Set in the near future, humanity is on the verge of extinction after a fateful engineering disaster overdid its correction of global warming and froze everything except for a futuristic train completely solid. Snowpiercer is a summer blockbuster that pulled no punches in its action packed, spectacular delivery, but that still failed to capture the imagination of the American masses, though it managed to set box office records in its home country of South Korea, according to koreanfilm.or.kr. Perhaps this is due to its light initial launch in only eight theaters in the entire country, as reported by boxofficemojo.com, though it then moved to several hundred more the following weekend, raking in upwards of a million dollars in profit in America. Maybe the movie was stifled by its competition, with a simultaneous debut on June 27th of the fourth Transformers movie, making 100 million dollars on its opening weekend (almost half of its total budget) despite only receiving a 17 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Snowpiercer’s 94 percent fresh rating.
It may have been neither the competition nor the low hype that blunted Snowpiercer’s blow; in my opinion this fantastic movie failed to capture the hearts of the American public because of its pessimism and perhaps too-realistic and existentialist portrayal of the hopelessness of humanity. The film’s director Bong Joon Ho unflinchingly portrays human nature, and throughout the film various undertones of judgement from the ever-oppressive nature outside the train harmonize with overtones of hyper-critical dialogue and with the explicit pain found in the melody of plot and characters to provide a beautiful but haunting picture of human nature condensed down into one dimensional existence on a train. Although it is punctuated by spectacularly choreographed and gripping action that follows through without flinching, the story takes the viewer on a similarly tumultuous rollercoaster ride of cynicism that will likely leave them a bit bewildered at the end.
We like it best when stories about natural disaster or our species’ failure as stewards stress our ability to come back and win through some combination of destiny, luck or sheer force of will. The blockbusters I Am Legend and World War Z serve as several great examples of this attitude. We expect the heroes to effect a spectacular reversal of humanity’s apparent self-inflicted fate, rallying whatever ingenious or communal effort is required to turn the tides against the odds and put everyone back on track to rebuilding society as it was meant to be with our great lesson in environmental stewardship, international peace and collaboration, technological arrogance, medical ethics, or whatever else the issue was intended to be, well learned and duly noted for the future.
However, Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer only alludes hauntingly to the possibility of redemption and completely stomps on the face of this familiar trope with violence that will not ultimately be redeemed, justified, or brought to justice. The worldview of Snowpiercer does not resonate with modern Americans. At the beginning of the movie it condemns us specifically, not for our failure at environmental stewardship, but rather uses that as just one of many tools for getting to the core of our species’ damnation. Even those who are hopeful and trying to coexist in their newfound frozen wasteland are brutally cut down by the cold and frozen into a monument of human failure that our protagonists must pass and contemplate before proceeding to their own similar fates. If repentance for destroying our world is not sufficient then what is it that Snowpiercer’s sense of justice ultimately demands?
The movie is a no-holds-barred judgment of humanity, deeming us unworthy of continuing to exist. The Ark-like train that bears an implicit promise of salvation for all of Earth’s life serves only to funnel the inner conflict of humanity into a single corridor. Confinement on the train allows the inner evil of humanity to flourish in the extremes, as exemplified by the boiled down and purified examples of class warfare, classic sins like gluttony and adultery, literal cannibalism, murder, religious fundamentalism at its extreme, violence on the most uncompromising levels, hate and most tellingly, betrayal.
At the end of the story the viewer hardly even wants the humans to succeed in their mission, it almost seems justified that everyone should all die by their own hand trying to fix the world they broke. In the end, the remnants of nonhuman life goes on, not to be wiped out in the icy judgment of mankind. One almost feels happy that the world can go back to a state perturbed no longer by human meddling, but I fear that this is the very reason Snowpiercer failed to resonate with crowds. We prefer a story with a hero, and Curtis, the apparent protagonist, feels like a hero but in the end his act of heroism is not to save mankind; Curtis’s final act, though sacrificial and intending to save whatever innocent people are left, ultimately helps to destroy humanity once and for all, and we cannot really blame him.
The justice found in Snowpiercer is not the final resolution of human negligence or class suffering or any of the other issues faced by protagonist Curtis, but rather the justice is the complete extermination of mankind’s injustices, allowing the actual protagonist, life on Earth, to recover in peace. It would not be surprising if the movie’s failure abroad is largely due to striking a harsh dissonance with our expectation of harmony and resolution in popular works of art, an expectation that is contradicted by the icy, hero-devoid landscape that is Snowpiercer.
This was originally published in The Reflector on July 6th 2014 and this movie has remained one of my favorites since then and serves as a great introduction for otherwise unfamiliar film-lovers to Korean cinema.