Snowpiercer is the first non-Korean film for director Bong Joon-ho, who has already established himself as a master of both sci-fi action genre and provocative, unconventional drama. Snowpiercer combines director’s talents in both entertainment and intellectual cinema. As a sci-fi action film, it provides a visually impressive, violent and intense spectacle. As an example of intellectual art-cinema, the film combines deep social commentary and dark satire with fable-like, symbolic narrative. The film is loosely based on a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob. However, the similarities between the film and the book are limited to the setting and some plot elements. Like many great film directors before him, Bong Joon-ho uses the sci-fi setting to criticize the modern society. The movie depicts a high-concept vision of the world, where survivors of an apocalyptic cataclysm are forced to live on a constantly moving train. In the hands of the director the train itself becomes a metaphor for the human society.
Snowpiercer takes place on technological marvel of a train, created by a mysterious and sinister figure of Wilford. In a world frozen due to human attempt to fight global warming, which went wrong, Wilford’s train, travelling across the world following the sun, is the only place where the remains of humanity can survive. As the train is divided according to the social class system, the revolution, led by young leader Curtis bursts out. As the revolt moves through the train to its engine, the audience gets to know how this society works, as its system begins to show its darker sides. The events become more and more violent, leading to the inevitable collapse of the world Wilford created. In the end of the film the humanity is once again on the verge of extinction, however, this new local apocalypse is also an opportunity for the human race to start from scratch. While the film was just recently released and was not as widely recognized, it is already becoming a cult sci-fi classic. The film’s great attention to details, all of which contribute to creating a deep and layered sci-fi world, makes it an interesting material for repeated viewing. Like the best examples of science fiction, Snowpiercer contains a very strong message about the modern world and its problems, thus finding its deeper meanings requires a more in depth analysis of the film.
The first layer of understanding of Snowpiercer, which comes to mind, is how it depicts the current state of human society, the clearly defined class system in particular. Just like in the real world, the fictional reality of the film is divided. The rich live in the comfort of the head of the train, have fun, eat delicious food and are ignorant or consciously blind about what is going on the back of the train. The back of the train is inhabited by the poor, who live in overpopulated cars in terrible conditions. They are forced to eat food made of insects to survive; they are treated violently, punished for any attempts to oppose the powers of the rich. There is a scene in the beginning of the film, which serves as a symbolic push for the revolution, when children of people from the end of the train are taken away by force. Thus, in the beginning of the film, there is no doubt about who is on the moral high ground, and the audience can clearly sympathize with the revolts from the back of the train. However, further analysis of the film proves that it goes deeper in the depiction of the class conflict, showing its more controversial sides.
As the film is quite recent, there are still no substantial works on its interpretation. However, articles on websites devoted to science fiction and popular culture, as well as short essays on minor elements of the film, provide some in depth analysis of the film. Other important sources for understanding of the film are numerous interviews with the film’s director, who is open to commentary on different aspects of his work.
Outside sources helped to broaden the understanding of the class revolution as depicted in the film, through the film's main character. The character of Curtis is crucial to the viewer’s perception of the revolutionary movement. He starts his journey in the film as a hero, however throughout the film he is forced to make difficult decisions, which lead to the deaths of his comrades, and eventually he resorts to senseless violence. This is evident in the scene where he kills Wilford’s propagandist Mason in cold blood. At the end of the film, Curtis’s backstory is revealed: he was a murderer and a cannibal in the early years on the Snowpiercer, and now he is driven not only by his righteous ideals, but rather by the feeling of guilt and remorse. In an interview with Charlie Jane Anders, Bong Joon Ho stresses that Curtis is “trapped in his memories of things that happened 17 years ago”. Curtis becomes the hand of Gilliam, an elderly spiritual leader of the tail of the train, who leads his young protégé through the earlier stages of the rebellion and at the same time restrains him from moving forward. When Curtis finally reaches the engine, in his final conversation with Wilford it is revealed, that Curtis and his rebellion were puppets in Wilford’s plan on population control, and Gilliam was in direct contact with trains creator from the start. This plot-twist not only changes how the whole journey of the rebellion is perceived by the audience, but also sheds light on hidden political processes, which often occur behind the curtains of violent revolutions. The director of the film points out, that:
The film is about Curtis traveling from one father figure to another: from John Hurt to Ed Harris. But in the end, this journey isn't what it appears to be, and "going from the dark tail section to the light front section is yet another cycle. When the end and the front are linked, it establishes yet another frustration for the character.
Thus, the nature of Curtis as a character is changed, turning him from a hero into a pawn in the hand of higher powers. Researcher Choi Ha Young comes to a conclusion, that Bong Joon-ho in his film shows a deviation from the traditional heroic dynamic of a protagonist in dystopian cinema. Curtis, unlike similar characters like Neo in The Matrix series, not only fails in his attempts to save the humanity, but his actions also directly serve the intentions of the evil “system”. Ha Young stresses, that the radical way of solving the social crisis as shown in Snowpiercer, deprives the hero of the possibility to make changes, as Curtis accepts the inevitability of catastrophe that awaits all citizens of the train (Ha Young).
Researchers of the film point out the importance of the information in the film, provided throughout the film’s story and with the help of visuals. The juxtaposition in the film’s visuals creates another powerful metaphoric level. Researcher Ye Dam Yi points out that there is an opposition of two spaces in the film – the outside world, frozen and dead, which is a constant reminder of the threat outside the train, and the space inside, with its illusive safety. These two spaces are separated both visually – outside is white, inside – it is dark, and colorful in further cars, and directionally. As the characters from the rebellion move forward, the information they gain originates from what is inside the train, thus, they remain in the domain of limited knowledge. The knowledge is always hidden in the world of Snowpiercer, the windows are non existent in the tale cars to hide the world around them, and everything from the lifestyles of people in the head of the train, to the origin of food is all kept secret. The absence of knowledge is crucial for this world to operate. Ye Dam Yi explains how inability to look outside the defined perspective limits Curtis’s understanding of the world he lives in:
His vision never revolutionizes the definition of space and thus does not challenge the discourse based upon that spatial knowledge. This limitation of his observations attests to the fixture and predominance of power of the knowledge of the spaces which is visually ratified not only by Wilford and the system but also by the film itself…
Only one character - Namgoong Minsu is capable to see outside to forward direction, and it is he, who notices that there is another way to break out of the vicious circle: to leave the barriers of the train. The illusive linearity of the film’s plot hides most of its secrets, and the reveal of hidden connection between Wilford and Gilliam is just one of the hints for both the characters and the audience, that true answers often lay in unexpected places.
Another notable element of the film’s lore is the use of propaganda and how it keeps the society in the train together. The role of Minister Mason in the film is as important as the mythical figure of Wilford. In her words the status quo of the social layers in the train is announced in the infamous “Shoe” speech. This speech points out the importance of class balance, that everyone should know his place. Researcher Jay Dyer points out that by comparing the train with a living organism, Minister Mason stresses that its order cannot be changed. Such narrative is common to propaganda in totalitarian societies, so the lower classes would not doubt their position, despite their miserable life conditions. Researcher Marthe de Vroome writes that propaganda plays an important role in Snowpiercer, just like in other famous works of dystopian fiction. In a characteristic scene in a school car, the audience can see how the younger generations of the middle-class of the train are brainwashed by the educational system and colorful propagandist videos. As propaganda is presented in an entertaining and colorful way, with animation and songs, it is easy to understand how easily people on the train are indoctrinated into believing that Wilford is a divine figure. At the same time there is also indoctrination in the tail of the train, as Gilliam makes everyone believe he is a true representative of their interest, despite his hidden connection to Wilford. Overall, the whole existence of the world of Snowpiercer is based on lies, deception and hiding of the truth, which is an effective representation of reality, where mass media controls the minds of millions.
The ending of the film provides a rather bleak view on the future of human civilization. The director comes to a pessimistic conclusion, that the only way to break out of the social “vicious circle” is to restart the civilization through its destruction. Thus, in the end of the film the train with most of humanity is destroyed, ironically, by the forces of nature. Only two children survive to restart the civilization. The director interprets the ending in the positive light: Extinction is a repeated word throughout the film. But outside the train, life is actually returning. It's nature that's eternal, and not the train or the engine, as you see with the polar bear at the end. Still, the audience and the survivors are left unconfident in the future of civilization and whether the humanity is able to avoid the mistakes it committed over and over again.
Snowpiercer is a complex film, which can be interpreted on different levels, from the obvious messages on the class division in the society, the ecological message and a warning for the humanity on its self destructing behavior; to more complex themes like the role of propaganda in a totalitarian state, and the hidden side of revolutionary processes. The film shows its real complexity in its minor details, thus, these little elements should be the focus of further study of the film. These studies can explain how the ecosystem of fish in an aquarium in one of the cars represents the society of the train; what is the symbolism of eggs concealing the weapons in one of the most unexpected and violent scenes in the film. Also, the role of excessive violence itself can be examined, as well as further prospects of human civilization after the film’s conclusion.