SNOWPIERCER, Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s sci-fi thriller about survivors of an ecological apocalypse living on a futuristic train, where they are sorted allegorically by class (scum towards the grimy back, the privileged towards the decadent front), feels like the titular train itself: careering and clunky, but immense and powerful, nonetheless – and constantly crashing onward. The movie’s clunkiness comes from its central metaphor: starving, roach-eating passengers live in privation only a few train cars away from rich, well-dressed passengers who live in luxury – oh, wait – that couldn’t be us, could it?

Read our review of SNOWPIERCER Vol. 2.

Yet though Snowpiercer has an easily graspable Occupy Wall Street theme, and the apparent structure of an American action movie (will the brave, modest Curtiss Everett get to the front of the train to depose the evil dictator who runs and rules the train?), Joon-Ho’s film is something it’s hard to imagine an American action director making. Snowpiercer isn’t just about class conflict, it’s about a conflict of values: Curtiss can’t get to the front of the train without Namgoong Minsoo, a drug addict who will only help him in exchange for a drug called Kronol. The conflict turns out to be ultimately between these two men. And though most characters in the film, and presumably the audience, identify with Curtis, it’s Namgoong’s perspective that makes the movie interesting.

French comic origins

Based on a 1980s French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige“, the film is set in 2034 when a scientific attempt to reduce global warming has backfired, freezing the Earth into a new Ice Age that has killed all life on the planet – except for the people on the train. The lower class, living in Dickensian filth on protein bars and terrorized by sadistic soldiers, have revolted unsuccessfully several times. But Curtiss Everett (Chris Evans) is determined to succeed this time. It’s initially hard to recognize Chris Evans, famous for being clean cut Captain America, as the dirt-covered Curtis, but by the end of the movie, his casting makes perfect sense – he’s not there as the symbolic manifestation of American triumph, but as the embodiment of America’s tunnel vision. Curtis’ main virtues are brute strength, strategic thinking and relentless determination, the world-conquering traits of America itself. But Bong Joon-Ho actually has too much of an ironic sensibility to let Uncle Sam really be the film’s protagonist (and the hero of the social allegory). At the end of the movie, after many bloody, masterfully staged battles, and a long character- revealing speech, Curtis reaches the front of the train and the limits of his way of thinking.

“All my life, I’ve been waiting for this moment,” says Curtis and orders Namgoong to open the door to the front-most compartment. Namgoong responds, “Nice story, Curtis, but I don’t want to open the door – I want to go outside.” What protagonist has ever been so anticlimactically upbraided? Curtis’s speech was an American classic: it spanned the entire arc of his character history (he explains that taking control of the front is, for him, redemption for crimes he committed when he first got onto the train – not to spoil the surprise, but the line “Dead babies taste the best” does come up) – and it outlined the mood-arc of a typical American hero in the usual linear order: first he felt ashamed because he did bad things, but now he feels sexy and climactic because he’s redeeming himself. Yet Namgoong (and by extension, his creator Joon-Ho) thinks Curtis is wrong-headed about what our social problems are and how to solve them. For Curtis, the best way to improve the system is to defeat its current leaders and become a new, more egalitarian leader; it’s the time-honored American way. But if Curtis can see beyond the leadership, Namgoong can see beyond the system altogether: he’s not interested in creating a democracy on the train, he wants to leave the train itself.

Eastern values disguised under Western 

For most of Snowpiercer, the standard Western themes of rich versus poor and victory versus defeat appear to be the values of the film. It is only at the end that the audience notices the Eastern-themed values of Namgoong: resourcefulness, intimate knowledge of how the world and nature works, and universal perspective. It’s impossible to feel smugly identified with the world-saving hero as the credits roll (Namgoong turns out to be right that it was possible to escape the train) if you were breathlessly rooting for Curtesianism the entire time. Curtis thought he was taking advantage of a drug addict’s weakness, but Namgoong reveals that all along he’s been collecting Kronol, which is made of flammable industrial waste, to form a bomb, meaning Namgoong has actually been taking advantage of Curtis’s limited technical knowledge and prejudices. It’s Namgoong, who observes nature, who is the only person to figure out that the snowy landscape the Snowpiercer passes through is gradually melting and therefore may sustain life, and the only person to realize that a certain obstacle in the train’s mechanism might be converted into an escape hatch.

Namgoong’s vision of escape is eventually vindicated, somewhat ambiguously, in the film’s final image of the train’s survivors in the snowy landscape. When trying to talk Curtiss into escaping the train, Namgoong cites the tip of a plane that, over the course of a decade, has slowly become more visible, indicating that the snow must be melting. The five percent of Snowpiercer that deals with what’s outside the class hierarchy of the train, and what’s outside the thematic system of action thrillers, is similarly buried, muffled under the roaring noises of the movie’s powerful plot engines, but it’s just as important as the tip of that plane. Joon-Ho is to be saluted for making a fantastically engaging action movie with a subplot that, when unpacked, is just as interesting as all the nerve-rattling action.

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