Director Bong Joon-ho uses his cinematic masterpiece Snowpiercer (2013) as a vessel to deliver the message of what direction humanity might face due to our own self destruction. Snowpiercer is an action filled thriller presenting such controversial topics as cannibalism, human trafficking, climate change, revolution and more. These themes/components propel the film into the theatrical spotlight; the subject of critical debate and philosophic discussion. Joon-ho weaves his narrative as a tale of impending doom using a snake-like train that slivers around the world housing what is left of human civilization which presents as martyrdom, despotism, social divide, and the constant threat of annihilation to the human race and earth.
Many filmmakers utilize the threat of the end of the world in order to promote an encompassing theme or moral lesson examining the sins of humanity. Much like his film The Host (2006) the movie begins with the release a chemical into the environment but instead of the creation of a monstrous creature, we see the end of normal civilization and the dawn of a cataclysmic ice age. In both of these movies the fault lies within an American, in this case the American government for making the choice to release such a chemical but here we see the actual peril of the people as defined by their wealth and social status. The survivors of the human race are separated by socioeconomic status based on a ticket bought in order to continue on the train ride of life. Those not on board this train are now dead as the state of the world itself is in a state of frigid ice death.
The movie mentions throughout how a state of homeostasis is essential for an ecosystem to exist. In example, as members of the revolution progress through the gates of their hell past the fish aquarium into a sushi bar, their captive Mason (actress Hilda Swinton), discusses how sushi is a treat for the first class only twice a year due to the need for homeostasis in the fish ecosystem. To create this highly desired balance a portion of the population would need to be eaten for the rest to survive. The cannibalism that Curtis describes to his ally Namgoong Minsu near the end of the movie also parallels this concept in a twisted manner. Of course, those in First Class ate steak and fine wine while those in the back train car called Freeloaders ate blood red gelatin protein bars composed of roaches, crickets and vermin cooked by a member from the tail end of the train who had been abducted and appears eerily reluctant to leave his post to join the group of rebels on their crusade to the engine. Members of the revolution discuss amidst each other that he no longer looks or acts like the man he was before his abduction. Later in the film, Wilford orders the slaughter of more passengers and explains to Curtis events like the revolution where lives are lost assist in maintaining a controllable, more effectively managed society.
The film maker created the concept of social divide in the movie by presenting three forms of ticket holders who were able to board the train to survive the artic annihilation. The tickets were for First class, Economy, and Freeloaders. These parallel our current socioeconomic classes as Upper Class, Middle Class, and Poverty level. According to the Pew Research Center, the economic divide continues to grow. A recent report published stated “upper income families which had three times as much wealth as middle income families in 1983, more than doubled the wealth gap by 2013… they had seven times as much wealth as middle income families” (Fry and Kochhar). Similarities lie between the Titanic (1997) as the “unsinkable ship” to this train as the “eternal train” whereas different social classes were given preference based on their socioeconomic status of who survives and thrives compared to those who do not.
The train also serves as an archetype of sorts as representing the world or society as a whole and also equating the locomotive to the human body. In the film the train was actually referred to as a train of life where order and loyalty were to prevail and where a pattern of preordained placement in status was mentioned regularly throughout the film. The divide between the classes was also illustrated in a monologue by Mason as she lectured the Freeloaders in the caboose car of the train where she compared them to a shoe and she was the head and the shoe should never be over the head. She basically told them to know their role and to be aware of their place in the order of society. As discussed in the book, the DIVIDE American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, author Matt Taibbi details our progressive society forcing us into two divides; those that can and those who cannot or those who have and those whom have nothing. Denotes that greater society often displays a profound hatred and fear of the weak and the poor (Taibbi, 51). In the film, Economy Class soldiers line up and massacre a percentage of the population of Freeloaders as First Class lounge in clubs and salons seemingly existing in a state of spa relaxation and self absorption completely aloof to the happenings in the rear of the train. The actual structure of the train is engine at the head of the train housing the leader “Wilford” and then winding around to the cars catering to the First Class then around to Economy class and then many levels of supplies and survival needs, a prisoner holding cell, several security gates and lastly the caboose, the Freeloader’s habitat. The First Class use Freeloaders as slaves or even cattle whereas they are commodities for consumption in many ways merely surviving and serving. At one point, soldiers request a violinist and an elderly couple approach to volunteer they both play violin. When the seasoned gentleman refuses to leave his wife in the tail section for a position in the front of the train, the soldiers assault his the man’s wife and abduct him. Taibbi suggests that the social divide also sorts citizens into arrestable and non arrestable classes (Taibbi, 51). The movie illustrates this point as those labelled as Freeloaders in the caboose serve sentences for drug convictions and addictions while members of high society as the First Class party in club cars and even lounge in an opium room near the head of the train. They are the tail and the engine is the head. This cavernous economic divide is perpetuated by the despotism apparent throughout the film.
Despotism seems to prevail throughout the movie as everything happening on the train is in one way or another controlled by the engine and “Wilbur” the conductor. He is the dictator of the train and it seems as though his followers obey and worship his every command. He is celebrated in a God-like fashion. The school on board educating the children teaches curriculum centered around him and his philosophy of the train and keeping the engine sovereign. Wilfred controls the train. Revolutionaries explain controlling the engine, controls the world. All previous attempts for a tail section revolt faltered because they failed to gain control the engine. The engine in today’s society is the media. The media is funded by big business who own and control output. In some counties, the government controls what the media publishes and television programming, and even news reporting. Wilbur uses similar tactics, concealing notes in the protein bars of the rear passengers to create drama and civil unrest meanwhile teaching the children in the classroom early on the tale of his glory, his expectations to be recognized as the supreme leader, and explains they are all forever indebted to him for saving their lives. Curtis explains when the passengers in the rear first boarded soldiers came and took everything, similar to the Holocaust when German Nazi’s invaded the homes of Jew families. In fact, journalist Brandon Taylor uses the term “Marxist” in reference to the actions of Wilfred and his soldiers in the film repeatedly (Taylor).
The despotism and hunger in the movie fuels the need for revolution in order for the Freeloaders to gain their freedom from the slavery and despair of Wilford’s class system. As the movie progresses there is a lack of food only for the Freeloaders, cannibalism occurring due to starvation and the abduction of children and other members of the tail section, as First Class seemly live as royalty with no cares in the world. Wilfred maintains control of the train by keeping the Freeloaders hungry and punishing them if they attempt any ‘disorder’. Snowpiercer portrays great personal martyrdom and sacrifice in order for people to become leaders in their fight for freedom and equality. In part of the movie, our protagonist Curtis asks Gilliam how can he lead if he has two good arms. The hero has a battle within himself concerning his past inability to sacrifice himself during trying times of starvation for Freeloaders on the train when they had no food when Gilliam removed his own limbs to feed others for survival sake. However, Curtis does go on to lead the revolt and does become a martyr of an arm as he rescues a young boy named Timmy later in the film. The oppression of those in the Freeloader class is so high that they must band together and sacrifice their lives in order to revolt against the engine/conductor in order to become free. Thomas Sutton of the Artifice discusses the importance of each of the key characters and evaluates their roles in the revolution in amazing detail in his article “Snowpiercer and the Social Revolution” and has this to say about the film’s message:
It is clear from analyzing the film that it holds strong beliefs on the social structures of society, and that the current system that western society lives in is not working. Nor is global economics good from the well being of the majority. Although the film is very good at expressing its qualms with this society, it does not know where it should actually go from here. But the revolutionary ethos of the film, which has been critically acclaimed, shows that within contemporary society there are those wishing to make change, and that this will happen with affirmative action (Sutton, 17).
While there are many acts of violence throughout the film and volatile social issues the film reveals, I intend to posit that this film is a lesson in humanity. The filmmaker leaves the viewer with a glimmer of hope as two of the Freeloaders survive the train derailment and further see new life in the distance as a polar bear appears. It would have been an entirely different film had Chris Evan’s character “Curtis” chosen to take Wilford’s place at the front of the train instead of sacrificing his arm to save the child and providing the match to blow the exit door inadvertently derailing the train. There is a moment at the conclusion of the film where Curtis contemplates accepting the role of conductor but Yona lifts a floor tile to expose Timmy working in hazardous conditions inside the engine with gears whirling dangerously around him and changes his mind. Shortly after, another boy awakens and climbs down from his bunk, which had been disguised as a system of drawers. When Curtis cries out to the boy not to enter the engine, the boy ignores him, in a hypnotic or brain-washed state. The boy is very different from the same child we see earlier in the film similar to the other tail section passengers whom soldiers abducted. Also, any members of the revolution selflessly sacrifice their own lives for their leader Curtis to continue his trek to the engine in his pursuit of change.
The Host (2006) and this film give us a glimpse into a society where survival and escape are the sole goal of living. Due to the graphic display of starvation and the lengths people will go in order to survive makes one question whether civilization and society will merely survive or thrive in the face of global catastrophe? As an individual you may question what side of the situation you will be on and if you will prevail. This movie leaves you with some pretty big soul searching questions about yourself as an individual, where you fit into society as a whole, and in which train car you would ride. Grab your ticket, buckle up for a tumultuous ride though man made hell. All I can say is: “First class, please??”
Fry, Richard, Rakesh Kochhar. “America’s wealth gap between middle-income and upper- income families is widest on record.” Pew Research Center (17 Dec, 2014). Accessed on 24 Feb, 2017 from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/17/wealth-gap- upper-middle-income/
e poor (Taiecand becomes a martyr film Sutton, Thomas. “Snowpiercer and Social Revolution.” The Artifice (02 Jun, 2016). Accessed on 20 Jan, 2017 from: http://the-artifice.com/snowpiercer-and-social-revolution/
Taibbi, Matt. The DIVIDE: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau Random House LLC, 2014. (p. 51.) Book (Print).
Taylor, Brandon. "The ideological train to globalization: Bong Joon-ho's The Host and Snowpiercer." CineAction, no. 98, 2016, p. 44+. Academic OneFile, blc- lrc.bluegrass.kctcs.edu:2061/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=vers03499&v=2.1&it=r&id=G ALE%7CA456344444&asid=d5707b6cc9565f665fae366a864ada98. Accessed 22 Jan. , 2017. Library Database (Web).
The Host (USA/Korea: Bong Joon-Ho, 2006: 121 mins)
Snowpiercer (USA: Bong Joon-Ho, 2013: 126 mins)
Titanic (USA: James Cameron, 1997: 195 mins)