Snowpiercer (2013) is a film about revolution. The year is 2040. Global warming and man’s solution to it has caused the eradication of the human species. The only life remaining on earth is on a train that circles the earth once per year. The train is a closed ecosystem that contains the last remnants of humanity, contained in its ugliest manifestation. At the front of the train, the conductor, the worshipped “Wilford” keeps the engine running. Further back are the scenic aquariums and greenhouses, perfect classrooms, dance halls, and sleeping cars. After the water treatment, barracks and prison cars comes the caboose. A group of people live in the “tail car” as hanger-ons, refugees who did not freeze to death in the sudden eradication of the planet. They live in squalor and eat protein blocks, and their children are taken away. They seem to exist at the pleasure of those caught sunning themselves near the front. Sometimes they are recruited to go to the front to serve the more privileged of the species. Of course, the people in the tail car are plotting revolution.
In fact, the film basically starts with this revolution. After briefly seeing the brutality of their conditions, we are tossed rather quickly into what happens when the tail car inhabitants realize that their guards have no bullets to shoot them with. They spring a Korean man and his daughter (though a Korean film, about 80% of the movie is in English) to help with the doors between cars. Along the way, they discover the indoctrination other inhabitants, including the soldiers, go through. They discover that their protein blocks were actually liquefied cockroaches. They drop like flies in front of a car full of axe-wielding police. Still, the people push forward. Awed by the sights of the front cars, they suddenly sit down for sushi, which they are informed is only eaten twice per year to preserve the delicate balance of life in the ecosystem of the train. This they hear after exactly 74% of them are targeted for execution to preserve the same balance.
I don’t really want to spoil the plot, because I think it’s a rather enjoyable film, visually stunning with decent acting and directing. That’s rare enough these days. This means you should stop reading here if you want to be surprised. Onward, I’ll say that despite heavy losses, the revolution makes it to the front of the train car and has to contend with the same challenges revolutions in this life face. The leader of the revolution is persuaded to take over operation of the delicate balance, as his compatriots are killed. It’s only when the girl peels up a panel in the floor, dream-like, that we see the children gone missing from the tail car are being used as replacement parts in the machines themselves.
Before our hero can change his mind, the train derails, completely oblivious of the greater ethical questions of man’s governance, killing all inside but the girl and one of the stolen children. Despite being told all their lives that they would freeze to death immediately upon leaving the safety of the closed ecosystem on the train, both children emerge from the train in fur coats, spying a polar bear in the distance. Life is possible on the outside.
From an ecological perspective, this film rings true as effective propaganda. The ridiculousness of considering revolution as a way of changing the way the world works while at the same time heading towards complete disaster comes through loud and clear, especially because so much of the “changes” we see just happen to be more of the same, if not in more cynical packaging. The only solution, it seems, is to overthrow the entire system, not simply to get someone from the tailcar into power. A system where something like Soylent exists to solve “world hunger”, where there will always be hidden slaves behind panels, is not a system I think needs to be sustained. The film does a good part in making this point as well. In our future world, things end because we were unwilling to change the economy to prevent global warming. We tried to find a workaround and ended up ruining everything. Will this be how things are? Yikes! We all deserve to get off the train, not just change the conductor.