[Note: this review contains mild spoilers.]
In his most recent film with Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), Slavoj Žižek pauses to diagnose the seemingly endless spate of apocalyptic films in recent years. His analysis, brief though it may be, points the way toward an understanding of cinema’s role in managed crisis and compensatory emotional logic. “Capitalism is all the time in crisis,” Žižek says. “This is precisely why it appears almost indestructible.” Though we know that our current way of life cannot continue, our historical imagination has been so thoroughly evacuated that we are incapable of conceiving any other viable social arrangement.
So it is more feasible for us to collectively envision the end of this life-world at the hands of zombies, pandemic, ecological disaster, or alien attack than simply the implosion of free-market capitalism, which is of course a far more likely scenario. Citing Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history—Paul Klee’s angel with the ever-accumulating rubble of time at her feet—Žižek explains our deep psychological desire not just to make our peace with the ruins of Western consumer society but to actively embrace them, as if they were our Parthenon or caves of Lascaux waiting to justify our existence after the fact. “We see the devastated human environment—half-empty factories, machines falling apart, half empty stores. What we experience at this moment, the psychoanalytic term would have been ‘the Inertia of the Real.’” That is to say, upon achieving the total annihilation of our way of life, we can finally fall into that place beyond desire, into an abyss of pure, undifferentiated Being.
In other words, we’ve been around this track a few times already. However, there is a unique intelligence that sets Bong Joon-ho’s latest film apart from so many of these dress rehearsals for extinction. It is strange, though, that Snowpiercer’s mental motor, its driving intelligence, is its obviousness, which allows the film to be misperceived as something silly. For example, every descriptive image in the previous sentence is embarrassingly overwritten (“driving intelligence”!), but the concept of a narrative engine in Snowpiercer cannot be avoided, because it is laid bare in its primal essence. The earth has been frozen solid, destroyed by the introduction of a chemical agent into the atmosphere. Only the indestructible bullet train, circumnavigating the globe, is alive and moving, a dead nucleus with a lone electron in its otherwise empty orbital, forward propulsion against inert death.
Bong has long been an artist whose gift lay in the application of genre codes and broad concepts within non-ironic frameworks, but without disguise. A film like The Host (2006), for example, adopted all the trappings of the Far East monster movie, but combined them with the Spielberg-by-way-of-Hawks ragtag group of fuckups saving the world as a means of personal redemption. Mother (2009), a more serious drama, nevertheless wore its Hitchcock gestures on its sleeve. But Bong’s strength as a filmmaker has always been his distance from postmodern pastiche. He occupies his chosen modes of cinematic address, making sure to signpost the borrowed plots and genres for his audience. That is, he always draws his viewers in on his revivalist approach. But unlike so many of his peers, Bong offers no winking or mutual congratulation for recognizing the preordained narrative beats or structural armature at work in his films. Instead, one has the sense of filmmaker and viewer being involved in a common work of meaning-making.
It’s a gamble, as some reactions to Snowpiercer have shown. In terms of Bong’s organization of post-apocalyptic vision and social message, the film is closest not to the Transformers films or I Am Legend (2007) or 28 Days Later (2002), but to WALL-E (2008). In both films we’re witnessing the aftermath of human-caused eco-catastrophe, and in both films those who have survived this aftermath are being micromanaged by a malevolent capitalist entity. Both films also display the customary marvel at the once-plentiful earth as a tottering ruin, and an unlikely hero emerges from the lowest conceivable caste. Naturally, the Disney/Pixar version offers a friendlier, more bloodless image of revolution: the social divisions are between humans and robots, not the rich and the poor. (And in WALL-E, even the cockroaches fare better.)
But above all, the comparison holds because Snowpiercer draws its logic out to levels of blatancy that could be called cartoonish. For some, this might be pejorative; Bong, however, seems to understand something many others don’t, both about broad entertainment and the state of successful political action. Big action demands broad strokes; nuances emerge later. In fact, this is to a large degree the political subtext of Snowpiercer itself. The survivors of the great freeze are on a luxury train whose function—to be a playground for the wealthy—predated its necessity as an ark. The fact that it could withstand sub-polar climes was just a stroke of luck. Its creator, an industrialist named Wilford (Ed Harris), apparently sold some steerage at the back in order to make some money on life’s back end.
And so you have humanity arranged on a train, with the creator-God in front, his minions next, his wealthy patrons and security forces following, with municipal services in the middle and the untouchables in the tail. Voila! Wilford’s train is essentially class structure on two rails, with its own ideologues and apologists (notably Tilda Swinton’s bucktoothed Thatcher stand-in), and One Man from the filthy classes who will rise up and lead the rebellion (Chris Evans). Moving from car to car is a vulgar-Marxist revolt organized like a videogame, easy to understand and equally easy to dismiss.
But as was the case with Mother, Snowpiercer has a few unexpected hacks at the final level. Evans’ emergent leader, a typical white-guy free agent, reluctant to assume command, discovers that—surprise!—he’s been playing his assigned role from the start. His reluctant partner (Song Kang-ho) turns out to have a somewhat different agenda, a revolt that looks beyond just taking over the train. And even if the black protein bars they eat in the rear cars aren’t people, it seems that the great engine has a bit of the old Metropolis Moloch in it after all.
In other words, it doesn’t matter who’s running the train. Bong is not telling us anything we don’t already know, but Snowpiercer’s power is precisely in its capacity to boldly visualize this shared awareness: the futility of liberal revolt, the buffoonery of our betters, the hidden human kindling that is always the tiger in our tank. Where a film like the execrable V for Vendetta (2005) swaggered across the screen like it was spilling secret knowledge to hungry undergraduate minds, Snowpiercer exhilarates and deflates at once, a super-powered redundancy. Bong shows us that there’s only one track, and so you can’t flip the switch. You can only light the fuse, and embrace the inevitable destruction as the last picture show.