It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. –Unknown
If the world should end in ice In days of endless night
I’ll let the snowstorms cover me In a blanket of white
–The Handsome Family
In a piece of contemporary science fiction, making an archaic technology like trains a focal point of the narrative is a statement.
The recent Atlas Shrugged films, for instance, faithfully retain Dagny Taggart’s railway lines as a central feature in the story of a dystopian, collectivist America. By embracing the anachronism, the filmmakers affirm their faith that Ayn Rand’s ode to selfishness is a work of timeless wisdom and prophetic vision. Keeping Rand’s trains reifies the cult of individual strength embodied by Hank Reardon and his exceptional steel.
Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a train in order to make a fiercely political statement. Transpiring after a climate change-induced cataclysm, Bong’s train exists to show how the advancement human technology has simultaneously wrought our planet’s destruction. More importantly, it creates a space that literalizes social inequality, and tells a story of revolution. Snowpiercer is a film about a revolt against the rich.
Like a lot of great sci-fi, Snowpiercer handles world-building as it goes, and parcels out only the most salient information at the outset. In 2014, the world’s governments try to combat global warming by releasing an experimental substance into the atmosphere. The plan backfires, creating an ice-age and rendering the Earth uninhabitable. 17 years later, the last survivors are relegated to living on the eponymous Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circles the Earth.
The film opens in the tail section of the train, where the poorest survivors live. Armed men scour the drab, dingy car looking for a violinist to entertain those in the front section, who “eat steak dinners and listen to string quartets.” In the tail section, the train’s restive underclass subsists on gelatinous “protein blocks.”
Chris Evan’s Curtis, an aspiring revolutionary under the tutelage of John Hurt’s Gilliam, is trying to track down a protein block with a name in it. Curtis and Gilliam have an unknown source, and all they need is the name of the man who designed the train’s security system—man who will take them all the way to the engine. Before the uprising can begin, people from the front come for another member of the underclass, this time a child. One of the tail’s residents hurls his shoe at the brightly dressed apparatchik leading the impressment gang, beginning a riot.
A friend of mine who writes a lot about the genre distinguishes between “kinky” and “non-kinky” sci-fi.
Non-kinky sci-fi asserts that our future is basically bright and that through cooperation we can conquer the outer and inner spaces, that good things are in store for us and that technology will make us better men, et cetera. Think Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and 2001. Kinky sci-fi sees our civilization as a sham, sometimes our whole reality as a sham. Phillip K. Dick, Neuromancer and Mad Max are all kinky.
The most effective “kinky” sci-fi—fiction that excoriates our systems—builds a dystopian world with enough elements of our own to be recognizable but understated enough to be insidiously creepy. Think of the police state in Children of Men; desperate and securitized, but still functional enough that most people live their lives with a familiar sense of normalcy. It’s not until anyone steps out of line that the state resorts to the Abu Ghraib treatment.
Making the first act of rebellion a shoe-throwing is such a moment in Snowpiercer. When Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw a shoe at George W. Bush in 2008 as retribution for the American destruction of Iraq, the act became politicized in a certain way. Though getting a shoe thrown at oneself is a universally unpleasant experience, Zaidi’s protest against American imperial murder coded the action as a gesture of resistance. The former American proconsul of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, received a similar welcome in Britain in 2013. In addition to the hurled projectile, the act is a reminder: a reminder that the status of the powerful is unjust, that their power is deadly, and that resistance to that power is alive.
Of course, for the powerful, even token resistance has to be neutralized. Following the incident, the shoe-thrower has the offending arm placed outside the train to freeze while minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) delivers a menacing speech about order. Tilda Swinton is an art-house Nic Cage: a performer who’s never better than when she’s allowed to be as weird as she wants to be. She plays minister Mason with brittle, Thatcheresque sturm-und-drang. Mason lectures the “freeloaders” about how their status is the natural order, part of the holistic system that keeps everyone alive. Mason describes Wilford, the mysterious conductor, and the Sacred Engine that powers the train in religious terms.
“This is not a shoe,” Mason tells the captive tail section, “this is disorder. This is size-10 chaos. This is death.” A shoe isn’t just a shoe when it’s weaponized by the oppressed. To the powerful, it’s a menace to the collective good, a threat to all. A teenage boy defending his home from an invading army is a terrorist. Guantánamo inmates escaping their nightmare the only way they can have waged “acts of asymmetric war.” Even suicide is an act of aggression, if the powerful want your pain to be endless.
Once the uprising begins, the insurgents advance across the train until reaching a car full of men clad in balaclavas and armed with blades and clubs. The train enters a tunnel, and the forces of the front put on night-vision goggles. Not only are the heroic insurgents momentarily powerless against this technology, the technology itself is associated with state violence. The grainy, green-tinged visuals of night vision were unveiled to the public during the Persian Gulf War. The mediated spectacle of CNN’s sexy, antiseptic smart bomb footage led Jean Baudrillard to call the conflict the first “Postmodern war.”
Today, the technology is commercially available enough to carry a prurient association with sex tapes, but it remains the visual language of covert operations. The liberal imperialist handwringer Zero Dark Thirty boasted a painstaking, 45-minute reconstruction of the Navy SEAL raid that assassinated Osama bin Laden as its climactic selling point. ZD30’s trailer concludes with a night-vision POV money shot from the perspective of a special operator—the promise of being there for the murder of the Empire’s most-hated figure. The night vision instantly communicates to the viewer that a thrilling, murderous, feel-good spectacle awaits.
In the face of this technology, Curtis and the insurgents retreat, fashioning torches to negate the front’s tactical advantage. When they return, torches ablaze, the scene shifts from being lit in grainy green night-vision to a dark orange haze. Now, the sequence is shot with the visual grammar of civil unrest, reminiscent of fires, smoke, and bright halogen streetlights. This aesthetic is linked in the public imagination with anti-austerity protests in Europe, the Arab Spring uprisings, and the Occupy movement.
Using zeitgeisty radical imagery is nothing new. Both Jay-Z and Beyoncé have appropriated the same visual signifiers of rebellion in multi-million dollar music videos from the last few years. However, by depicting low-tech fire as the answer to high-tech surveillance equipment, Bong Joon-ho isn’t just cynically leveraging this imagery like the Carter-Knowleses. He’s positioning resistance as an answer to the panoptic gaze of power.
Since social unrest is prevalent enough to be worked into pop culture, it’s not surprising that two films in the same year dealt with the subject matter overtly. Like 2013’s Elysium, Snowpiercer takes place in a space that literalizes the divide between the rich and everyone else. Using science fiction to comment on social stratification goes back at least to Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927), with its wealthy industrialists ruling over a toiling, subterranean underclass.
More recently, historian Mike Davis borrows Blade Runner’s (Ridley Scott, 1982) term “off-worlds” to describe the “interconnected alternative planet” in which the rich live. Davis explains that this augmented existence is an alternate world of plenty, leisure, and privilege; not just a legal and social framework, but also an alternate architecture of convenience, laid atop our own. Today, the elites shuttle between an archipelago of wealthy enclaves without coming into contact with the world most of us inhabit.
Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium tried to tackle this theme, but deflated its political commentary with a third-act twist. Elysium takes place in the 22nd century, after the wealthy have decamped from Earth for the comfort of the orbiting space station Elysium. The technologically augmented homo elysians of the film only return to Earth to manage the systems of mass population control. Matt Damon agrees to infiltrate the station after he is fatally irradiated at his factory job, producing the unmanned terrestrial constabulary force that cracks skulls to maintain Elysium’s standard of living.
Blomkamp insists that his film isn’t merely entertainment, but political commentary. The director has said “This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.” Taking Blomkamp at his word, the film’s message is a mild, liberal one rather than a revolutionary one. In Elysium’s narrative world, like our own, Earth is being poisoned and its inhabitants immiserated for the benefit of a small sliver of the population who live on the titular off-world.
In the third act, though, Jodie Foster’s icy Elysian Secretary of Defense stages a coup, overthrowing the “legitimate” government of the station. Earlier in the film, Elysium’s government had threatened Foster’s character for blowing up an Elysium-bound refugee ship. By making Foster’s evil SecDef the film’s real villain, and painting the administrators of the off-world as relatively benevolent, the film contains its politics in a moderating, centrist framework. The problem isn’t the system of exploitation that blighted the Earth, but Jodie Foster’s patrician bad apple.
In Elysium’s world, violence is strictly blowing up a ship with a missile—not poisoning the Earth; depriving its inhabitants of food, wellness, and opportunity; and brutalizing them with police. Elysium ends when Matt Damon’s character rejiggers the space station’s security code to grant all of Earth’s residents access to Elysian medical-pods. A planet ravaged by capitalism is saved by social-democratic, European-style healthcare.
Snowpiercer deserves credit for not containing the revolutionary message at its core. Ultimately, Curtis and security expert Minsu, played by longtime Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho, arrive at the engine. Curtis wants to open the door that will take them to the enigmatic and God-like Wilford, but Minsu wants to open the gate to the outdoors. While they argue, the gate opens, Minsu is shot, and Curtis is summoned to the engine room.
Curtis meets Wilford, who is not an Oz-like fabrication but a flesh-and-blood person, played by Ed Harris. Over steaks and red wine, Wilford explains that the train is a closed ecosystem, which requires occasional uprising to maintain homeostasis. Wilford and Gilliam colluded to plan the uprising; Wilford was Curtis’s mysterious source all along. A certain amount of dissent is healthy, even desirable, as long as it doesn’t threaten the long-term functioning of Wilford’s system.
The Matrix Reloaded contained a thematically similar scene, in which Neo receives overwrought, impenetrable exposition from a man resembling Colonel Sanders, but Snowpiercer’s sequence is potent. In a year in which a treasure trove of government secrets has been transformed from a revelation to a state-managed, monetized spectacle, the message about how the powerful manage internal dissidence is particularly relevant.
The American ruling system is the most effective in history because it’s the least overtly repressive, “its engines of repression so immaculate they are borderline invisible,” in the words of Patrick Higgins. Most sci-fi dystopias can only communicate their message by depicting overtly totalitarian systems, which don’t look much at all like the unobtrusive mechanisms of social control most of us deal with. It’s prohibitively difficult in fiction to describe a diffused, invisible system, but good sci-fi outlines its contours.
After giving Curtis a primer on how his system manages its population, Wilford makes Curtis an offer. Earlier in the film, minister Mason had described Wilford and his Sacred Engine with spiritual reverence. Later, Curtis and the insurgents passed through the train’s school car, where a chipper young teacher told children the train’s creation myth. In Wilford’s cosmology, the social strata are not only justified, but natural, the foundation on which society’s edifice stands.
Wilford sells Curtis this same vision without Mason’s fanaticism or wide-eyed idealism, but with the even tone of reasonable pragmatism. The system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best they’ve got. Wilford’s Sacred Engine is as natural as our own “free-market” neoliberal system. This system, which gives less than 100 people more wealth than half of humanity, is treated as the “End of History,” a natural endpoint in the linear arc of human progress.
When neoliberal apologist Matt Yglesias glibly dismissed the deaths of 1,127 Bangladeshi textile workers in a factory collapse as the cost of doing business, he was attesting to the cold, profit-driven calculus of the elites. Despite the fact that it makes most of us miserable, we’re told that our world is Erewhon. In the art-deco splendor of the Engine and amidst this comforting fiction, Curtis breaks down. Wilford is old, and Curtis is young, so Wilford offers Curtis the opportunity to take his place.
As Minsu awakens and tries to blow the outer door, Curtis decides to take his place as the conductor. However, Minsu’s daughter shows Curtis what Wilford has been doing with the children he takes. The child whose abduction prompted the shoe-throwing toils under the floor of the train, doomed to slavery as a part of the Sacred machine. “The engine lasts forever, not so all of its parts. We needed a replacement, thank goodness the tail section manufactures a steady supply of kids.”
With this realization, Curtis decides to destroy Wilford, his engine, his train, his system. A system that exists to provide opulence and lavish comfort for a few will always depend on the deprivation of many; any engine powering that system will have children as interchangeable cogs underfoot. Thousands of Bangladeshis workers get crushed in their factories so that a few investors can get richer every Black Friday.
Minsu and Curtis give their lives to shield two children from the explosion that opens the outer door and derails the train. The children see a polar bear, proof that life goes on outside—that another existence is possible. Though they’d only known one life, Wilford’s system had no right to exist. The answer isn’t a different conductor, it’s to derail the train.