“Control the engine, control the world” insists the revolutionary mastermind at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s first English language feature Snowpiercer (설국열차, Seolgungnyeolcha), quite literally meaning to seize the means of production. Adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Bong’s near future dystopia locates itself in a world both ruined and perhaps saved by human hubris, but salvation is a prize offered only to those who can pay, or at least make themselves “useful” to its mysterious and invisible creator, here an engineer both mechanical and social who controls the engine which moves the world yet insists on an order which is far from divine.
In the near future, humanity’s attempts to repair the damage it has done through manmade climate change by releasing a manmade gas into the atmosphere have backfired to such a degree that the surface of the Earth has become a frozen wasteland no longer able to support life. The only remaining living creatures survive aboard a high tech, ironically eco-friendly train designed for luxurious cruising which cheerfully connects all the world’s railways as one, looping the globe in international solidarity. As such, the train is a self sustaining eco system, a world entire filled with orchards and aquariums where the rich can enjoy all the pleasures of the Earth, but far in the back, segregated from those whose place on the train is assured, is an underclass of stowaways who are denied such luxuries and are largely controlled through fear and starvation with gelatinous protein bars their only form of sustenance.
“Know your place” the sinister Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) insists, explaining that they owe their lives only to the “order” the train provides and that therefore they must each serve it by embracing the role they have been assigned. This last instruction is becoming increasingly hard to bear for those trapped in the back of the train with little to no prospect of improving their lot. There have been rebellions before but all have failed. Curtis (Chris Evans), a reluctant leader, his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), and their mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) are planning another insurrection, certain that the power of the men who guard them is now illusionary because the weapons they carry have been rendered purely decorative. When a child is taken from the rear for unclear reasons, the plan is put into action with Curtis leading a charge towards the front, encouraged by mysterious messages from a secret collaborator somewhere further up the train, and assisted by a Korean tech expert (Song Kang-ho) responsible for designing the train’s security systems and his psychic daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung).
Later we discover that failed revolution is another means of maintaining “balance” as synonymous with the order that the mysterious engineer Wilford (Ed Harris) provides. Rebellion keeps the population numbers in the back down and engenders the kind of despair that ensures docility at least for a time. There is something distinctly dust bowl in the train’s design from its art deco aesthetics to its wholesome brand of political indoctrination as neatly dressed children sit around the harmonium and are told of Wilford’s greatness by a prim schoolteacher while taught to fear and hate those from the rear. Curtis and his compatriots aren’t merely fighting for freedom and equality but to regain the humanity they fear the system has stolen from them. Recounting a grim tale of how Gilliam lost his limbs, Curtis laments that he too wanted to sacrifice an arm for his fellow man but he couldn’t do it. He never wanted to lead a revolution and is insecure in his vision. Tempted by Wilford, he is no longer sure if he came here to destroy “order” or merely to own it.
Wilford’s ’30s-style ultracapitalist fascism justifies itself under the rationale that without “leadership” the people devour each other, which is disingenuous seeing as, as in Parasite, Snowpiercer’s true horror is the insidiousness of the system which forces one oppressed person to oppress another through enforced inequality. Wilford insists on “balance”, on everything having its place, but there can be no balance in a world in which a chosen few enjoy untold riches while the masses starve. The chosen few don’t even seem to be very happy, mindlessly swallowing sushi and burying themselves in hedonistic pleasures to escape the fear and emptiness of their lives. Curtis is presented with a choice, become a part of the system which, quite literally, eats its young, or make the sacrifice he couldn’t make before and become the spanner in the works. Yet the choice is only partly his, the means to reshape the world comes from an unexpected direction and is as dependent on faith as Wilford’s insistence on the divinity of industry, but when the great machine grinds to a halt those who walk free of it may find that faith repaid.
Snowpiercer is available on UK blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate.
UK Release trailer