a sense of hope for the future

Go and see how that fits to most sci-fi movies in one way or another: The Matrix, Minority Report, Metropolis, Interstellar, I, Robot, The Fifth Element, Gamer, Oblivion etc. What fascinates me about that concept is that it’s inherently a sort of paradox. On the one hand, we are told that humanity caused the end of the world as we know it because humanity is flawed, on the other hand we are told that one human is able to overcome this flaw, giving us a sense of hope. We leave the movie with a good feeling but actually we’ve also been (convincingly) told that there is no hope because we are human. This is a cultural issue and it doesn’t necessarily weaken any movie in its quality. I want to discuss future sci-fi movies based on that template, but let’s look at how Snowpiercer deals with it.

On the outset it is made very clear that humans caused a new ice age, basically killing everyone on the planet by trying to fix global warming (which is also caused by humans).

The only survivors live on a kind of ark, a long train that takes one year to travel around the earth, never stopping because of some genius engine that keeps it going forever.

The train is divided in different compartments and it reflects our class system. The people in the back are the poor ones, the lowest class, working all day, living in miserable conditions, eating some kind of disgusting glob. For good measure, some of their kids are taken away occasionally. This is where we meet our protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans) who is planning a revolution. One fun way the movie plays with that idea is showing us that there have been many revolutions over the years but none of them got all the way to first compartment where the engine is. It almost makes it sound like a game, where the revolutionaries try to get as far as they can. But it is not a game for Curtis and he learns most about those past revolutions himself only over the course of the movie.

The back part of the train is ruled by soldiers, led by some henchmen like Franco the Elder and the Younger (Vlad Ivanov and Adnan Haskovic) who follow the orders of Mason (Tilda Swinton, who goes full Swinton here). Later we meet other fighters, the scariest ones with masks and pick-axes. It is a strictly hierarchical structure where the fighters probably only fight the poor people because they don’t want to be poor themselves.

The upper class presents itself in an almost satirical way. Again, Mason does care so little about any living being but herself, clearly symbolizing our general idea of the 1%. The compartments become more and more extravagant as people sit in tubs, get makeovers and seem completely detached from the world outside. They’re living the good life, even at the end of the world. As much as this is a cliché, it works here because it goes so over the top, especially seen through the eyes of the rebels.

The scene with the teacher (Alison Pill) is so farcical and funny, showing kids indoctrinated with the propaganda of the train’s inventor Wilford as they repeat every line of his whitewashed history, sing songs for him while the (pregnant nonetheless) teacher starts shooting at the rebels with a machine gun. I couldn’t think of many better ways to show the clash of two social classes who are completely estranged from each other.

The ending focuses on reaching the last compartment, the engine room, occupied by its inventor Wilford (Ed Harris, showing again what a great actor he is – whatever happened to him?). He lives even more isolated than everyone else, completely in his own world. As part of the revolution is also finding some of the kidnapped kids, the audience might only be halfway surprised at this point that the kids are used to be parts of the engine to keep it going. It’s not subtle but still an effective symbol for a society that feeds upon its youngest to survive.

Wilford also gives the monologue that is so common in sci-fi movies: “The train is the world. We, the humanity […]. You’ve seen what people do without leadership. They devour one another. […] Look at them. That’s how people are. You know. You’ve seen this. You’ve been this. Ridiculous, pathetic, aren’t they? You saved them from themselves.” Humans. Are. Flawed. Our culture’s belief in that idea is as strong as it is untrue and science fiction movies seem to embrace especially well because they can extrapolate on what horrible things humans are supposedly capable of. It is interesting to note, that conveying this idea is very often done by the villain. This way, we can reject those ideas on the surface (“It’s wrong because the bad guy says it!”), while subconsciously we believe him because it confirms what Mother Culture has been telling us for years. If the good guy said it (which rarely happens), it’d be much more troubling for us. But this way we can allow ourselves this false sense of hope which gives us a good feeling although we know that there is not much hope if we buy into the idea of a flawed humanity.

But there is a point where the movie diverges from the standard sci-fi narrative. Wilford explains to Curtis that his revolution is actually good for the train and was basically planned by him. He explains that it is necessary to have an occasional revolution to sustain a balance in the train’s population. Furthermore, he says, it generates hope in the poor people that revolutions are possible and excitement for everyone else. In a way, this describes the purpose of the typical science-fiction movie as well. It keeps us calm in a way, giving us the feeling that we dealt with serious and dark issues but can still have the comfort (or illusion) of hope in the end, which doesn’t necessitate any real change. There is always that one great guy who will do it for us, but of course we won’t be that guy. The finale of the movie feels like a comment on the whole genre while also transcending the genre to some degree.

305 Snowpiercer 9 Balance.jpg

In the end, our hero Curtis basically sacrifices himself to rescue others and the one who symbolizes hope is Yona (Ah-sung Ko), the clairvoyant daughter Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), the “expert” on train revolutions who also dies in the final crash. But Yona survives, together with Tim (Marcanthonee Reis), one of the kidnapped kids. As they stand outside in the snow, that is not so cold anymore as to kill them right away, watching a polar bear that serves as proof that life on earth is possible again, we see a different kind of ending. Our survivors are two non-white non-men who didn’t survive because they were better than everyone else or exceptionally special but because they were lucky and helped each other. And most of the hope simply comes from the fact the Earth basically gives us another shot. So, while the movie doesn’t completely reinvent the wheel and still follows some of the traditional ideas of our culture, it also breaks some of the conventions and quasi-comments on them. Which is more than your average movie can offer you.