Snowpiercer: An Examination of Political Structure and the Necessity of Radical Intervention


When Snowpiercer was released, some of my favorite internet peeps were posting about it. This made me go, hmmmm…. Well, this and the fact that it was written and directed by a fantastic lefty film maker. I have to admit that, while I wanted to get to it, I wasn’t able to before it was whisked out of the only theater playing it in my town. I was sad. Until I saw it on an unexpected flight to Seattle last week.

So, it SHOULD go without saying; but, if it isn’t obvious, I’ll state for the record that there ::may:: be some ::spoilers:: present in this post. If you haven’t watched it and don’t want anything spoiled, you should probably stop here, go watch because it’s great (hey, I hear it’s on netflix!), then come back so I can fill you in on my thoughts and we can have a conversation about it. How’s that?

So, are we good? Yes? Good; I’ll go on. The first half of the film struck me as boring and heavy handed.  I was actually thinking “you know, what’s all the fuss about?”  Most of the film consists of the usual class-warfare hierarchical scheme of awareness touted by all the top liberal thinkers in a mind-bogglingly and glaringly obvious and overstated metaphor of the bottom half of society moving through a train from the back to the front.  They have sparked a revolution out of hunger and abuse, and have been pushed on by mysterious notes appearing in their food supply – bricks of ‘protein’ later found to be made from the bugs on board the moving society – the remains of humanity in total.

As our heroes move from the back to the front, they encounter all of the luxuries and opulence and disgusting indulgence of the well-to-do who have access to natural light (windows!) and an aquarium (sushi!) and real meat (a whole chicken-stocked butchery!) and clothes and drugs and saunas and pools.  Oh, my, what they have been missing out on!  Still, they move forward instead of getting mired down in the temptation – fighting for their lives as the security force comes after them by different means.  Again, nice, sure, but a bit forced and obvious.

But then we get to the last, eh, 15 minutes of the film.  This is when the entire set up changes.  I sat up in my seat, then was on edge until the end, when I sort of fell back in a heap going, huh, what did I just watch?  It wasn’t until the next morning when I awoke – finally rested, I might say – suddenly and full of insight on the ultimate message of the film, as I understood it, and what it means for us. So what happens in these last few minutes?  Let’s talk about it:

So, this engaging and refreshing narrative begins with our head guy sitting down with the security architect of the train, whom he has awoken from a sleepy respite in a criminal incarceration unit for drug users. Here, our protagonist tells the story of his awakening – his transition from one of the masses doing anything to survive to one of the enlightened as he is shown the middle way by an old man, his mentor.  Here he learns that the minor sacrifices of a great many mean the lives of the few.  This, I think, is our traditional socialist narrative – the greedy capitalist is saved by the example of a selfless one and sees the horror and greed of his ways.  This, however, leads him to seek the front of the train without compromise and with no real plan for how to move forward from there.  He doesn’t see this – but it is brilliantly illuminated in the final set of narratives.

As he is alarmingly and graciously allowed to the front of the train by the train’s creator, he endures a lecture of epic proportion – a lecture which led me to the edge of my seat with awe and excitement and thoughts of “oh, no he isn’t!”  It is my personal opinion that Joon-ho Bong built the rest of the movie around the idea of this final set of exchanges.  It is the crux of the entire film, and the film’s true message lies here.  As Curtis is allowed into the enigmatic Wilford’s inner sanctum, he is made aware that his mentor and guide to the light has secretly been working as Wilford’s partner in oppression.  The tyrant reveals a secret history of voluntary cooperation with the evil of the status quo – the structure of the train is not accidental; in fact, it relies on the complicity of the oppressed. It is placed in the context of extinction – we either cooperate in the only way we know, hierarchy, or we die.  These are the only two options.

And furthermore, Wilford goes on – the entire revolution has been masterminded by the tyrant and his cooperative lackey – in order to maintain order and population control, the architects created a second revolution (he has been planting the messages, you see, and we know of a previous revolution from narrative references throughout the film). The artifice of revolution is made in order to encourage the natural order amongst all members of the society while paring down on the population in order to maintain a carefully planned closed ecosystem. And why not? The world outside is frozen solid without chance for survival.  In this way, it is the cultivation of chaos, of conflict, of seemingly meaningful violence that maintains the oppressive status quo for everyone.  Because even the upper classes are terrified of the outside – because outside of the bounds of the train is nothing but death.

But here’s the kicker – the train arrives just in the nick of time for the disastrous frozen human overcompensation of anthropogenic global warming.  See?  The global freeze was caused by humans as their solution to global warming, which was caused by humans.  We move from one disastrous situation to another – constantly setting ourselves up for failure as a species and then maintaining that the same exact circumstances – the same hierarchy (the social division of the train’s cars), the same facade of control (protected from the wild natural elements, safely inside the train) – that got us there will save us this time.

This got me thinking – We have this history, as a species, as a modern society, of Revolting within the same system. (ie, “the train”) Think of a ‘revolution’ or a revolt – go ahead, think all the way back to ninth grade social studies if you need to…. Well, was this revolution an actual overturning of the system, or was it a mere redistribution of the system?  Over and over again we see these resets of the status quo – all throughout our history – and yet we deem them revolutionary.  Immediately, the USSR came to mind – a ‘communist’ ‘revolution’ which only succeeded in flipping the classes within the same system.  Then Nazi Germany came to mind and the ‘escape’ of persecuted Zionist Jews to the newly created Israel where they became the oppressors of a new innocent people, flipping the same system on its head again.  The US revolution – the same thing, the oppressed flip the system temporarily until 250 years later they are the same colonizing oppressors from which they originally sought refuge.  I challenge you to find one which doesn’t perpetuate the same cycle.

In this way, oppression becomes not an oppression solely by an other, but rather an act in which we ourselves conspire – we become complicit in and dependent upon our own oppression for the sake of the status quo which we know and in which we feel safe, even when it’s devastating us. And it does devastate us – for EVERYONE in the system, from the top to the bottom – as portrayed metaphorically in the film, the top never gets a break until they die and the bottom never reach any semblance of peace or enjoyment and the middle are so sedated by their boredom and paralysis from participation that they don’t even exist in any productive capacity. And this is where the final ending of the film reveals its brilliance – it actually BLEW MY MIND and made me wake up wired for sound when I realized this…

Ok, last spoiler alert, but seriously, if you haven’t seen it I’m about to spoil the ending for you.

Still here?  Good; I’ll go on.  The film ends, as you should know by now, because you’ve totally seen it (right?), with the catastrophic and metaphoric and violent destruction of humanity as the train is set off its rails into oblivion by the criminal technology creator – quite literally, the train, the ‘savior’ of humankind is also the means of extinction of a species. All of humanity, that is, but two who land in the new, un-navigated, unsafe territory of Earth.  It’s no accident that they were both born on the train – literally virgins of the Earth.  Neither, I think, is it an accident that we are left with a young boy and a teenaged woman – a virginal and matriarchal do-over – on equal footing with a solitary polar bear emerging to negotiate his way through the new landscape, as well. In this way, we can only escape our misery, our selfish hierarchy, our miserable power struggles through true revolution – that is a drastically new system, an uncharted new world that is both terrifying but also the only true redemption for humankind.


2 thoughts on “Snowpiercer: An Examination of Political Structure and the Necessity of Radical Intervention

  1. I also thinks it’s interesting that Wilford ‘promoted’ someone from the back. To the untrained eye, this seems like the just thing to do. This would give the others in the back a sense of hope (“one of our guys made it/Wilford really does care/we do have a voice”). In reality, it’s a brilliant way to perpetuate the illusion of justice. All of it is a set up to make the people at the bottom believe that anything is possible. And what lengths they went to in order to preserve the new leader. One has to realize that his opposition was instructed to avoid him or to only inflict flesh wounds.

    • yes!! While you’re still holding your thumb over him! And, giving someone from the ‘back’ a little power creates gratitude and perpetuates the myth of the bootstrap (see, it’s totally possible to make it if you just work hard!) while avoiding an actual challenge to power you may get from someone in the ‘middle’ who has the means to actually challenge one’s authority and mobilize peers. You’re totally right.

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