Snowpiercer: Speak, Memory, Occupy
By Matthew SnyderAugust 8, 2014
THE RESULTS are in: we won’t make it. Goodnight dear sister, dear brother, dear child, dear moon. Goodnight Leatherback Turtle. Goodnight Chinese Alligator, Iberian Lynx and the Pied Tamarin. Goodnight too, sweet Dama Gazelle — in all of just ten years. And lastly, goodbye to you, small planet of blue and green. Our dreams died from the seizures found in a paradox: drowned in deserts, burnt by floods, and choked by too much of the wrong air, there will be nothing left for us but particulates. There is no going back. We won’t make it out alive. (Or so they say.) It’s confirmed in the way we disregard the warning signs and stare back into the Videodrome of our smartphones — where what Mark Fisher calls our “individualized command centers” inspire religious worship, water-cooler conversations, and consumer-concussions. It’s a silo aimed at the soul, which gives you what you want, when you want; a confirmation-bias machine that channels dreams, but blocks out the nightmares. We can’t end hunger, Ebola, or house the homeless with empty houses — even though there are six-times more vacant homes as there are homeless folks in America. We fill up our gas tank, grumble at the costs, but ignore that other secret cost – the ravaging of the Earth’s biosphere. With all that endless pollution in the fishtank — glittering blindly above and below the digital daze in our palms, what awareness will exist to seek out and search for solutions to our species survival? So then, what is to be done?
Not much, by all appearances. While over 97% of climatologists agree that humans are causing the radical warming of the Earth, the percentage of skeptics remains virtually unchanged since 2001. Yet forced migration, global hunger, and the spiraling inequalities are the outcome — of not just neoliberal trade policies and drug wars — but also from the increasing droughts, floods and famines happening in much of the Third World as a result of environmental destruction. We whisper when we should holler: state capitalism, a monster made from the dead skin of the weak, is pure schadenfreude – a system of rebukes, refutations, cosmic denials and ironies. As Marx said, “First as tragedy, second as farce.” We watch on as the world burns on—our pleasure a dagger to our own demise. This virus of global capitalism intends to mercilessly eat its way through the planet’s biosphere; so much so, that there will be no room for anyone to enjoy a bath in its schadenfreude (unless you are microbes living in a volcano).
We are hurtling toward the aching vibrations of a profound abyss. At least in this neck of the multiverse – this Earth version we’re stuck with – the statistics are thrice-times tragic: all of them flicker with the horrifying, harrowing, and humbling: namely, the die-off of major plants and wildlife species, retreating glaciers, rising oceans, engulfed cities and coasts. A biologist at Duke University, Stuart Pimm, recently published a research article in the journal Science, which claims — that in the past — before humans evolved, only one species went extinct each year per every 10 million years. However, after the emergence of humans, that extinction rate has exploded at a rate between 100 and 1,000 species each year. To make matters worse, by 2050, three things are quite likely to occur: 1) the North Pole will have melted to such an unreal extent that — by summer — passenger ships will be able to cross through the North Pole with ease, nudging small, dainty ice chunks past the petro-churn of their port and starboard; 2) the largest living thing on our planet with an ecology stretching for 2,600 kilometers, The Great Barrier Reef, will go extinct. As the Earth warms, its coral will increasingly bleach into a white death by the parallel acidic warming of the ocean temperatures; 3) just as well, according to the United Nations, the Earth’s oceans might be entirely absent of fish — the kind of fish people like to eat in their sushi restaurants. Beyond these dire benchmarks, by 2100, the Earth’s temperatures will rise from 2.4 to 6.4 Celsius. If global warming ramps up to its ultimate extreme, centuries into the future, with both the North and South Poles having melted completely, important swaths of world’s continents would be engulfed by water. In a elaborate, but sophisticated work of cartography by Martin Vargic, an amateur graphic designer from Slovakia, he imagines such a future where sea levels rise 260 as a result of the caps melting: America’s major cities would be underwater: Miami, New Orleans, New York and Washington D.C. From the farther South and West of the U.S., in Latin America, the Amazon would bursts its banks, becoming a sea reaching into vast expanses of Brazil, while a sizable component of Australia’s continent would be swamped by the Murray Gulf and the Artesian Sea. All of this would make Kevin Costner’s fictional Waterworld (1995) and Radiohead’s animated video for “Pyramid Song” hapless documentaries streamed to us from this forlorn future. But this new world map would match the depressing baritone of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl — a masterful, SF corollary to Dicken’s Bleak House, which stratocasts us into such a future. This paradigm-shifting novel details a world where global warming in the 23rd century has left Earth’s coastlines underwater and new eco-plagues make any hour of life a precarious one; where calorie-companies control global food production via private armies and bioterrorist acts on third-world ecologies (or just the usual buying off of their politicians and the wealthy); and where sophisticated levees and pumps keep Bangkok from going underwater.
Unlike the drowned world of the future-possible described in The Windup Girl, Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s French comic, Le Transperceneige (1982), imagines a dystopian world that’s frozen over. The comic book cleverly blends the SF subgenres of the post-apocalypse, where life no longer exists outside the train, to the dystopia that exists inside the train’s many caste-cars, where minus the awareness of its slowing engine, the people acknowledge that the train is bleak but altogether sustainable. Therein, Le Transperceneige, written by Lob and illustrated by Rochette, details a world where an unnamed ecological catastrophe has frozen the Earth solid of any living beings other than the formidable Snowpiercer — a train whose engine of perpetual motion keeps passengers alive, and in doing so, no longer stops at stations for the lonely, frozen, and forgotten. Everything outside is dead — encased in a white carapace of ice, storms, and snow. Once inside, the train survives as a closed ecological and hermetically sealed biosphere that sustains itself from just the bare resources of its car compartments. Whether it’s for humans, animals or produce, every aspect of this surreal world has its preordained place in the social order. Highly stratified, the train is a feudal world of caste systems with the “tail-fuckers” in the back and the “fronters” in the head carriages. Of course, the concept of the graphic novel seems more fantasy than science fiction — especially so, considering that the wood and steel tracks the train rides on are never in disrepair. Tellingly troublesome, also, is that no ideas are given as to how this enclosed biosphere is able to recycle its resources like water, packaging materials or medicine; given the increasing resource demands that human life requires to live, these questions are never entertained. Still, there is a knowing wink by Jacques Lob that the tale requires a dizzying suspension of disbelief, when in the first page of the comic, the narrator says, “This is the Snowpiercer, One Thousand and One Carriages Long.” The phrase itself immediately conjures up, of course, Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah, or One Thousand and One Nights, a compendium of Middle Eastern and Asian folk tales canonized during the Islamic Golden Age. Hence, what follows might be considered fantasies mixed with whimsy and dread.
But unlike the original fantasies it seems to allude to, Lob and Rochette offer very little humor or whimsy in Snowpiercer’s original incarnation — whether from its characters’ dialogue or the illustrations of the train’s insides. This tale of the fantastic is Edgar-Allen-Poe gothic, where no captive protagonists can find redemption in the mistakes they made with Father Fate. Beyond the book’s gothic tone, the outré idea that the Earth might someday freeze up into a new Ice Age seems remarkably prescient given the increasing questions about Geoengineering. So, in reality, the core absurdity of the narrative isn’t that far off: an Earth transformed into a popsicle as a result humanity’s deluded desire to strut in God-drag. And given what we know of environmental tampering, the concept isn’t as non-sensical as it might have been when the comic was first released. Not only does Naomi Klein’s hugely anticipated book, Everything Changes: Capitalism vs. The Climate, intend to document man-on-earth meddling, but her trenchant essay in The New York Times, “Geoengineering: Testing the Waters” explored the very real idea of a Russian roulette with the Earth’s ecology. In the said 2012 article, she cites one recent example of this phenomenon when she took her newborn child and husband to the shores of British Columbia and saw four Orcas swim in desperate retreat, nearing the Sunshine Coast — an event without precedent. It seems that Russ George, an American entrepreneur, dumped nearly 120 tons of iron dust from the hull of a rented fishing boat in the hope of reversing global warming. This small-scale experiment in geoengineering was done to see if the iron dust would create massive algae blooms, and thereby combat the effects of global warming. If successful, Mr. George thought this could be used as scientific support for future interventions on a macro level to save, rescue and return the world’s dying oceans back to health they once had. But as Klein states,
"The risks are huge. Ocean fertilization could trigger dead zones and toxic tides [. . .] By definition, technologies that tamper with ocean and atmospheric chemistry affect everyone. Yet it is impossible to get anything like unanimous consent for these interventions. Nor could any such consent possibly be informed since we don’t — and can’t — know the full risks involved until these planet-altering technologies are actually deployed."
And tampering with the planet, and its bioforms, is a core thematic exploration in SF works starting from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) to J.G. Ballard’s The Burning World (1964) and Stephen Baxter’s more recent Flood (2008). This theme still drives much of the genre’s writers into returning to yet more dystopias.
While Le Transperceneige is more iconic and visionary in terms of concept than its limp execution of character development, plotting, and illustrations might suggest, the graphic novel does allow Jacques Lob an uncanny allegory that speaks to the widening chasm France’s class system at the time of its creation. Rather than drift into dated commentary about inequality, this comic’s concern about resources, access, and social stratification are even more relevant to our times; resource deprivation, habitat destruction, the ever-spiraling inequality and lack of economic mobility all point to a new, sad state of brand labeling: our 21st Century version of the Earth wobbles on, in warts and shorts, as The Age of Waste and Misplaced Greed. The second and third sequels to Lob’s original work, by newcomer Benjamin LeGrand and a returning Jean-Marc Rochette, show little interest in exploring the tension between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and instead favor an exploration in the lives of the middle class (who want to win the lottery, put on headsets and escape into the train’s Virtual Environments), as well as the economic and political elite (who are viewed with more sympathy than the outright distrust that Jacque Lob displays in the original graphic novel). Regardless of LeGrand’s improved characterization and plotting, and Rochette’s more evocative painted and drawn panels, it’s Lob’s critical examination and allegory of France’s “have and have-nots” that still bristles and stabs with continued significance. In our First World vs. Third World disparities, in our global 1% vs. the 99%, in our aching desire to see solutions, the original graphic novel speaks honestly to these fraught concerns. It’s the occupy before occupy. And certainly, the environment — and our mangled relationship with it — charges forth to set the tone of this dystopian story.
Although global warming features into Le Transperceneige’s backstory, it’s the theme of inequality — of the have and have-nots — that becomes the central driving mechanism for exploration in Bong Joon-Ho’s recent adaptation. Given the abject failure at social critique in Blomkamp’s Elyisum, which was more about action than ideas, Bong’s Snowpiercer is a powerful visual and reminder to what makes Occupy Wall Street so relevant. Often cited (at least nominally by himself) as a simple “genre-director,” the South Korean often uses genre as a way to flip rather than spin the plates of narrative into revolutionary forms and subtexts. While Quentin Tarantino — America’s foremost genre-director — has largely eschewed political commentary (with exception of Django Unchained), Bong has jumped mightily and cannily into those onyx waters with his film Gwoemul (known in the U.S. as The Host and released in 2006). Though obviously more fantastic and absurd than his docudramas about barking dogs and serial killers, Goemul’s absurdity is rooted to the bare dirt and aims expertly to its target as a political critique of U.S. foreign policy.
The premise of the film starts with an apathetic, dopey, and dipshit U.S. Military pathologist who demands that his Korean assistant violate safety protocols by dumping over 200 bottles of formaldehyde into the Han River. The fictional introduction mirrors a real-life historical moment in Seoul when a Korean mortician, working for the U.S. military, dumped a large amount of formaldehyde down the drain, which, in turn, caused a harrowing degree of tension between Korea and the U.S. military (and was mostly ignored by the American press). The director later stumbled upon an article about a genetically malformed fish caught in the Han River, squirming with an S-shaped spine — and the idea of the fish magnified. What follows this becomes an inspired film translation — a transgressive reinvention of the monster-mash movie — where a hilariously incompetent Korean government fails to control the creature with a haphazard weapon called “Agent Yellow.” The chemical not only alludes to the America’s use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, but through inference one can surmise that this Agent Yellow is quite likely supplied by the same U.S. military that created the monster in the first place (and whose antidote can be procured for a ‘small’ fee from the Pentagon). The critiques of U.S. imperialism, and later critiques of South Korea’s bureaucracy were immediate talking points when the film was released to blockbuster success in Korea, the U.S. and elsewhere. The nature of power, its abuse by the elite and an unsuspecting and inured public who hears of the elite’s plans and learns to revolt, all issue forth again as textured themes in Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant Snowpiercer.
The impetus for the film adaptation comes from the cute and quotidian— a reminder that directors have rituals that are as quiet and modest as our own: Bong Joon-ho took a break from the production set for The Host and visited his regular comic book shop in the Hongdae area of Seoul. Upon wandering through the aisles, he discovered Le Transperceneige and struck by its concept, swiftly began reading it non-stop in the store. At the time, the comic had no English version, but had strangely enough found a translation on Korean shores. Once excited, and with the help of his colleague and friend Park Chan-wook, Bong gained the rights to the graphic novel and successfully found funding (no hard feat given the extraordinary success of The Host). What immediately drew Bong’s interest in adapting Le Transperceneige into Snowpiercer, beyond the obvious thematic richness of “the proles and the golds,” was the compelling visual language that such a concept would create on celluloid:
"The very first thing that made me excited was the train. I could make a train movie with the material. The idea of shooting a two-hour movie inside of a moving train with people fighting inside it was very exciting and thrilling. Also, the strong contrast between narrow and long, the overpopulated, cramped spaces inside, and the darkly lit spaces and the beautiful white outside. It’s very poetic and lyrical. I liked that contrast. The train has many separated sections. Every time you open a door and go into another section, it’s an opportunity to show different worlds."
And for Bong, the idea that the audience would have no idea what was beyond each carriage mirrored the anxiety and dread Chris Evans would face each time he fought his way up through the front of the train. This desire to create compression and claustrophobia can also be seen in Alfonso Cuaron’s decision to film Children of Men (2006) like a documentary. Like Snowpiercer, Children of Men is another work about despair, change and revolution that needed to be told in tight, bursting frames, so it was shot with a tighter aspect ratio (1.85:1) than the widescreen standard often used in Hollywood blockbusters (2.40:1). Bong seemed to have followed Cuaron’s strategy and shot Snowpiercer with the same aspect ratio to create the same sense of intensity and dread.
Instead of a lone protagonist escaping from the train’s tail to get to the almighty front — as witnessed in the comic book — Bong was excited by the idea of what would happen if the back of the train revolted from the oppression of the front, which could then be shot in compressed, tight and queasy sequences of violence. What would happen if there was a war and revolt on a train full of axes and bats? Would it look like an anime episode from Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece (1999)? Do we find catharsis or comfort in watching a world of violence worse than our own? Is it absurd to dream up a nightmare of death on a non-stop train?
Both the director, Bong, and the co-writer of the screenplay, Kelly Masterson, at different points during their interviews with the US press, suggested that their adaptation of the graphic novel is a wild and radical interpretation, almost borrowing nothing save the basic concepts of rich versus poor and a lone, non-stop train carrying the last vestiges of humanity. All of the characters are different in the adaptation and the plotting of those characters and their emblematic philosophies are in stark contrast to Lob and Rochette’s vision of the narrative. Still, with all that said, the director and writer certainly oversell this claim because many of the visual sequences and settings of the actual cars appear also in the film, albeit with intensely added technologies that make the narrative far more plausible than it would otherwise seem in the comic. The tail is a horrible and ghastly place of low-content food and ill-health, while the middle-class cars exist and largely operate as a buffer between the have-nots (tailers), who are packed in the rear and the haves (fronters), who live nestled in the neck of the Snowpiercer. Both the film and graphic novel showcase a train-engine of perpetual motion that is controlled by a mysterious entity with exclusive knowledge on how the machine works. There are carriages that feature the production of food (greenhouses), sequences of brothels and parties appear, and one of the fronters in both the film and graphic novel ask the tailers if they “eat their own shit.” The religious revival carriage from the comic is brilliantly replaced by a manically dark and funny sequence involving kindergarten kids being brainwashed by a pregnant and blond-braided, piano-playing and gun-toting schoolmarm. The teacher (played ingeniously by Aline Pill) tells her darlings about the divine nature of the train, and its Holy Father Wilford, whose “billionaire wisdom” correctly prophesized that CW-7, deployed in the Earth’s atmosphere, would bring about the End Times. And while there is no specific ranking and military order in the film adaptation, a royal family headed by Minister Mason (played pitch-perfectly by Tilda Swinton in full Yorkshire-librarian and denture-get-up) suggests a hierarchy to their train’s black-hooded and axe-trained militia. The train conductor, Alex Forester, is combined with the President Dewill in the graphic novel to make Ed Harris’s character, Wilford, the master-creator, engine-driver and savior of the Snowpiercer’s inhabitants. And President Dewill, like Wilford, can be seen at the end of the novel in a regal and relaxed bathrobe, cajoling in a linguistic register that is relaxed, jaded but also polished and confident. And like the comic book sequel to Le Transperceneige, The Explorers, a stunning plot twist is revealed: the entire train’s inhabitants are controlled by a shared secret between the elites.
Beyond those unheralded similarities, which deserve to be acknowledged as influences to the adaptation, there is one substantial change in the adaptation that creates a starkly different semiotic message than what surfaces in Le Transperceneige. In the first graphic novel, a man named Proloff — a tailer (who suggests ‘prole’)— enters through a bathroom and is quarantined and accused of carrying a “disease” only to be rescued by an activist who demands equality for the tailers and a redistribution of the train’s resources to all of its passengers, regardless of what cars they all live in. The only revolt mentioned in the book starts at the beginning of the ecological freeze-over, when the tailers force themselves onto the train and later attempt to move to the front cars where most of the resources are held. They are then killed in what is later called “The Massacre.” In Bong and Masterson’s version of Snowpiercer, it is focused on the notion of a total revolution, one that soars to heights of success never seen in past revolts that have failed prior to Gilliam (John Hurt) and Curtis’ (Chris Evans) mutual battle-strategy; this revolution is accelerated further after the tailers’ children are mysteriously tape-measured and abducted.
To witness the idea of a successful and transformative rebellion is to imagine an alternative history: What if Occupy Wall Street, like Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, had not only spread, but taken systemic root against the ruling class? What if the stunning allegiance between the indentured servants (“whites”) and Africans, who mutually opposed the system of bond-servitude, had completely overtaken the propertarians? And what if the British royalists had not used divide and conquer strategies to splinter the class solidarity between the white peasantry and Africans (by allowing poor whites to suddenly own animals and beat Africans with complete legal amnesty and autonomy). What if the Occupy encampments across the U.S. transitioned into a full-scale flowering of the future-possible? What if individual awareness — this awareness movement — had moved from tactics (the encampments) to strategies (money out of politics; exclusive public financing of all elections) and then burst and transform into one ultimate solution (a new economic system that shares the Earth’s resources, rather than hoards them; or likewise an economy that didn’t devour the planet to the hubris of its mutual destruction, and instead clung to save it). This would be a very different kind New World Order than what George H.W. Bush lamely bugled from his podium at the start of the Persian Gulf War, and which never rose to a higher meaning with any real consequence after 9/11 (unless you count the tinfoil hats of the Alex Jones’ armada). This would be different from neoliberalism and its “growth-model bombs” which has infested the globe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) but state capitalism.
In looking at this major shift in plotting, some reviewers lightly tisk-tisked the film for its lack of subtlety, when it came to exploring inequality and class; or they chastised the film for its cautionary tale about geoengineering and the elite’s mordant solution for sustainability (via Gilliam and Wilford’s tacit agreement to population control). Still, it’s hard to find fault with Snowpiercer’s grotesque bluntness when America is increasingly diverging into 99 cent stores and private jets, or when chunks of ice break off the Antarctic that are the size of Rhode Island. And like Alex Wasilewski’s Lucky Day Forever, its bluntness is just a marvelous façade that hides deeper, richer and more silent semiotic registers within itself. In fairness, more accurate crinkles in the film’s stitching and fabric would be the following: Chris Evan’s only provides a serviceable, Tom Cruise-as-Mr.-Decency version of the Yankee hero, whose leader doubts and flaws aren’t developed early enough (unless they made him a cutter); Ed Harris performs well, but within the same persona-range he’s played in for most of his career; and the musical score by Marco Beltrami — the weakest link of all (why not Jonny Greenwood?) — whose “incidental music” is well, incidental and dangerously Mel Tormé. Still, the Terry-Gilliam-to-Jean-Jeunet inspired cars by Czech production designer Ondrej Nekvasil burst with depravity, splendor and irony; the cinematography and editing, the formative pieces of its plotting and foreshadowing by Bong and the dialogue embellishments by Kelly Masterson (“Passengers, this is not a shoe. This is disorder. This is size ten chaos.”) all make for a remarkable achievement. Although filed as a yellow-flag-complaint by many reviewers of the film (Scout Foundas and Dana Stevens to name a few), the video-game-aesthetics of the CGI-snowscape outside the train actually achieves a strange mythic quality in contrast to the visceral wealth and poverty breathing inside the machine. (And to see when it doesn’t work, just refer to Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer.) The poise, brashness and confidence of that Bong shows is as unstoppable as the Snowpiercer itself. Even the force of Harvey Weinstein “Scissorhands” ultimately folded in his desire to add voiceovers and cut 20 minutes out of the weirder and more dangerous ideas in the film. A fan and film-critic petition started, leading the producer to punish Bong by putting the film into limited, rather than wide-release. (And which will be Weinstein’s most laughable mistake in a rather conniving career of silly mistakes and cunning triumphs.) Above this producer-dipshiticus, the film is a towering example of what can be done inside a Hollywood-SF blockbuster — one that even transcends the semiotic richness and suspense of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) or Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012).
So what is the real tragedy of an SF film this grand, dangerous and ideologically wide-reaching? Why doesn’t Snowpiercer dream harder than what it give its audience in the closing minutes, when the bursting train is crushed under the white snow-waves of an echo-shocked Earth? In the very beginning of Bong Joon-ho’s development of the screenplay’s Korean-language version (before Masterson collaborated on the English version), Bong imagined that the revolt would struggle between two competing ideas. On one side of the revolution, there would be Chris Evan’s character, the leader of the tailers, whose strategy is to reform the train and share the resources, and create a more equitable and just society on the Snowpiercer. On the other side of the revolution, there would be Kang-ho Song’s character, a Kronole-addicted former security operative, who is given more of the waste-drug each time new car doors are opened, but whose quiet strategy is to completely blow up the train. Having seen a crashed airliner outside slowly reveal itself under snowmelt, with each passing year of the “Happy Yekatrina Bridge” celebrations, Song’s character wants to start a new society outside. In his drug-hazed mind, the thawing of the Earth has begun and it means that humans are ready to return to outside and become better than what they once were. At its root, in its very essence, this is the basis for every human justice struggle, found in any revolution time immemorial, from the French Revolution to the global revolts of 1968 to the Arab Springs in 2010, which flowed into Occupy movements and encampments in 2011. Which way do we go, dear Ingrates, dear Caesars? Reform or revolution? Is this an either/or question? Or can it be both? Can we reform the train’s inequalities and move outside the train and start anew with all the compassion and love we were built for?
And this is precisely the problem with SF cinema, and science fiction in general, let alone the deep deficit in creative thinking our society continues to be trapped in. Of all of the genres found within the medium of the novel, it’s always been science fiction that’s been the restless and far-reaching idea-machine. And the same holds with SF cinema. Who can forget a viewing of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (regardless of your use of cannabis)? So is Hunger Games the best idea-machine we can provide for young readers (and the middle-aged), a work that’s even bleaker than Lois Lowry’s The Giver? And which is especially the case, given that Katniss ultimately abandons the revolution she symbolized and hides with Peeta in their simple cottage of isolated-love. So what vision do we have for those growing out of their shoes or those yet to be born? A new remake of Hunger Games in 2049—just a year before the Great Barrier Reef disappears? We can see the wounds. But can we heal them?
In film after SF film, whether it’s Children of Men or Elysium, whether it’s Moon, Looper, or even Gravity, we get the problem, we see the oppression, we see the disease. And at the end of each of these films we receive the faintest outlines of hope, but it’s as vague and gooey as Velveeta cheese. In this new millennium, in this Age of Waste and Greed, will Snowpiercer finally crack the code and grant us a utopia? Tragically, Bong Joon-ho’s otherwise brilliant Snowpiercer shares in the same sheepish fate as the other SF films that have come before it. When Song’s character finally manages to blow up the door to the neck of the train, the reverberations shock the snowy mountains into pure-blockbuster avalanche mode. The train wobbles, then rips and spins off the train-tracks and explodes like the Death Star for our 21st Century. But what exists beyond the spectacle? While Bong deserves credit for killing off his white messiah, Chris Evans, a trope of troublesome repetition in Hollywood blockbusters (for more see Avatar, The Last Samurai and Dancing with Wolves), he doesn’t give us a vision of a utopia we so desperately need. Song’s daughter, who we realize is clairvoyant, crawls out of the train with the little black boy, Timmy, who we remember being mercilessly abducted from the tail to serve as a replacement for the missing components of the train’s damaged engine. Both are orphans; both are motherless and fatherless facing the snow together, seeing a polar bear on the crest of a snowy hill. Both hold hands in solidarity — rising toward a new multiracial age. Life has begun again outside the vast cold expanse of the train. A polar bear growls above them—a dream of new life. Yet, the central semiotic message doesn’t fully register: Polar bears and clairvoyants will not save us in subfreezing temperatures with no discernible housing to speak of. And if they can both survive being the subject of a Herzog documentary about bears, can we really expect them to be the next Adam and Eve with no place to build a fire? Can Yona and Timmy truly repopulate the planet given their disparate ages and divergent hobbies (coloring books versus speaking to animals)? Hence, this is not the flicking of an ending we can rejoice in.
So, let’s imagine a different ending—one that speaks to the utopian impulse we all hunger for amidst the nightmares that plague our Earth and its biosphere. Imagine that Timmy’s mother, Tanya (played by Octavia Spencer) actually leads the revolt rather than just following the white savior’s march to the train’s final car. She plans the revolt, reminding them of their lost children—of what birth means. Instead of bats, instead of axes, she shows the picture of her lost son, her one & only son, Timmy. Yet Mason’s militiamen won’t listen, being the dogs of the 1%, so Tanya axes her way through them with the aid the tailers who stagger behind her. Chris Evans is dying on the floor (in order to reduce production costs). He tells her to leave him, and that only she can end this. She moves into one carriage after another. If they ignore her photo, they die under her blade. But in one of the last cars, amid the jubilant and extravagant partygoers, dazed from kronole and disco lights, she shows them the drawing of her son, made from bleak but hopeful scratches of charcoal. She talks about his dreams to the revelers of Omelas: What Timmy wanted for her mother and how they would live in the train rather than in its excrement. She talks of his malnourishment of having to be five years old and eat protein-blocks of Jello mashed from the remnants of insects, while the fronters dine on sushi, arugula and kale. Tanya then sings the song she sang to Timmy at bedtime. The ravers follow her and join the remaining but courageous and bleeding tailers. She enters the train’s front engine, and following Gilliam’s original advice to Chris, she cuts out Wilford’s tongue, rather than hear him hum with the lies of the 1%. It is here that humanity begins. Rather than blow up the train to start anew, which is a patently childish idea at that, but one Bong seems to believe in, the mother rescues her son. He becomes the symbol of the train’s decency, compassion and love. By simply telling stories. Timmy talks about his suffering under the train’s machinery, the muscle spasms and brutality of Wilford’s physical and verbal abuse, seeing two others kids die in front of him, the fear of never seeing his mother, of dying inside the machine alone. And, from hearing the story of Timmy’s suffering, the consciousness of the train arrives at its true destination, love. Henceforth, the passengers share their resources equally (and occasionally eat those insect bars). Then each car is given instantly recallable delegates to represent each train and the labor needed, while local decisions are made through mutual aid and a desire for consensus. And the Snowpiercer, the allegory of our Earth, transforms and renews its vision for the future-possible. Until one day the train lurches through mountains of snow and rides downward revealing a valley of sunflowers and creeks below. Credits roll with an out-of-the-box brilliant score by Johnny Greenwood. La Fini.
So this is what we need: a daunting utopian film from Hollywood — one that dares to dream our way out of the endless and terminal dystopias that just make us feel better about the dystopia we currently live in. And while Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward (1887), seems dated and dangerously naïve, given what we know of hyper-centralized state-socialism, it still created a wild flowering and discussion about socialism and utopia in a spate of satires, celebrations and extensions of his ideas. It even influenced Eugene V. Debs’s vision of socialism (who then influenced FDR’s New Deal policies), and generated the first real wave of excitement about socialism and utopia in the U.S. For much better visions of the future-possible, we only need to look at the holy trinity of utopian SF novels that came far after Looking Backward, and that Hollywood is too fearful (or dumb) to make: Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).
As Oscar Wilde once said, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.” And so the real solution isn’t to blow up the train (our Earth) and escape into the ice of the unknown with a technology and shelter we don’t yet have (a sustainable igloo). We don’t need any more Star Wars light-saber sequences than we do Picard’s Random (Mis)Adventures on Holodecks. The author Geoff Ryman and others have said as much with a movement toward Mundane SF, where ideas of the oncoming deserve our attention in the now. This Earth can be saved — at least in this neck of the multiverse. And if we can’t save this Earth, why even bother trying somewhere else with demands and outcomes far beyond the bizarre and frightening?
It is here that Tanya, Timmy’s mother, ventures into this last paragraph. She is holding her son up on her stomach — instead of under her dress when Minister Mason came for him. We can’t see the train—if it burst or if it left us. Timmy leans his head on hers, his hand a small, soft broom to Tanya’s neck. With her one free arm, she points to the outline of a buried mirror in the snow, the mirror of what we hide and what we hope to be. She asks only this from us: “Be a mother to the earth & be mothers to each other. I have killed. I have given birth. Listen & remember: to touch is to hurt or heal; to speak is to wound or reveal. So let us come with opened hands and be mouths full of song. Do more than Imagine.”
Matthew Snyder received his Ph.D. from UC Riverside's Department of English. His dissertation, entitled, Welcome to the Suck: Film and Media Phantasms of the Gulf War is an extended cultural studies work on the cinema of that war and its critical refraction of Colonialism, Inc. — as seen in the films of Werner Herzog and David O. Russell. Since completing his dissertation in 2008, he has undergone Jedi “potty-training” in SF, and has written on Children of Men, Avatar and Moon for Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA). Beyond the Ivory Maze, he is an activist in the Anti-War and Occupy Movements, and is a recent co-founder of The 28ers — an organization calling for a 28th Amendment to get money out of politics. As the quasi-religious photo on the left suggests, he just became a tenured lecturer in the University Writing Program at UC Riverside. He tries to avoid flying cake.
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