snowpiercer: a cautionary tale on revolutionary practice

This post contains multiple spoilers on the film ‘Snowpiercer’.

Snowpiercer is a 2013 film which marked the English language directorial debut of South Korean director Boon Joon-ha. It won a string of accolades upon its release in multiple award nominations and victories, as well as a hugely positive critical reception. As well as its striking visuals, creative plot line, and excellent acting, Snowpiercer is as political a movie as they come. Peppered throughout the film are analogies and thematic elements which direct us not simply to the dystopic future the movie is putatively set in, but to us, here, today.

The Train of Progress

The basic premise of the film is this: following the spectacular failure of a grand scientific experiment to quell the effects of man-made climate change, the Earth enters a man-made ice age. Enter The Rattling Ark, a train in perpetual motion in which the last surviving inhabitants of the earth are forced to consign themselves. The movie is set in 2031, 17 years after the failed experiment extinguished life on Earth (save those aboard The Rattling Ark). The Ark’s habitation structure directly correlates to both the architecture of the train and to the class structure of what remains of human civilisation on it. The Rattling Ark houses a rigidly maintained social structure. The back of the train is exclusively the domain of the lower classes, the scum, who are consistently brutalised, dehumanised, malnourished, and divided against each other (sound familiar?). There have, apparently, been a number of ‘failed revolutions’ in the 17 years aboard the the Ark. The ‘educational’ and propagandistic messages consistently emphasise the futility of resistance, and the impossibility of continued life without the deity-like (but curiously absent) figure of ‘Wilford’ (Ed Harris), a sort of Big Other or despot who assures us that the social structure can be no other way (sound familiar?). The propaganda also assures us that no world outside the train is possible: stay on this modernist train of ‘progress’, he seems to say, there is no life outside of it (sounds familiar, yet again).

At the back of the carriage, there is another semi-deity like figure, Curtis Everett (wonderfully portrayed by Chris Evans), whom the scum defer to as the seemingly unanimously agreed upon leader of the next revolution. The imagery of the train as the site of revolutionary politics is fantastic in its subversion of modernism. Modernist metanarratives of history, famously, position history as moving in a teleologically progressive movement: the train of history marches forward with technology, industry, and capitalism to generate ‘development’. Class mobility (i.e., getting to the front of the carriage) is not presented to the scum as possible. (In this way, Snowpiercer's world is much more realistic than our own: class mobility isn’t even a myth there.) Nonetheless, they repeatedly attempt to seize the means of the production, i.e., reach the front of the train. Snowpiercer follows Everett’s attempt to lead the scum-proletariat to a (hopefully successful) revolution. The struggle up the class ladder is depicted as a struggle to the front of the modernist train of history or train of historical progress.

There is an early warning sign, however, in the image of The Rattling Ark as a train perpetually in motion. Although it is always moving, always (seemingly) going forward, it is, in another sense, going nowhere. There is no destination. What progress can be made when one only moves in circles? What will happen if Everett actually manages to make it to the front of the train, and seize the means of production? He doesn’t know, indeed, no one does.

Sovereignty and Bloody Hands

Everett announces the revolutionary struggle with the seemingly united support of his fellow scum-proletariat. The initial struggle is mounted against police-forces at the back of the carriage who do not hesitate to threaten to use their guns. Everett suspects, however, that these guns are empty: he suspects, in other words, that the putative ‘sovereignty’ of the police forces is entirely empty. While the violence of the police forces is very real, its legitimacy is hollow. So little does Wilford think of the scum, it seems, that he appears to dupe them into passivity through empty threats and fear (at the risk of overuse: sound familiar?).

(Everett is right about the empty guns at the back of the carriage, but not further up the carriage, as he proceeds to lead his revolutionary struggle. As soon as Everett poses an actual threat, this is to say, the more ruthless the tactics of violence and brutalisation get.)

But what is clear throughout this exhilarating, and seemingly increasingly successful political struggle is this: there are no clean hands. The more successful the revolution is, the bloodier the hands on both sides. In a chilling scene towards the end of the film, Everett admits as much: “You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.” Material deprivation drives the inhabitants to inhumane treatment almost in correlation to how material wealth and power drives the upper classes to inhumane treatment. In a similarly chilling scene, Everett discovers below the floorboards at the top of the train that children (who are taken at-random and without warning from the by police forces scum) are used as replacement parts for broken machinery. The ‘top’ of the system is also it’s most corrupt: the rulers are also the child enslavers. The perennially important philosophical and political question is thus raised: how do we ethically assess, if we can ethically assess at all, violence perpetrated by those who wish to enforce their position of supremacy in a social structure, verses violence perpetrated by those who have been condemned to the status of scum? Can there be a ‘peaceful revolution’ under conditions where violence is a structure of the system as such?

Pre-programmed Revolt and the Revolutionary’s Choice

Towards the end of the film Everett is, we think, successful. He reaches the front of the train. He meets Wilford in the flesh (who appears calm and unperturbed by Everett's presence) though admittedly surprised he has even made it this far (he is the first to do so).

Wilford though, is unperturbed by Everett’s presence. More than this, in fact. Wilford planned Everett’s presence. Wilford explains to Everett some of the classic norms of governance: it is necessary to divide the people so you can rule the people, it is necessary to conduct some population control when the conditions demand, to generate unrest through food shortages and extra brutality, and so on. The sealed life created inside The Rattling Ark needs constant maintenance, and that entails so-called ‘difficult choices’. The difficult choices Wilford faces are the necessity for further population control, i.e. mass killings, and of his succession (he’s not getting any younger), a succession he wants to hand to someone who has proved he can get the scum behind him: Everett.

In other words, the whole “revolution” internal to The Rattling Ark was pre-programmed. Everett, and the scum, were duped. Wilford is thoroughly convinced that there is no other way to ‘rule’ other than through such aggressive and fear-inducing tactics, i.e., through authoritarianism. Finding a child-slave underneath one of Wilford’s floorboards, however, quashed in Everett’s eyes Wilford’s well prepared and suave relativisation of his own brutal tactics.

There is a struggle outside of Wilford’s carriage amongst scum and police forces, and an explosion which derails the train. Here we reach the end of the film: it  ends on a cautionary but thinly optimistic note, as two of the younger characters, Yona (Go Ah-sung) (who was on the revolutionary frontline) and Timmy (the child Everett found under the floorboards) leave the train, the first humans to walk on earth in 17 years. They spot a polar bear, indicating there is, contrary to 17 years of propaganda, life outside the train. One could read this cautiously optimistic (yet still ambiguous) ending as this: there is no revolution within the modern capitalist train, the point is to escape it. Beyond that, everything is ambiguous.