My [scattered] thoughts on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. This was originally just a defence of the film’s ending—which I’ve seen widely criticised—because I think it’s brilliant and necessary and worth defending. But… then there’s everything else.
[major spoilers, of course]
THIS IS AN ALLEGORY
A lot of discussions of Snowpiercer I’ve seen have been very literal, which I think is a terrible way to read this film when so much of it is densely allegorical. The train at its centre is a clear allegory for capitalism [I’ve seen this rejected so here’s the director saying it himself this is a film about capitalism]. It’s capitalism: what was promised as an ark of salvation but became a barbaric prison for all but the very privileged.
And it’s a capitalism so advanced that the illusory crutch of money has disappeared—this system deals directly in human flesh. The “alienated labour” of Tail Section is a constant supply of children fed to the machine. At the same time, the system tames the body politic by literally marking and mutilating the underclass: the flesh of almost every soul in Tail Section bears the scars of being “consumed” by each other and the regime.
That anti-capitalist sentiment concentrates around Tilda Swinton’s Mason, a character that without doubt invokes Margaret Thatcher, the widely abhorred UK prime minister who ushered in neoliberal capitalism in the 1980s. Thatcher was born to a northern British lower-middle-class family, and was mocked for her jutting teeth and large nose; she spoke with a broad loamy Lincolnshire accent until elocution lessons got rid of it [x]. Thatcher’s policies crippled British industries [including, yes, the railways] and caused incredible suffering to working-class people.
In the film Mason originally boarded the train as a lower-class citizen and over the years was groomed by Wilford to become minister [x]—she’s also a class traitor. Mason presides over the the violence & suffering inflicted on Tail Section inmates, as Snowpiercer accelerates the system so that capitalism’s slow violence becomes bloodsoaked brutality in real time.
Within capitalism crisis isn’t an accident; it’s endemic. Capitalism is untenable and inevitably manifests cycles of boom and bust; the illusion of harmony followed by violent rupture. It’s almost like clockwork—and the train itself is a clock, circumnavigating the earth once every year, ticking down to the next scheduled uprising.
Capitalism’s genius is its ability to co-opt every attempt at resistance; every revolution is engineered within the system, with the permission of the system, according to terms defined by the system. Which is why the exploitative conditions of capitalism—its visceral and mundane horrors—have persisted for so very long: they seem to be driven by a “sacred engine” which will run perfectly forever.
"We control the engine, we control the world."
But revolution’s not impossible. Curtis is an honest Marxist revolutionary who believes in the righteousness of his cause, setting out to seize “the means of production”—the engine itself. And as a creature of the train he knows how to topple from the inside, how to turn the system’s material reality against itself.
Snowpiercer lets you see only what Curtis sees as he moves forward and forward. Maintaining an artificial hierarchy relies on an artificial reality—“false consciousness”—in which none of the classes perceive the material reality of other classes. The lower classes are socialised to keep their place, to “be a shoe”. The upper classes are socialised to believe in their natural superiority to the underclasses. By breaking down divisions & doors, remaking the train into one long continuous system, Curtis—for a moment—collapses the artificial hierarchy. He’s the first person to walk the full length of the train.
HE’S NOT THE MESSIAH…
— “My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed.”
Curtis is essential to the revolution: he plots with Gilliam, he drives it forward, he realises that the guards have no bullets, it’s his strategy that gets the rebels to Prison Section; he’s on the frontline of the Battle, and he temporarily halts the bloodshed by capturing Mason. He makes the ugly decisions: he’s willing to keep others ignorant about the reality of the system, to censor what the Artist draws [i.e. what’s really in the protein bars], to seize political gains at the cost of lives [sacrificing Edgar to capture Mason; one life for many], to make brutal choices in service to The Idea.
At first Curtis is sold to the audience as an American hero, the noble but reluctant leader of the rebellion [the casting of “Captain America” in this role is slyly ingenious]. But Curtis is a creature of the train: he remembers nothing before it; he came into being as the man with the knife, the man who killed Edgar’s mother and was ready to butcher a baby, to extract use-value from something sacrosanct.
Consciously or not, he absorbed & replicated the system’s brutal exploitative logic. And even as he moves forward he’s looking back; he’s never moved beyond that horror seventeen years ago [x]. He’s still “the man with the knife”. He’s still the train.
Snowpiercer quickly collapses the idea of Curtis as a messianic figure. When he’s called upon to lead—in the Battle of Yekaterina Bridge, by Wilford at the Engine—his face & image blur, or he’s reduced to a faceless silhouette shot from behind. Curtis isn’t marked for greatness or “chosen” in any sense; he’s thrust into that role by a system which demands white male figureheads to elevate as false prophets. He’s not special; he’s just next in line.
Curtis isn’t the hero. Curtis is the inevitable crisis within the system. His chaos is as essential to the order of things as the brutalised lower classes and the debauched upper classes, and all the bureaucrats and apparatchiks and military thugs in between.
"Yes, Wilford knows you well, Mr Curtiss Everett. He’s been watching you."
It’s hard to know if Gilliam did conspire with Wilford to bring about Curtis’s revolution; if Gilliam intended the revolution to fail but changed his mind after the Water Section, if he always intended Curtis to take Wilford’s place; or if all that was Wilford’s lie—Gilliam warned Curtis, don’t let Wilford talk, cut out his tongue. Wilford’s knowledge of their conversation about having two arms strongly suggests that Gilliam conspired with Wilford.
But the ambiguity is the point: within capitalism you’re never certain that any “resistance” hasn’t already been co-opted and repurposed and undermined by the system you’re trying to escape.
When Curtis reaches the Front Section he falls to his knees before the Engine, overwhelmed and awed and horrified—the same quasi-religious fervour shown by Wilford and Mason. It’s reminiscent of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, when the journey up river culminates in a view of the unseen tyrannical figurehead, an awesome and shameful creature. Curtis is the train; is the system; is Wilford’s natural & inevitable successor, the white-man heir to his throne. The man who can ensure the system’s survival and oversee the next generation of subjugated souls. Edgar inadvertently predicts this at the very beginning:
"What I mean is he’s gonna die someday. And when that happens you’re gonna have to take over. You’re going to have to run the train […] I think you’d be pretty good, if you ask me."
Curtis’s revolution serves the system it threatens—helps to fulfil the killing quotas to keep the population down. Keeps the fishtank in equilibrium.
By sacrificing his arm to stop the train and free Timmy, Curtis begins to make amends for his crimes seventeen years ago. But he’s only ever half-redeemed. He can’t ever escape, and his violence will always be reabsorbed back into the social order, drained of all its subversive power.
Most crucially, Curtis doesn’t believe in life outside the train; that survival is possible, that the result would be anything but death and annihilation. He can only imagine the train. The irony of the word “revolution” is that it describes a circle, like the endless turning of the Sacred Engine—round and round and round, forever. That would be the legacy of Curtis’s revolution—if it weren’t for Nam.
CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION
Fundamentally, Snowpiercer is a film about parents and children, the legacies of generations. Parents should strive to leave their children the best possible world; but today’s children inherit the ideologies and inequalities and injustices of morally bankrupt predecessors. They inherit a world threatened by global warming and environmental collapse, thanks to the rapacious plunderings of capitalism.
Worse, children are taught to adore that monstrous world. Perhaps the most disturbing sequence in Snowpiercer takes place in the school car, a grotesque hypersaturated parody of a classroom environment.
You see the next generation of Front Section children taught to worship the Engine and its messianic Conductor, immunised to the violence and horror that system wreaks [in the first shot of the classroom all the children are faceless; dehumanised, as though not real children at all].
And the hand gestures they make in reverence to the Engine are the same gestures made by Tail Section children who become dehumanised organic-mechanical parts of the Engine. This is how propaganda works: it condenses an entire ideology into a few visual or verbal signs that can be replicated ad infinitum. And these privileged children are unwittingly complicit in the subjugation of Tail Section children. The system dehumanises everyone, front to tail.
The teacher responsible for “breeding” this ideology is pregnant, a symbol of perverted maternalism—a next generation already corrupted. She parallels Wilford, who sought to make Curtis the son and heir to the corrupt system. Curtis, too, is a failed father: he sacrifices his symbolic “son” Edgar in order to capture Mason; and the “new world” he intends to create for the next generation will look identical to the last. [Had Curtis died at Yekaterina, it seems clear that Edgar would’ve been groomed by Gilliam to lead the next revolution.]
On the other hand, Tanya is a brave and brilliant mother who fights and dies for the cause.
But she’s never reduced to a maternal figure: she’s a fierce revolutionary who fights and survives the Battle of Yekaterina Bridge [where dozens die], and who drives Curtis onward. Her beating by the soldiers is meant to invoke the beating by police of Rodney King which sparked the LA riots of 1992, another citizen uprising against oppressive violence [x]. In Tanya the personal and political are wound together: in her mind, political resistance and freeing her son are one and the same goal—she wants his liberation, in every sense.
And Namgoong is the real father of the revolution, Snowpiercer’s radical imagination. Before Curtis finds them, he and his daughter Yona exist in a liminal countercultural space within the train, taking hallucinogenic drugs rather than experience its horrific reality.
Namgoong is not interested in the Sacred Engine—his ideas are “above Curtis’s” [x]. Nam cares to see the world beyond the train; he knows that the conditions which “required” the train’s creation have begun to recede. Nam protects Yona at all costs; and once they pass the Water Section he begins to plan their escape. He demands more for his daughter than the same system in new [white] hands.
[This was the moment I knew that Yona was going to escape the train.]
The Front Section children, brainwashed and monstrous and overwhelmingly white, contrast with the young people and the “train babies” of Tail Section, who are brave and brilliant and largely not-white. These children of the underclass have also been lied to: they believe the world outside can’t be survived; that the mutilated world of the train is all there is. Edgar even hero-worships Curtis, the man who murdered his mother and tried to take a knife to him.
Most importantly, they’ve been lied to about the Engine. It’s not perfect and divine and eternal; it’s a broken defective thing that survives only by the subjugation of train-babies. The Front Section children are bred to prop up the system, the train-babies—bred to be actual cogs in its diabolical machinery—are its downfall. They are the heart & life of the revolution: when Grey is murdered, it’s with the knife that’s stabbed through his hand—he dies with his hand over his heart.
At Yekaterina Bridge, where the revolution was supposed to die, the spark of resistance comes from Chan’s little hands striking a match in the deep dark at the very back of the train.
He passes the torch to Andrew, but it’s Grey who multiplies the burning torches until the fire’s hurtling along borne by many hands of many rebels.
The desperate cage of the downtrodden written in Grey’s tattoos—surrender or die—becomes the choice he presents to his oppressors when he rises up against them.
And most important of all is Yona [“Yona” is a form of the name “Jonah”, the biblical prophet]. That revolutionary fire begun in Tail Section becomes explosive in Yona’s hands when she blows up the gate to the outside world. It’s Yona, not Curtis, that the brutal implacable killer Franco the Elder tries to shoot through two windows when the train curves.
Yona is Nam’s revolutionary legacy. Her clairvoyant eyes see through the barriers he’s made, see through the bars of the cage, see the coming violence. Psychologically, she is already “outside” the system. And with the Kronol Nam & Yona create the means to physically escape the train.
That escape means blowing up the door, the event which triggers an avalanche and destroys the train. The new world comes at terrible cost—and Snowpiercer doesn’t flinch from that. This is the radical message of the film: ideology is never just abstract—its injustices & brutalities are decreed by human mouths and wrought by human hands—and the adult revolutionaries who can bring down the system are too compromised to do anything but replicate the very thing they destroyed.
Curtis can’t be part of the new world. He has to die with the train. So does Nam: he created the protective inter-carriage doors which allowed class segregation to last for so long. Snowpiercer is determined to show the kind of sacrifices that might be demanded to bring down a system as resilient and as monstrous as this. This film is not remotely fucking around.
The only survivors of this collapse are the train-babies Yona & Timmy, who emerge from the burning wreckage of the train like phoenix-children. A clean break from the dominance of the old order and its white patriarchs. They’ve never touched the earth; and when they step outside the train it’s as though they’re the very first humans alive. This is the real “sacred engine” of Snowpiercer: nature itself. A beautiful brutal state of chaos and freedom and life and death. Cold and cleansed.
The end of Snowpiercer seems like a desolate vision: in literal terms, the children’s chances of survival are almost zero. But the film is an allegory, and in those terms the escape from the train is hopeful: these two children, a new Adam & Eve setting foot on frozen pristine ground, can repopulate the earth [x].
The polar bear which stares them down is a threat; but it’s also proof of life outside the prison of the system. [Bong originally intended the animal to be a deer, but the polar bear is a contemporary symbol of global warming and its consequences, making its survival a happy irony.]
This last scene suggests that white Westerners are too compromised and complicit with the capitalist system to bring about its downfall—inevitably, they will shore it up as “the lesser evil”. True revolution against capitalism must come from elsewhere. [Yona’s words to Curtis could be the film’s words to America and the West at large: “you’re fucked.”]
Snowpiercer is one of the very few films willing to imagine what might be necessary to bring down capitalism—if not literal fire and blood, then real destruction and suffering—and to ask, honestly, if it’s a price the generations currently in power are willing to pay for the sake of a planet staring down ecological catastrophe; and for their children, the real-world “train babies” who will inherit the earth.