Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer takes place on a self sustaining train that contains the remnants of humanity after the apocalypse. The film uses the layout of the train to set up an allegory for unfair class distribution that a North American audience will be all too familiar with. The train’s poor live in the crowded back cars where resources are scarce and authority is abused. The rich however, live in the front cars where they have luxuries, space and freedom. The film’s plot concerns a revolution being led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) in which marches a number of the back car inhabitants fight their way from the back car all the way to the engine room at the front in an effort to seize control of the train.
Bong Joon Ho uses the train allegory to talk about contemporary class issues in a number of interesting ways but I want to focus on one main idea in particular. Namely, the different attitudes displayed by Curtis and Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang Ho) in regards to the train (here meaning the class distribution system). Curtis wants to keep marching from the back of the train to the front. Furthermore, he frequently discourages characters from looking out the window and instead tells them on focusing on getting to the front of the train. Curtis wants to seize control of the engine room because he thinks that taking power away from Wilford (Ed Harris), the current leader of the train, is all that matters. If someone better were in power they could distribute resources appropriately, they could be benevolent in a way that Wilford is not. In short, Curtis wants to have Wilford supplanted and keep the train running.
Contrast Curtis’ view with that of Namgoong’s. Namgoong is revealed to have a very specific plan once they get to the engine room. Instead of taking control of the train, he wants to blow the door of the side and escape. Counter to Curtis, Namgoong has been looking out the windows and astutely observing. He has noticed the snow melting outside and he thinks that humanity has a shot at living outside of the train.
So, our character’s stand in front of two separate gates. One that leads to another cycle of capitalism and another that leads to a totally fresh start that is free of any notion of class whatsoever. The problem is that Curtis can’t totally understand a dismantling of the system. The idea that humans are incapable of living outside is one we hear repeatedly throughout the film. Most pertinently, we see a middle train car that serves as a school for the train’s children (of course, the children of the middle and upper class only). In this school we see the pro Wilford propaganda that is used to indoctrinate the children and make them think that train life is the only life people can have. “What happens if the engine stops”, the teacher asks. “We all freeze and die”, the children reply. In Curtis’s skepticism of Namgoong’s plan, we hear the sentiments expressed by the classroom propaganda. The sentiments that even Wilford’s most adamant detractor has somehow internalized. This is when we realize that Curtis is a part of the very system that he opposes. This is made explicitly clear when Wilford tells us that the train actually depends on civil unrest and revolution as a means of population control and as an activity that gives the poor something to do.
This brings me to a brilliant, subtle choice that Bong Joon Ho makes in the very opening. We get some history on the world of Snowpiercer through audio clips of news reports and other dialogue filling us in on how global warming got so out of control. After that, we get a establishing shot of the train track in which we are given even more information about the world of the film. However, the film switches from the method of giving us news reports to the less immersive method of imposing text directly on the screen. The imposed text gives us key pieces as it informs us that all life outside of the train is extinct and that all remaining humans live on the train. I want to ask a simple question: why did the director shift from the first method of telling us about the world to the second? Surely he could have had more news reports and audio clips telling us the same information that is told to us through the imposed text.
To properly answer that question, we have to look at the various unique features of the methods in question. The dramatized audio method gives us a first hand account of what happens in the world of the film. We hear on the news that global warming has gotten out of control and that people are attempting to fix it by dispersing a chemical compound in the air. We have no reason at all to doubt this. After all, why would the any of the voices we hear lie about what was happening. It is not impossible, but the audience is inferring from actual dramatic content what events took place in the world.
The imposed text method is different, as it requires no inference or participation from the audience beyond just shutting up and listening. If a director is the God of the world that they create the imposed text is the word of that God. We have no reason to doubt it because we can’t imagine why the person in the highest position of authority in regards to the film would lie to us.
Here in lies Bong Joon Ho’s brilliant decision. As we learn at the end of the film, the text did in fact lie to us. We are told early on that all life is extinct but after Namgoong puts his plan in action the remaining characters in the film see a polar bear, alive and well. This is a brilliant way to smack the audience on the wrist for accepting the dogma of high authority and not questioning the world regardless of what authority tells you. I have seen people confused about the ending, thinking that the remaining characters will simply die. This entirely misses the point of what Bong Joon Ho is up to. Why, even after we know he lied to us about all life being extinct do we still believe that there are no more humans? The only sources that have told us this are the opening text (which has already proven false) and Wilford’s propaganda, which we should explicitly know is untrustworthy.
The reason, of course, is that we are Curtis. We are the person who can get on board with bringing justice to the excessively rich, who live in extravagance while the poor suffer. We are also the person who wants can’t imagine a world without someone at the top, seemingly ignorant of the fact that by its very nature the train (here meaning capitalist society) is inherently oppressive. There will always be classes because there will always be a leader. Curtis is constantly worried about who will lead the train, which raises the question of if it is even possible to have a such a set up without any social classes. Suppose that Wilford’s successor can avoid temptation to abuse his power and distribute everything equally due to sheer benevolence, will this be true of whoever succeeds that successor? What about fifty years down the line? This is the point of the film’s ending, which tells us that the only way we can escape the trappings of capitalist society is to stop being a capitalist society. It is no mistake that Curtis, our apparent white savior turns out to be inextricably linked to an oppressive system. It paves the way for the minorities in the film to be the real agents of the radical change that the situation demands.
Bong Joon Ho lies to us in the opening text but he also tells us he is lying at the end of the film. He invites questioning of why we accept the information about the world that we do and why we trust the people who are providing us with said information. Your reaction to the film’s end is telling. Do you believe in the word of the highest authority simply because you see no reason not to or are you willing to accept permanent and substantive change, knowing that anyone with the power and authority to tell you how the world is probably has a motivation worth questioning. As evidenced by the melting snow and the polar bear, Bong Joon Ho clearly thinks the latter is worthwhile.