Surviving a Science Fictional Year: Snowpiercer

I saw Snowpiercer. I was pretty well blown away by it. It starts off almost like a comet; very fast paced and filled with bizarre visuals. The action started off in an almost gonzo Middle Earth kind of way in which the sense of danger is muted being instead traded for a sense of adventure and exploration. Then the turn comes when they confront a hundred angry leathered men wielding axes in the confined dimensions of a box car as it passes through the dark of a train tunnel. At that moment the movie becomes brutal and brutal again as the surroundings get more and more bizarre, until the moment the movie is overcome with the bizarre and, literally, goes off the rails.

The way I see it, there are two ways in which this movie can be most easily analyzed: as a parable or allegory for the environment and its relationship to capitalism, and as a gnostic fable. More than any movie I’ve seen lately (except Noah which obviously and purposefully borrows from the gnostic canon) it screams gnosticism. I mean, I tend to view everything creative through the lens of gnostic fable, but this seems made for it.

In the first more mundane (mundane in that it’s related to concrete expressions of the planet, not mundane in that it’s boring or unimportant) interpretation, the train obviously represents what we might describe as The West or western political institutions, primarily capitalism. In this view, the train is filled people, the back representing the lowest possible class and the front the highest possible, and every car in between representing any possible variation of that idea. The people in the back seem to offer no good to the rest of the car beyond simply being expendable as at no point do you ever see them perform any useful work no matter how objectionable. Similarly, our lowest (the homeless, addicts, mentally disabled people, and even children – a very important class for this movie) seemingly offer nothing greater to the machine as a whole. This makes it easy for those higher in the machine to simply brutalize, objectify, and treat like human cattle those whom exist for the sole purpose of existing — allowing those just slightly higher to feel good about their existence.

As with all oppressive governments, those who are easiest to hate (immigrants, the poor, the sick, minorities) are oppressed on an official level and encourage its citizenry to do so. While in real life the marginalization might be partially illusory in that there isn’t usually real life segregation (homeless people can wander around a fancy mall, or beg for money on the street corner in nice neighborhoods until they’re busted), this movie adds real life segregation with the marginalized being literally separated from the rest of the train, which makes it easier for the rest of the train to disregard their very human needs. In fact, the ONLY contact the back of the train has with anyone else is with the guards and government officials who only show up periodically to distribute food, take children, and punish. They do so with an air that demands thankfulness, though their own ineptitude is masked only by their weapons and fancy clothes.

As with all oppressive governments, eventually the marginalized will fight back. History explodes at the seams with accounts of peasant revolts and slave uprisings.

In Snowpiercer, as the insurgents near the front of the train, the movie explains that, of course, in a closed system we have to manage our resources. They’re on a train for god’s sakes! They can’t have everyone consuming as they wish because then they’d soon run out of materials. Which is a truth, both here and in an ecological sense: while the Earth isn’t a closed system – she constantly takes in material from the sun and space – it does take time, in some cases thousands of years, to replace the materials we consume. It is absolutely true that we MUST be mindful of what we consume, both on the train and in the world. In fact, these people are on a train because of their predecessor’s boundless consumption. So while, of course, we have to be careful with how we consume, the movie makes it clear that the rich will still make sure to screw the poor out of equal treatment. Our insurgents come from a world in which there are (possibly? probably? almost certainly?) no showers, no education, barely enough food to only slightly starve, and people stacked in bunks like cord wood while the worlds they pass through include luscious gardens complete with tomatoes and knitting, old country sitting rooms, Gatsby style party houses, oaken living spaces, outrageous rave spaces, and the most unsettling (though probably pretty damn fun) public education possible. There is a medium ground, and the majority of people wouldn’t notice the shift: just those in the rear and very front. But such a shift makes such a system untenable: for reasons revealed later, this train depends upon and needs someone, some group of people, to be the recipients of brutality, and if you don’t designate someone specific, than anyone is as likely as anyone else to become the objects of suffering. And, as the divine engineer and his possibly inbred mouth piece (Mason) make clear, every part has its place and function.

As a rule, I think spoiler alerts are stupid: they can’t possibly ruin a story well told. No one reads Lord of the Rings and throws it away if someone says, “You know, they destroy the ring at the end.” A spoiler can only possibly ruin a lazy story whose worth depends on a surprise ending. Having said that, I have no problem telling you that the train eventually gets derailed, they reach the engineer, everyone dies, and possibly, the human race dies. However, there is one element of the story whose shock does lose its efficacy if you aren’t allowed to approach it with a blank slate, and that’s what the following paragraph is all about.

Which is where the actual untenability of this situation comes into focus. The children that get taken from the rear car are used to fit into the tight spaces where gears breakdown and can’t be replaced. Ultimately, that is the only purpose of the back end: to produce children to be used in the front end so that the powers don’t have to feel bad about taking of their own. Apparently no one thought it’d be a good idea to have an ironworks available. Ultimately, however, in a closed system, it doesn’t matter. Eventually you run out of materials to smelt, and you have to find alternatives. The eventual fate of everyone on this train is to have their children reduced to gears where they, quite possibly, die. Eventually the train is its own death.

In the end, the question of whether or not this is a system capable of treating its marginalized fairly and the blatant portrayal of abuse by the privileged is superseded by the question of whether or not this is a system that deserves to live. Ultimately, it’s a system whose terminal point is the literal objectification of everyone involved. In the interim, before we have the courage to abandon it wholesale, the question is how to make that system more liveable for those involved?

(Click below for Snowpiercer as Gnostic allegory)

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jh montgomery

I'm a guy with opinions. Some of those are about science fiction. Like a voice shouting into a hurricane of voices, I write about science fiction for Hush Comics. I grew up watching the original Star Trek with my mom in our basement. I have shockingly few memories of it, apart from the silver and gray grid covered VHS boxes old Star Trek tapes came in, but it left it's mark forever. My first memory of being in a movie theater was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. A group entered dressed as the crew of Star Trek, acting the part (the man dressed in Vulcan robes addressing the man with a middle-aged lesbian perm as captain). I nearly lost my mind with the excitement of sharing a theater with Leonard Nimoy. No no, my mom would tell me: that's someone dressing up. Impossible. Later, I would walk in on my parents watching the wrong movie at the wrong moment and be mortally terrified of alien abductions from the age of eight to thirteen. This fear was so strong, I couldn't watch the X-Files until it came to Netflix. As a teenager, hearing the theme song coming from another room in the house would give me anxiety. Science fiction, at its best is the pursuit, and evolution, toward transcendance: cultural, technological, spiritual. Transcendance marked me early, and forever.

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