Scenes from an Apocalypse: ‘Snowpiercer’
Movies are projections. Yes, literally, in the sense of filmstock and screens and projectors and bulbs. But movies can also be projections of ourselves — a momentary snapshot of the internal, the introspective, the metaphysical. And given the circumstances, we as the film beat are seeing less literal projections in movie theaters and doing more projecting ourselves. So what are we thinking about? Among them are Tik Toks, Tiger King and — of course — the apocalypse. This series will traverse the cinematic doomsday in its eclectic iterations. After all, why grapple with an uncomfortable reality when you can watch movies that hyperbolize it completely?
— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Editor
You’ve got three big reasons to revisit 2014 sci-fi epic “Snowpiercer.” Firstly, as is the raison d’etre of this notebook series, movies to do with the apocalypse are pretty timely right now. Secondly, it’s directed by none other than Bong Joon-ho, whose Oscar domination this past February was so iconoclastic and bombastic that conservative South Korean politicians who once vilified him as unpatriotic and “Parasite” as a “commie flick” are now proposing building a statue and museum in honor of Bong in his hometown of Daegu. Oh, and thirdly, it’s on Netflix.
Admittedly, for an entry in a series titled “Scenes from an Apocalypse,” “Snowpiercer” doesn’t contain that many scenes from an apocalypse. The disembodied voices of pre-apocalyptic newscasters exposit about pre-apocalyptic politics. A trio of planes jettison a noxious-looking white substance into the atmosphere. And that’s about it. The rest of the film fast-forwards 17 years to a Snowball Earth and a “rattling ark,” the eponymous train Snowpiercer.
In post-apocalyptic films like “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” the apocalypse is ancient history. In “The Road,” it’s a more or less irrelevant detail given the atavistic dog-eat-dog circumstances. In “Children of Men,” the catalyst for the film’s sterilizing doomsday is entirely unknown. But in “Snowpiercer,” it’s all spelled out: it was us. No two ways about it. First humankind polluted the heck out of the world and threw the climate all out of whack. Then, in an attempt to reverse what we did, 79 countries shot some sort of cooling agent into the sky, causing the entire planet to freeze over and all life to be extinguished. That is, all life without the good fortune to a receive a ticket to board the train.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrust us uncomfortably close to an apocalypse film. We have a deadly virus and incompetent governments. We have guns sales skyrocketing as people prepare for the worst. We even have some people talking about stringing up their neighbors and “eating ass” … and no, not as a sex thing. One thing maintaining that thin separation between reality and the silver screen is the movies’ failure to predict that some people would protest their right to get eaten by the zombies. Truth is truly stranger than fiction.
But what “Snowpiercer” reminds us is that, before the pandemic forced the impoverished to starve and the more well-off to bake bread, we were already in the middle of an apocalypse, albeit one that moves at a much slower pace (hint: it’s the climate crisis) and that the dystopia may already be here (hint: it’s capitalism).
The passengers of “Snowpiercer” aren’t all grateful to have gotten the golden ticket to circumnavigate the globe for the remainder of their lives. Some no doubt are — the passengers who live near the front of the train enjoy steak dinners, bathhouses, nightclubs, string quartets and even sushi twice a year. For the ones who live near the caboose, it’s the Polar Express from hell, but they don’t even get Tom Hanks. One character describes the first few months aboard the train, when there were too many mouths and not enough food. Miraculously, like the fish and loaves of the Bible, a veritable cornucopia was produced: “One by one, other people in the tail section began cutting off arms and legs and offering them.”
Instead, they have Chris Evans, starring in the film only two years after his debut as the exuberantly optimistic, muscle-bound Captain America. In “Snowpiercer,” Evans dons a woolen cap, scruffy beard and world-weary face as Curtis, the leader of a revolution. With his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Hill, “Rocketman”), grieving mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer, “Ma”), security specialist and drug addict Nam (Song Kang-ho, “Parasite”) and Nam’s clairvoyant daughter Yona (Go Ah-yung “A Resistance”), Curtis must travel the length of the train from the tail-end all the way to the near-mythical engine in order to pursue justice and enact reform.
Without spoiling the film, “justice” and “reform” are not so easily attained even when in power. How can they be, if the system is inherently flawed, inherently immoral, never mind who's in power?
The pandemic has exposed a number of flaws in our own system, never mind the tremendous toll on human life and general well-being the virus itself is taking. It turns out remote work for those with disabilities was more or less possible the entire time. Some people can make more off an unemployment check than they can by being an “essential’ worker. And, to put it gently, the healthcare system in America is deeply, truly broken.
It’s the tension between the desire to rectify these issues and the possibility that such rectification is an impossibility that serves as the beating heart, the wheezing engine of “Snowpiercer.” While the pandemic is still going woefully strong today, it’ll be done soon enough and we’ll have to grapple with these issues in a brave new world, one in which the problems are hopefully not so invisible as before. “Snowpiercer” offers one solution, and it’s as iconoclastic as Bong’s historic win. And agree or disagree with the ultimate solution, I’ll reiterate that it’s a movie about an axe-wielding Chris Evans leading a revolution aboard an extravagant death-train. Moving commentary on the noxious nature of capitalism or no, it’s pretty goddamn awesome.