All the talk about Snowpiercer seems to center on its distribution model. We’ll get to that in a moment, because it is interesting, but if the movie didn’t display any cinematic dexterity, no amount of distribution acrobatics could make it worth our time. And Snowpiercer is certainly worth our time.
Snowpiercer is about a perpetually chugging train that houses the last life on earth after humanity’s attempt to counteract global warming by releasing more chemicals into the atmosphere tragically backfires. Think of it as a version of Noah’s Ark where man has tried to play God, fails, and so man’s idea of god is reduced to a man living in a train’s engine. The proletariate living in the locomotive’s back end aren’t amiable about the arrangement, and a series of car-by-car complications compound as the caboose-bound commoners commence their coup.
Symbolism abounds in Snowpiercer. The train itself is metaphor in its design and serves as a totem for the film itself. As Matthew PIttman said to me, the train is a linkage of metaphors about societal structure masquerading as a progressive idea. I say “masquerading,” because the Snowpiercer is also stuck in a never-ending loop-of-a-track circling the globe. There’s no real progression for the planet’s population. As long as it keeps moving, there is no beginning or end to the Snowpiercer’s or its inhabitants’ journey. Even if the revolutionaries are successful in their back-to-front quest, they’re all still stuck on that train. These people deserve a better revolution.
That’s where the real genius of Snowpiercer lies for me, in its dismantling of both the conservative and liberal socio-economic myths. The conservative impulse says that people are born into their station in life, but if they work hard and play by the rules, they can rise in station, if not in their own generation, at least in their children’s and children’s children’s generation. Snowpiercer suggests that, um, maybe not, and even if that is so in the (very) long run, no one can guarantee it, and is it worth the sacrifice in the short run anyway? Besides, everyone can’t live in the front of the train. There simply isn’t room. The conservative vision doesn’t see a place for everyone, suggests Snowpiercer.
The liberal impulse says that greater social equality is the answer. If the resources were more evenly distributed (by force), then everyone would be better off. Revolution, not the engine of capitalism, is the answer, and the sooner we get on with it, the better. Snowpiercer dissents, pointing out that resources are, in fact, limited, and they can’t be simply distributed to all at once. We need systems to determine how they should be divvied up, because people are inherently selfish. An individual will do what’s best for her or himself and not for the whole. Humanity has tried revolution before, and nothing, ultimately has changed. Revolutionaries eventually become ensconced in their own power structures, and the cycle begins anew. Things are as they have always been.
Besides, Snowpiercer states most resolutely, whether humanity goes with the conservative or the liberal plan, we’re still stuck on that train. We are merely surviving. For true, lasting change to happen, something even more revolutionary will be necessary. that revolution won’t look like the ones that have come before, and the world it ushers in won’t look like anything we’ve seen before either.
Snowpiercer‘s vision of what that new world looks like and the method of its in-breaking remind me most of two of my favorite messily-produced blockbusters of the past decade–The Matrix Revolutions and The Lone Ranger. I realize mentioning those two films in this review likely doesn’t incline you toward seeing Snowpiercer, as I think I was about the only person who liked either of those films. However, where The Matrix Revolutions and The Lone Ranger sprawl out of control, Snowpiercer stays small enough to maintain its thematic punch. On this level, it’s a better film.
This is a product, I think, of its more modest budget and its setting, the walls of the train becoming a kind of nozzle out of which the meaning of the film is forced. These constraints yield a more concentrated form of these other film’s messages–that the ways we’ve tried to remake the world don’t work and something better, something rooted not in violence, triumph, and familiar peace but in sacrifice, humility, and an unforeseeable future is needed. We have to lay down both our weapons and our need for certainty if we’re ever going to step into a new world. That’s a lot closer to the Bible’s vision of New Creation than any of the establish-new-order-by-way-of-the-gun blockbusters we most often see in the summer months. I’d add that Christ is the author and perfecter of that vision, but you can’t ask a movie to do everything, can you?
So see Snowpiercer, and allow it to challenge you. No matter on which side of the ideological divide you find yourself, you’re still on the same train until you decide to get off.
And you’ve been given a lot of choices for how to see Snowpiercer as well. The film stars Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Kang-ho Song, John Hurt, and Ed Harris among others, and it is directed by one of the most financially successful directors on the planet, Bong Joon-ho. This is hardly an upstart indie, and yet it’s available for you to stream right now via your favorite video on demand service. Instead of buying a slew of tickets for the whole family to see it in a theater, you can pay $7 and show it to as many people as will fit comfortably in your living room. Or, you can go see it at a theater if you like. It’s playing there as well, and it’s as good a time as you’ll have at the theater this summer. Snowpiercer‘s success so far is further proof that film distribution models are changing. I just wish its success would be proof that society is changing as well.
If you’re still not sure, check out other reviews of Snowpiercer, like this one, for further thoughts on the film: