Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Several months ago I saw the limited-release film Snowpiercer. I’ve read that the limited-release situation was due to the distributing studio’s confusion about what to do with it. I can understand to a certain extend why the studio didn't know how to market it: it's a Korean-American joint production, produced primarily in the Czech Republic, based on a French graphic novel. It has elements of dystopian science fiction, and some action scenes, but it's not really a sci-fi film or an action film. Many parts of it reminded me of the sort of surreal, quirky films produced by Terry Gilliam - which is ironic when you realize that the character portrayed by John Hurt is named Gilliam.
But what I really want to talk about here is what the movie made me think about. This is going to require a lot of spoilers, so if you don't want the plot elements spoiled for you, stop reading now.
The basic premise of the film is that to combat global warming, a chemical is released into the upper atmosphere to cool the planet. The technique works all too well, and the entire world is engulfed in a severe ice age that apparently destroys all life. To preserve humanity from extinction, a huge train is developed that can carry thousands of people on a globe-spanning track, smashing its way through ice and snow like a locomotive icebreaker. It runs on a sort of perpetual motion engine so it doesn't need to stop for fuel, and has an enclosed ecosystem to provide all the necessities for the passengers.
The passengers on the train are divided into two classes: those in the front who live in luxury dining on a wide variety of foodstuffs, and those in the rear who live in crowded and horrible conditions, eating only protein bars provided to them by the people in the front. A small group of the rear passengers decide to stage a revolt and take over control of the train. They are led, reluctantly, by Curtis (Chris Evans), who gets a great deal of advice from Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis's devoted follower is a younger man named Edgar.
In the first third of the film we see armed guards from the front of the train come to count the rear passengers, and then take away some of their children, ostensibly for medical examination. When the father of one boy resists, he's punished by having one of his arms put outside the train until it freezes, then the arm is smashed with a sledgehammer. A few scenes later we see a number of older men who are missing limbs, including Gilliam, and I assumed that they must have been subjected to the same type of punishment.
In the last third of the film, Curtis and his band of rebels have made their way to the front of the train, but only Curtis and two others are left: Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona. Namgoong is the man who designed the security gates that separate the train cars. Curtis wants Namgoong to open the last door into the front car of the train, where Curtis will find the train's creator and ruler, Wilford (Ed Harris). While trying to persuade Namgoong to open the last gate, Curtis tells him a story about what happened at the rear of the train when people first boarded seventeen years earlier. The people from the front sent armed men to take all the supplies from the passengers in the rear, leaving a thousand people without food or water. The rear passengers finally resorted to cannibalism to survive. One day when a group of men had killed a woman so they could eat her baby, an old man cut off his own arm so they could eat that instead. The old man was Gilliam. The baby was Edgar, and Curtis was one of the killers.
This scene exposes so many elements of the plot that it's a challenge to describe them all now. First, it reveals Curtis's motivation for revolting against Wilford: he isn't a selfless messiah leading his people to salvation, he's a man with a terrible guilt and shame trying to expiate his sins. This also reveals why he defers so much to Gilliam: Gilliam's sacrifice changed his life. In an earlier scene it is shown that Curtis has a large scar on his right arm, but the cause isn't explained. As Curtis tells Namgoong his story, he reveals that he had attempted but failed to cut off his own arm in imitation of Gilliam's sacrifice. Curtis's story also explains why he is so attached to Edgar, and why it's obviously torture for him to choose when Edgar is taken hostage by the front guards and Curtis must decide whether to rescue Edgar or take advantage of an open gate that will let him get closer to the front of the train.
It wasn't until after I left the theater that I started thinking about the other things Curtis's story exposes about the organization of the train. Clearly, since the armed men from the front took the rear passengers' supplies, the train wasn't originally meant to carry so many people. The passengers at the rear were either allowed to board the train in a last-minute act of compassion, or - this is what I think is more likely - they forced their way onto the train. Wilford and his people must have made a decision to let the rear passengers starve in order to save resources for themselves. When the rear passengers turned to cannibalism and Wilford realized they weren't all going to die, efforts were made to develop the protein bars to feed the extra mouths. The train's carefully designed ecosystem couldn't support producing more of the food items that the people at the front were eating, so they devised a plan in which another source of protein was used for the rear passengers. But the train couldn't be made any bigger, and rather than integrate the rear passengers with the rest of the population, which would probably have caused shortages and conflicts for everyone, the unwelcome additions were left to live in what limited space was available.
As Wilford reveals to Curtis when they finally meet, the entire revolt was engineered as a way to reduce the train's surplus population. Curtis has been Gilliam's patsy all along, his guilt and shame used against him to manipulate him into leading a rebellion that would result in the planned deaths of 74% of his friends and companions from the back of the train. Curtis only sees Wilford's decisions as cruel and inhumane, because he's blinded by his own emotions. He doesn't recognize how torturous these choices must have been for Wilford - just as torturous as his own decision to abandon Edgar so he could get through the gate to the next car, or his final decision to destroy the train in order to set everyone free.
A couple of weeks after I saw the film, I ran across an article asserting that Snowpiercer’s plot contains elements of Gnosticism. I find the author’s arguments pretty compelling, although I’m not certain the Gnostic influence was a conscious decision on the part of the screenwriter or director. As author Hughes points out, this type of story is also told in other films, like The Matrix and The Truman Show.
Although it may be a challenge to suspend one's disbelief that a train could keep running in such harsh conditions, or that it could support an entire population of people for seventeen years, the social and emotional messages the movie sends overcome the peculiarity of that plot conceit. Snowpiercer made me think, and for that reason, it's a movie worth seeing. And by the way, if you think Chris Evans is just Captain America, this film will make you think again. If I hadn't known he was in this movie before I went to the theater, I might not have recognized him.