Suspend All Disbelief Before Boarding Snowpiercer
If you can’t see the new Bong Joon-Ho film Snowpiercer at your local theatre, we wouldn't be surprised; it has a limited release in the United States, meaning only pricey cities like New York and L.A. will probably be playing it. This, of course is sort of a bummer, when the entire premise of the movie is a power-to-the-people allegory about how the upper-class takes advantage of the poor. Science fiction films (and TV) have a grand tradition of making biting political commentary through fantastic or exaggerated premises. For many, this is the entire purpose of science fiction, and why something like the classic 1960’s Star Trek is more than just people in funny costumes and William Shatner’s halted cadence. But is Snowpiercer’s bark worse than its bite?
Light Spoilers for Snowpiercer, Harry Potter, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Blindness by Jose Saramago.
Like The Hunger Games, Snowpiercer has a fight-the-man conscience. The premise is basically this: the entire population of humanity is stuck on a train which goes around the world while a perpetual ice age rages outside. The train is organized by social class, with the very lowest social class at the back of the train, where there are terrible living conditions, gross food, and cruelty from the powers-that-be. The film’s main protagonist Curtis (Chris Evans doing a much darker “Captain America”) leads a revolution of mostly men in an extremely violent and gory attempt to take over “the Engine,” and thus, get some freedom. There is a lot of gruesome murder in this film which—we guess—is part of its larger message. In Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, a science fiction event—sudden global blindness—causes people locked in a hospital to do terrible things to each other, complete with an awful caste system and tons of violence. In H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, the eventual ending of the book reveals the utopian lifestyle of the Elio is a ruse, since the subterranean and monstrous Morlocks are simply eating them. This novel posits the idea that the “haves” of society with prey upon the “have-nots.” Smartly, Wells has the “have-nots” LOOK like the “haves” by giving them all sorts of extravagance and making it seem like the Elio have it pretty sweet, only to discover they’re just cattle for monsters.
Snowpiercer has a similar twist towards its end, and in many ways, is the exact same message of The Time Machine; one class will take advantage of another, and use them to literally power the train that puts humanity forward. The only problem with all of this is that the believability of Snowpiercer starts to fall apart really fast if you think about it at all. To be totally fair, we're always in favor of over-looking world-building problems, or inconsistencies in fantasy or science fiction worlds, in favor of letting the plot happen the way the creators intended. Some people get upset that Harry Potter doesn't just randomly use Hermione’s Time-Turner to go back and punch Voldemort when he was a teenager, but whatever, it doesn't bother us. Snowpiercer’s issue is that it makes the “rules” of its world the only thing that matters about its plot, and more importantly its themes.
The train is a metaphor for humanity, and how it “functions” is “explained” in great detail toward the end of the movie. During this speech it’s really made clear to the audience that the movie is a metaphor for how terrible we could be to each other if we lived in a “closed ecosystem.” Suddenly, there’s a method for all of this madness, which makes everything all-the-more cruel. Not only is the Man keeping us down, but also manipulated our hero into the revolt against the Man. Babylon 5 played with this concept back in the 90’s; the idea that certain (read: smarter) groups would manipulate other (read: dumber) people into starting wars in order to get rid of a lot of the galaxy’s population. The horrific message is then: who would be such a monster as to make these calls? How could you justify it? Snowpiercer’s answer is very unsubtle: the people making the decisions are straight-up mean. Far too-many times do the “bad guys” seem to have anything but pure glee in this movie in terms of the terrible violent or inhuman acts perpetrated. And the reason this is difficult, is that it makes everything too black and white. True, we find out toward the end of the film that Curtis was once a really, really bad dude, but this redemption occurs off-camera, and before the action, meaning that in the face of the violence that is depicted in “real time,” it kind of doesn’t count as a real movie-redemption.
Further—because the logistics of Snowpeircer’s ecosystem are part of why the terrible things happen on the train—the believability of these logistics starts to be a problem for a thinking audience member. Eventually, like in The Time Machine, we learn the “system” (the “world” or here, “the train”) needs the lower-class for a specific task. The upper-class lives in luxury. But, the primary flaw of Snowpiercer is the total lack of a middle class. Here is a movie that tells you the allegory for the entire world is Bane’s homeless army from The Dark Knight Rises versus Downton Abbey. And when the entire metaphor for the movie rests on one believing that this “closed ecosystem” works, the train starts to run off its tracks.
Still, Snowpiercer’s heart is in the right place. Most of the time, we get the sense it wants to be a science fiction movie with a conscience, it’s just too bad it lets the violence and desire to MAKE A POINT drown out some of the more interesting questions. The 2003-2008 version of Battlestar Galactica managed to tackle all of these issues , and weirdly, had the motivations of all the characters make a little more sense; i.e. people weren't only evil. In that science fiction world, you can see someone go from conservative to liberal or vice versa and it wasn't shocking, but instead, disquieting.
Snowpiercer is manipulative in trying to get its message across, which is mostly forgivable because its message seems to be a fairly good one: no one should play god with a society. And yet, we still have the nagging feeling it could have let more of its characters live, and made all of its points a little bit more intelligently, and a little less hacking.
What's your favorite dystopian sci fi movie?