Snowpiercer (2020, HBOMax)
“First, the weather changed, the deniers know why but they still doomed us with their lies.”
Everywhere we look, species are dying, ice caps are melting, forests are being reduced to rubble. For the first time in human history, the unsustainable state of humanity’s current lifestyle is coming to a head. If you’ve done even a little research on climate change, then you probably feel the same as I do: I believe the climate crisis is the greatest issue facing life on Earth today. For many years, we have taken great treasures from the Earth without replenishing them adequately. We have put a great strain on non-renewable resources, though the demand for everyday comforts has not slowed. We have trashed our Earth immensely and in ways which we do not fully understand. Put simply: without a world to inhabit, nothing else matters.
Though stances on climate change vary from state by state and country to country, many scientists agree that major changes need to be implemented in order to secure a future for humanity. For humans to survive an increase in global temperature, scientists say we would need to reduce global warming as much as we can through mitigation NOW (really, yesterday). IF we survive (and that’s a big if based on phase one of mitigation), we would then need to learn how to adapt and live in this new environment. While there are still some who don’t believe in climate change, there are others who have great faith that science, technology, and innovation will get us through. This very topic has become the focus of a great many cinematic works, particularly in the science fiction and dystopian genre. In fact, it’s tough to find a dystopian work these days where humanity didn’t destroy the Earth - be it nuclear war, a zombie apocalypse, or climate change.
Foundations of Snowpiercer:
Snowpiercer (2020), based on a French sci-fi comic called, “La Transperceneige,” offers a refreshing new look on the age old concept of dystopian human demise. While works such as Interstellar (2014), and The Book of Eli (2010), offer glimpses at a world annihilated by nuclear warfare or crippled by climate change, Snowpiercer offers something truly unique. Snowpiercer paints the picture of a frigid landscape entirely devoid of human life. This harsh environment and the human inability to adapt is what drives the characters into a very claustrophobic survival situation. The series invites the viewer to entertain the idea of: what would life be like if all of humanity was trapped on a runaway train?”
Though climate change seems like a fairly new topic to some, the French comic, “La Transperceneige,” originally debuted in 1982. Perhaps the idea seemed far-fetched for the time; However, in 2021, the premise doesn’t seem all that far off. When Bong Joon Ho delivered his original adaptation of Snowpiercer in 2013, the narrative truly captivated me. Bong Joon Ho is one of my favorite directors to begin with, but the premise itself left me wanting so much more. I was fascinated by the idea of a dystopian train with 1,001 different cars, and felt it left much to be desired. That being said, I understand the limitations of cinema; there is only so much you can do with two hours on screen. Though, you can imagine my excitement when I saw that HBO was releasing a ten episode series. Eight years later, with the topic of climate change more pressing than ever, the timing couldn’t have been better. I could not wait for them to dig deeper into the content - and boy, they did NOT disappoint. In true HBO fashion, the network has approached the series with an incredible amount of detail, beautiful cinematography, top-of-the-line screenwriting and heavy hitting characters. As I discuss some of the most powerful aspects of this series, read with caution as there may be spoilers ahead.
Password? “Eat the Rich”:
While climate change is certainly at the forefront of the Snowpiercer narrative, it is far from being the most interesting aspect. At the heart of this story - and perhaps what makes it so timeless - is a class struggle between the front of the train (the engine), and the tail. The very first moments of the series paint a picture of violence and chaos, as un-ticketed passengers (the last survivors of the freeze), force their way onto Snowpiercer: humanity’s last arc. As the train departs, un-ticketed passengers are thrown from the doors by Jackboots, the train’s military force, while wealthy passengers relax comfortably in their cabins.
The scene cuts to black and the story flashes to six years later. While the eternal engine built by their incredible leader, Mr. Wilford, hums away rhythmically, head of hospitality services, Melanie Cavill goes about her daily activities tending to the frivolous demands of first class passengers. Meanwhile, life in the tail is nothing short of torture. Packed into the last car of the train like sardines, served “bug bars,” and doomed to a life of dirt, darkness, and despair, the “tailies,” are treated with very little human compassion. Due to the fact that they boarded the train without tickets, hospitality assistant Ruthie, as well as the first and second class, look down upon the tailies for boarding the train. The way Ruthie looks at it, whatever despair befalls the tail, they deserve it. By her assessment, even this next to nothing life is better than death by the eternal frost.
Though WIlford’s minions attempt to portray an image of happiness and unity on the train at all times, it is clear that the tailies suffer an unnecessarily harsh and unfair existence. As the creators of Snowpiercer slowly reveal more and more of the luxury cars available, it becomes obvious that the tailies are kept in this prison by means of control and punishment, not because the train lacks resources or means to support a more compassionate lifestyle. Though the tailies are somewhat aware of the truth of this horrid reality, their previous attempts to revolt against Wilford have proved futile, resulting in cruel and unusual displays of punishment. These punishments are designed to keep the rest of the tailies in line, ultimately controlling them with fear and manipulation.
Though all seems lost for tailies such as Josie, Miles, and Andre Layton, a glimmer of hope arises shortly after a failed attempt at insurrection. Rather than getting an arm frozen off, or being placed in the “drawers,” as he expected, revolutionary leader Andre Layton is given a priceless opportunity to leave the tail. Blinded by the light of third class after not seeing the Sun for 7 years, Andre is first met by Brakemen Bess Till and her boss Roche, the detectives and police of the train. Though strongly opposed at first, Andre accepts their offer to investigate a mysterious murder in first class. Though Bess seems to have great instincts as an officer, Layton soon discovers that she was only a detective-in-training prior to the freeze, making him the only real detective on the train. For the first time in seven years, Andre has not only value, but also leverage. Though Melanie knows the risk of giving a revolutionary access to more cars of the train, her greater fear is that someone might unravel her deep dark secret. Confident in her ability to maintain order and secrecy, she grants Andre special access to many different cars. However, as Andre uncovers the truth about the murder, he also learns a great deal about the inner-workings of the train, just as Melanie feared. A race for control of the train begins as Andre plots a revolution while Melanie attempts to stop it.
Though perhaps not as dramatic as it is portrayed in Snowpiercer, the disparity between the rich and poor in this country (and throughout the world) is very palpable. At the heart of this narrative is truly a question of: what is humanity? And if we all share these basic human needs for happiness, why is it that the rich eat cake at the front of the train while the tail eats bug bars? Why do homeless folks sleep beneath skyscrapers? Put similarly, why do Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates continue to accumulate a truly un-spendable (in their lifetime) amount of cash, while a small fraction of their earnings could solve world hunger? According to the Borgen Project, an estimated $30 billion could solve world hunger. Jeff Besos alone is valued at $179 billion. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that humanity has a serious problem here. Regardless of the ethical viewpoint being presented, the rich always seem to get richer. Just think, if that money were being recirculated and redistributed properly, perhaps we could have universal healthcare or free higher education. Maybe it’s just me, but if I were rich, I would try to make that happen before buying myself another Lambo. Alas, our country is founded on capitalism and it is a shining moral philosophy that so many of the wealthy people in America live by. There are plenty of folks who have “won” the game of capitalism, yet they continue to accumulate more wealth, and spend it selfishly. This is the exact problem that is so perfectly captured in Snowpiercer. Capitalism is not a sustainable system; not for the Earth, and not for humanity. What can we do to overcome this oppressive and unequal system that has spiraled out of control? The authors of Snowpiercer call for a revolution. Not just a revolution of violence and chaos, but a revolution of awareness and knowledge. As he begins to uncover the true secret of Snowpiercer, Andre Layton chooses to share the truth with the whole train. As a result, he is able to generate a much greater revolution than he was able to with violence alone.
And so a great question remains, how can we create a society where basic human needs are granted to everyone, and where happiness and success are an attainable goal? How can we level the playing field so that all people, regardless of race, gender, ability and class, are all given an equal opportunity at a good life? As we know, there are far too many barriers to happiness and health for far too many. I believe part of the process of fixing this messed up worldview is to start at the level or belief. How do we convince the collective consciousness of humanity that the endless pursuit of profit is a wicked problem? That this system only stands to benefit the individual and never the greater good? How can we incentivize these corporate warlords to reinvest in human capital, over material wealth? We have a great battle before us, but I do believe the work can and must be done. More and more of us are realizing we are at the tail of the train together. We have the numbers. We are controlled by misinformation, fear, and a false belief that we deserve to be where we are at, and that we ourselves are the only barrier to our success. In reality, there are so many other factors that play into what opportunities that each of us are given. Unfortunately for the wealthy and powerful (those who have been running the train so long), the adversity, injustice, and imbalance that so many of us have faced throughout our lives has only made us stronger, and more determined to change the state of things. No amount of fear or manipulation can ever stop us from taking over the engine… FULL SPEED AHEAD!
Needless to say, I’ll be awaiting a second season of Snowpiercer with great anticipation.
“I see now, that as the freeze killed everyone I knew, I mistook my ticket to survival for freedom. But justice never boarded, and Wilford doubled down with a Jackboot on our throats, and a fat finger on the scales. Now - some of us - are ready to change his terms. It will be perilous, filthy work. More precious souls will be lost. But we didnt come this far, suffer this much, to give in to the same tyranny that destroyed us in the first place. Even on a frozen, dead planet, humanity needs hope. For these are our revolutions on Snowpiercer, 1001 cars long."
-Miss Audrey, Snowpiercer (2020)