Some post-apocalyptic movies try to ignore the existential ramifications of what living in a failed world would be like. For example, The Road Warrior is tailored so that it’s focus is fairly narrow – the plot concerns a short term practical goal, in that Mad Max and his friends are trying to get out of their compound without being murdered by the barbarians that are besieging them, but the movie has no interest in their lives after they escape. Other post-apocalyptic movies don't shy away from the bigger implications of their chosen setting. Part of the reason why the father has to protect the son in the Road is that without children there won’t be a future, and the father can't get through today if he doesn't have faith that there might be a tomorrow. One style is not necessarily better than the other, but each is tailored to tell different type of story – if you want to make an action movie a narrow focus might make more sense, but a drama will get richer the deeper it’s focus gets.
Snowpiercer is an action-drama hybrid that is trying to do a little bit of both – it tries to illustrate a metaphorical class war with actual physical fighting. The decision to marry it’s literal meaning with it’s figurative meaning produces uneven results, because while it’s fight scenes are well staged and engaging they also undermine the seriousness of the film’s message. Which is truly unfortunate, because the film’s message didn’t need help imploding - but we’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let me explain Snowpiercer's apocalypse: humans released a cooling agent into the atmosphere to combat global warming and it worked a bit too well - it turned the entire world into a frozen wasteland. The only surviving humans on Earth all live on one train that runs on an infinite loop across the ice, and all is not well on that train. The passengers in the back are starving and downtrodden, while the people in the front of the train live in a perpetual party like they were Great Gatsbys. On the one hand, a train is a perfect setting for an action movie: Curtis, the de facto leader of the impoverished people in steerage, has a very well defined path to take from the caboose to the engine, and he also has very specific obstacles to overcome because he can’t really hide from the people who are chasing him in such a linear space. On the other hand, this train is also a terrible backdrop for a drama, because it literalizes global inequality as an a-to-b journey that a dedicated person can make by walking with their own two feet.
There are two reasons why I think this movies hamfisted approach to allegory is problematic. The first is that I don’t think it’s two goals actually go that well together. If the film limited itself to the narrow confines of an action movie then Curtis’ motivation would make sense: he wants to get to the front of the train so he can force the people in power give a fairer shake to the people in the back. However, his motivation is a bit murkier if we consider him a stand in for an entire philosophical position, because the existential implications of life on that train are incredibly bleak. Let’s say he does get the redistribution that he wants – how much is that really going to improve their miserable situation? The train is always going to be cramped, there are always going to be limits on food, and there’s always going to be a serious risk that the train could derail because it’s too cold outside for anyone to leave the train long enough to work on the track. If we look at Curtis goal in miniature and assume he’s just acting for his own good then his decisions make sense – he can personally improve his own life. But if we look at it in full – well, that’s less sensible, because it doesn’t seem like anyone has any way to change the real problems that they are facing.
My other problem is that I think Snowpiercer is using this set up to ask the wrong metaphorical question. The specific limitations faced by Curtis and Co. don’t really make a good analogue for our real world class system because they face specific limitations that we don’t. It’s impossible for the average quality of life of the people on that train to rise above a certain threshold because their options are so limited, but with a bit of focus and determination we could probably accomplish that in the real here-and-now if we wanted to because we live in a much more bountiful world. It’s an analogy that kind of works – but it’s too sloppy to take seriously.
No, that set up is a better fit for a darker – but more interesting – question that Snowpiercer doesn’t examine at all. There was a time when there were less than ten thousand human beings left on this planet. (Just to put this in perspective, the official attendance tally for Wrestlemania 3 was 93,000 people – meaning that there was a point where our species was equal to about 10% of the crowd that paid to see Hulk Hogan fight Andre the Giant.) I think about those 10,000 people all of the time, and what made them keep going. They clearly had no idea that their hellacious time in a barely habitable environment would eventually lead to where we are now, in a world where billions of humans can live pretty comfortably. I find the idea of those people’s inner lives to be very compelling – what were they thinking, or hoping, or fearing? It’s unfathomable to me because their situation is so different from mine. But that is the exact situation that the people in Snowpiercer face, but this movie has too much tunnel vision to examine it. There are a few monologues about the emotional toll that life on the train enacts, but those speeches don’t add up to much, because they are counterbalanced by a naïve hope that everything could be fixed if the have nots could negotiate a better deal with the haves – a hope that those 10,000 people wouldn’t have had, since they were alive at a time when everyone was a have-not.
All that said, it’s better to be uneven than to be straight up bad. I’m glad that the film mixed in some action scene sugar in with it’s political medicine. If the film was just an incompletely imagined allegory, I probably would have written it off entirely. Fortunately, Snowpiercer’s series of entertaining fights enliven the movie when they are happening, and even more importantly, they also keep the mood from deflating entirely. Those periodic bursts of excitement kept me engaged in the story, and that engagement made it a lot easier to be appreciative of the film’s nicer touches, like the way the set design makes every train car a self contained and unique world. In fact, the longer that I think about those nice little touches, the more I kind of want to forgive this film it’s over-reach. Yes, this movie might have been better off if it had just taken a page from the Road Warrior’s book and contained it’s ambitions a bit – but I’ve seen so many movies that did a good job of telling a reasonably small story that I barely remember now. Snowpiercer trips over it’s own ambitions, yes, and it’s frustrating, but at least it’s memorably frustrating. It may not thread the needle between being an action movie and a drama – but ultimately, it might be better off where it is, as a semi-successful thinkier action movie / more exciting thinky movie than a completely successful straight forward action movie or drama. After all, when was the last time you explored the philosophical implications of Mad Maxes life, or felt like revisitng a fight scene from the Road?
Winner: The Cat