I just had occasion to see the last ten or so minutes of Snowpiercer. I had actually seen the movie previously so I knew what happened to get to that point. However, it did get me to thinking about the movie as a whole. If you haven’t seen the movie, beware spoilers.For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s a dystopian post apocalyptic story. Or, at least, that’s what it appears to be at first glance. The basic idea is that the climate has gone wrong as a result of some sort of experiment to stop global warming. The world is now a frozen wasteland. The only survivors of the human race are riding an immense train speeding its way on a perpetual grand tour of the world which takes, conveniently enough, exactly one year to complete. In other words, time can be marked by progress along the track. The train is a fantasical marvel of engineering that is somehow able to run continuously forever, or so we are led to believe. Somehow, it is able to blast through obtstacles on the track ranging from snow buildups to rock slides and just keep blasting along. We are led to believe that this has been going on for a couple of decades at this point.
There are a few important points about the train which need to be understood to really get what is happening. The most important point is that the train is a closed ecological system. It has to be to allow its denizens to survive in the frozen wasteland. That means that everything must be kept in a sort of balance to prevent the collapse and subsequent death of the ecosystem. In that sense, the train is no different than the generation ship that often appears in space based fiction. It makes no difference what your ideology is. The ecology must remain balanced to be survivable long term.
The second important point is that the train must never stop. For reasons only briefly touched on in the film, the train must keep running in order to remain viable. I don’t recall the specifics but it is almost certain that there are many reasons that continued motion is desirable, not the least of which is the insane energy budget required to actually accelerate such a massive vehicle to cruising speed.
The third important point is that the train is long. Much longer than anything we are shown on screen. It must be to support all the things we see in the head section. Much of what we see the head section having access to requires a great deal of space to manufacture or grow. In other words, there is much more going on than we ever see on screen. We are only seeing the highlights of the revolution that drives much of the plot. Presumably the long stretches of train where the revolution encounters little or no resistance are simply not shown and such would take very little time comparatively to advance through.
The final important point is that the train is managed by human beings with a social structure. The train is run, ostensibly, by the denizens of the head section while the denizens of the tail section are simply left to their own devices, farmed as it were by the rulers. We are led to believe early on that the tail section inhabitants are freeloaders who are barely tolerated by those in charge, though the reason for such is not clear. It does become clear by the end of the film, though.
Okay, so we have a magical train carrying the last survivors of humanity. Since that is the central conceit of the story, we must simply accept its existence on faith. Failure to do so negates the entire film and there is little point watching. On the up side, it is far more believable than many of the conceits seen in science fiction, and far more familiar. It is much easier to accept the existence of the magical train than a faster-than-light space ship. Once we have accepted the basic premise, we can go on with the actual story.
The story is basically the story of the latest in a sequence of failed revolutions where the tail section denizens rise up against their oppressors in the head section. I’ll call these groups Tailers and Headers for simplicity. Among the Tailers is a True Believer™ who leads the revolution backed by a Wise Old Man™ who guides him with words of wisdom. The opening scenes establish the terrible conditions in the Tailers live in and sets up for the coming revolution. Groundwork is also put in place for later plot movers and it turns out that nothing that happens in this early section is pointless. We also see how the Tailers are receiving messages from what appears to be a sympathetic Header and these messages are providing critical information to the revolutionaries.
Finally, the revolution begins. The True Believer leads his ragtag band of Tailers forward into the greater world of the train. They manage to break through the barrier between them and the rest of the train and slowly, and expensively, make there way from car to car. They pick up a few supporters along the way, lose a few friends, and wreak untold death and destruction. Such is the way of a revolution. Meanwhile, the train continues along its path and we see the efforts of the Headers to repell the Tailers. Behind all this action, we learn a few details about how the train works, both culturally and technologically.
Eventually, the revolution reaches the point at which its usefulness is doubtful. We learn that the population cull has been sufficient and the revolution is to be stopped with prejudice. In other words, it was allowed to proceed as far as it has by the powers that be. The True Believer and his disciples will have none of it and press on against insurmountable odds. Slowly, they make their way through the cars in the head section and we learn more about the history of the train and the culture of the Headers. Much of what we learn is horrifying, but then what the Tailers have done in the name of revolution is equally so. What we see is the very meaning of a dystopia.
Over the course of the advance, we also learn that the Wise Old Man is in league with the Benevolent Dictator™ show lives in the magical engine itself and that the messages aiding the revolution are from the Benevolent Dictator himself. We learn that the Benevolent Dictator and the Wise Old Man have been working together to keep the ecology of the train balanced. The periodic revolutions are merely a way to disguise the need for a periodic population cull, an unavoidable necessity for any habitat that is running at its carrying capacity.
We also learn that the snow depth has been lessening at some important location along the track, something that is motivating one particular Mercenary™. This proves important when we find out that the Benevloent Dictator intents for the True Believer to take over as Benevolent Dictator. The True Believer, of course, does not choose that option, though only because of certain barbaric practices, to wit using children as replacement parts for the magical engine. The end result is nearly everyone involved in the revolution is dead in the end, including the Benevolent Dictator. In the end, the engine is destroyed and the train crashes spectacularly. The closing scenes show a teenager and a young child observing a polar bear in the snow near the wreckage of the train.
Now, I’m going to ignore everything the producers have said about the meaning of the ending. The notion that the two survivors we see looking at the polar bear will survive and somehow procreate and recolonize the planet is absurd. While not strictly impossible, the odds of it being succesful with such a shallow gene pool are not particularly hopeful, even assuming the two of them survive and have children. They would have to have nearly perfect genetics for it to work without the problems of inbreeding cropping up too soon.
There are some interesting details, though. The crashed train is still there, and it was big. Those crashed train cars are certainly available as raw material for shelters and tools. That’s even leaving aside the fact that the tools required for survival must already be on the train somewhere so some scavenging of the wreckage should turn them up. On top of that, there will be supplies which can tide the survivors over for a while. In the absolute worst case, the corpses of the dead will provide sustenance for a time, however horrifying the notion. And all of that is assuming there are no other survivors in the wreckage. We know that there is a large population in the tail section which is wedged in quite tightly, and we know there must be a fairly large head section population. There must be a much larger population than we ever see during the film or the whole ecology just wouldn’t work according to the mechanics we see on screen.
Let’s assume, then, that there are sufficient survivors to create a viable colony and they have sufficient supplies to get started. Could they even survive? Well, the answer to that must by a resounding yes. For a polar bear to be surviving two decades after the ice age began, there must be a functioning ecology still. Polar bears need to eat, after all, and their prey must eat, and so on. That means there must be sufficient resources for a small human colony to subsist. Of course, if the polar bear is merely a last hold out who hasn’t died yet, this theory would fall apart. The bear looks healthy, though, so that would seem to indicate sufficient food resources.
That raises another interesting point. If polar bears survived, it follows that there would likely be isolated pockets of humanity eking out a living. Humans are, after all, extremely clever about surviving. It then follows that the people of the train are not the only survivors. That does raise the question of why the people of the train are not aware of such suvivors, but that can easily be explained. The train blasts past any given point on its line only once a year. It must make an aweful racket on its way so it would provide plenty of time for a colony to hide. Further, any such colony would necessarily want to be located away from the tracks for safety. It is not so far fetched that surviving groups of humanity would go unnoticed by those on the train. However, it is never clear whether the Benevolent Dictator and his minions have any actual information or not. It could just as easily be that they have carefully controlled the available information to maintain power. That wouldn’t seem likely but it’s not entirely clear that any of the powers that be are mentally stable.
The story raises a lot of interesting points about human societies, ecology, and other topics, too. It’s actually worth watching for its treatment of that alone, though it does require a massive disclaimer for graphic violence. One of the points that is brilliantly explored is that of agendas. Every person in the story has a personal agenda of some sort that drives them. Every single one from the True Believer all the way down to the lowest pawn in the revolution. It is even unclear that the Wise Old Man is actually working fully with the Benevolent Dictator. There is some indication that he might actually be working to bring down the train, subtle as it might be.
The other major theme that is well explored in the film is that of good and evil. Who is the villain? Who is the hero? At the beginning, you assume that the True Believer is the hero and the mysterious Benevolent Dictator is the villain. But is that the case? Is there a hero? Is there a villain? It is worth keeping those questions in mind when watching the film. In my not so humble opinion, that gives the film much greater depth.
Now, I’m not saying the film should go down as an instant classic. It is not the best film every made. It does, however, have some amazing visuals and some “exciting” violence. If graphic violence doesn’t make you squeamish, it’s worth taking the time to watch it. However, I don’t mean to just sit there and passively observe it. Actively watch it. Pay attention to the details of the story. You’ll have to look past a few conceits in the setting, but otherwise it holds together surprisingly well. I won’t say you’ll enjoy it, or even find the result of the experience pleasant, but it will make you think, if you let it.
Upon reflection, Snowpiercer might make an excellent basis for a television series which can explore the underlying setting and situation at much greater length. And the best part of it is that the series need not end with the end of the train crash – there would be plenty more story to tell with the right interpretation of the ending. Then again, the premise lends itself to being mishandled badly, too, so any such series would have to be viewed skeptically.
In the end, I found the movie to be surprisingly good once I started paying attention to it. As post apocalyptic movies go, I give it a solid B where most get at best a C-.