On Snowpiercer (SPOILERS)

by Jonah Goldberg

I watched Snowpierecer last week and like a lot of people, I really enjoyed it. It has some absolutely ridiculous plot elements, but that’s okay. Most sci-fi movies do without achieving the allegorical artistry of Snowpiercer. Of the commentary I’ve seen, I think Joe Carter gets it best.  He rightly dubs it the most political film of the year:

When I say this is a “political” film I mean it in the Platonic sense of an ideal polis based on the best form of government that leads to the common good. Snowpiercer is an extended political fable about the polis, albeit one that includes scenes of hatchet fights between people carrying torches and people wearing night-vision goggles.

But I have some disagreements or at least objections to Carter’s reading of the movie. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to write this post on the assumption that readers have already seen the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading. The unifying concept of the film is the notion of balance, a point that is drilled into the audience with diminishing subtlety from about the midpoint on. Wilfred (the holy dictator played by Ed Harris) and Gilliam (the chewed up prol-philosopher played by John Hurt) understand that society is based on Darwinian structures enforced by Platonic or Sorellian myths that give the people meaning and order. The elites need to be kept on their toes by their fear of the impoverished masses. The masses need the hope of overthrowing the elites in order to endure. The body politic needs this tension to cull hungry mouths from both ranks. Carter writes:

Wilford goes on to explain that the balance can only be achieved by two ways: Either by natural selection or political manipulation. Over the course of its 18 year history, the train has had three “revolutions” instigated by Wilford and his partner in the back of the train, Gilliam. The two political masterminds understood that they needed to “maintain a balance between anxiety and fear, chaos and horror, for life goes on.”

Class warfare was the ingenious method of maintaining the population. The people in the front of the train can never grown too comfortable, for fear the back might rise up and take their place. And the down-and-out in the back are given just enough hope in a future regime-change that they don’t fall into complete despair.

So far so good. But Carter goes on to argue that Curtis (the protagonist revolutionary leader played by Chris Evans of Captain America fame) should actually be seen as a secondary villain. He writes:

In the beginning of the film, we identify with Curtis and assume he is the hero since he is championing the ideals the audience believes in, such as equality, fairness, and justice. But by the middle of the film we start getting a different impression of Curtis.

Once he allows his loyal friend Edgar to die so that he can capture Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), we realize he has too much of the True Revolutionary about him to be heroic. By the end of the movie we start to see him for what he really is: a man who will do almost anything—even eat human babies—in order to ensure his survival.

This strikes me as a bit unfair. We learn about his one-time desire to eat babies from a heart-wrenching story told by Curtis himself. He says the thing he hates about himself most is that he knows what people taste like. We learn that he was saved — as in he regained his soul — by seeing the self-sacrifice of Gilliam and others who literally chopped off their own limbs so that lives could be spared and the hungry might eat. Witnessing this act was quite clearly was transformative for Curtis. He was born again as a better man. Carter finds Christian themes in the film. This struck me as the most obvious.

As for Gilliam, the most revealing thing he says in the whole film is that Curtis should cut out Wilfred’s tongue the moment he sees him. “Don’t give him a chance to talk to you.” (I’m quoting from memory). That advice implies — I think — that Gilliam is not quite the partner Wilfred thinks he is (and that Carter assumes he is). If Curtis followed Gilliam’s advice, Curtis would have never been clued into Wilfred’s ideological scheme. As for his terrible choice of pursuing victory over the life of his friend, that didn’t strike me as nearly so damning. Curtis understood that if he went back to save his friend the revolt would fail. Maybe it was the wrong decision, but I don’t see it as an obviously selfish one (indeed Curtis says over and over again he doesn’t want to be a leader). The selfish course would have been to take Wilfred up on his generous offer to replace him as Lord of the Train. He rejects this. Carter suggests that Curtis does this as an active choice to “return to nature.” Maybe. Or maybe he does this because he rejects the totalitarianism implicit in all doctrines of elite-imposed balance (I could write pages on the rich pedigree of this kind of corporatist totalitarianism. Heck, I wrote a book about it).Or maybe he rejects it simply because he doesn’t want to sacrifice his hard-won soul for mere power. There’s whiff of Thomas More here. It profits a man nothing if he loses his soul for the sake of the engineer’s cap.

Anyway, maybe I’m wrong. Still, it is a huge and well-deserved compliment to Bong Joon-ho that he’s made a movie that holds together as a fairly low-budget sci-fi action flick that simultaneously lends itself to such rich and diverse interpretations.