There was a time in cinema when certain films crafted by true auteurs would place the director’s name before the picture name as the full title. Notable examples would be famous directors in film history like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Capra and David Lean. While this practice often bleeds arrogance, a film has come along this year that is a true genre masterpiece – arguably, the film of 2013 – and most certainly the most relevant picture made since David Fincher’s The Social Network.
That film is Snowpiercer. Much like Pacific Rim, Snowpiercer is the work of a true auteur, and had anyone else’s thumbprints been on the story or the vision, it would have been a snowball to its face. This is his creation and no one else’s, and those that assisted him in his creation, including the creators of the source material on which it is based, Le Transperceneige, should be sincerely praised for their skills and hard efforts.
[Spoiler warning: If you have not seen the film, it is advised that you do not read on beyond this point until after you’ve seen the movie. Also, for a summary of the plot, you can refer back to my original review of the movie. ]
From head to toe, this is a film about a revolution with an ending that might dishearten the optimistic cliché-seeker, but this is in tune with the status quo of the human condition: we want to be controlled. A pre-ordained place in a hierarchical train from front to back is our destiny. Each revolution will always end with a new leader who sets up a new foundation of subsequent inequality. This circle will essentially repeat itself again and again and again. What is the solution, therefore? The solution, ultimately, would be a swift purge of learned values and the preservation of innocence that has not been schooled in class but, instead, in love and friendship.
And this is why Bong Joon-ho is a genius. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, all the film has in common with its source material is the premise, while the story and the arc therein belongs to the brilliant mind of its writer. And in both cases, the films were fortunate enough to be steered by the singular vision of their directors. Bong has painted the world as a train, symbolic of how humanity operates, and at its climatic, heartbreaking end, has shown us the futility of revolutions as we know them. The real, true revolution is the one that takes us back to the basics, our beginning, so that we may start over on a clean slate.
It seems that every film about self-reflection leads to Ed Harris, and in Snowpiercer he plays the train’s captain and builder of its sacred engine, Wilford, a man flawed by his brilliance. In a conversation between him and Curtis, played by Chris Evans (who delivers a performance in this film that places him in the same league of actors we consider Oscar-caliber), at the film’s climax, he asks him a question that serves as the film’s question to the audience: “Have you ever been alone on the train?”
Suddenly, we have a leader who is as ashamed of his actions that brought him to this point, while he is proud, at the same time, of the cause that he has led. When Curtis looks back over his shoulder when he has finally reached the engine, he sees himself in the savagery of what he has inspired, and realizes that the end to humanity’s suffering is literally to accept its situation. He thereby must choose to become yet another Wilford-like tyrant and maintain order with an iron fist over the bloodthirsty masses following in his footsteps, or to end humanity entirely.
It is furthermore profound, but also as expected, that Wilford would ask Curtis, responsible for the chaos from the tail of the train to its head, to be the one to take the wheel after him. To understand this, one must first make sense of the train through allegory. Although plaintively obvious to scholars of history, the significance of the train being a flow diagram for the constructs of humanity cannot be ignored: we always want and seem to justify our need to wear a shoe (figuratively speaking that is). So, remove the shoe and you become a shoe to be worn. A class, therefore, will not revolt until they feel themselves to be a shoe, therefore if no freeloaders existed on the train and the tail section were occupied by the economy class, they would revolt on the premise that there is nothing for them to stand on. Then there are the elitist meth heads – or kronole, in this case – at the front, clouded in a façade of ecstasy, blind and ignorant to the structural inequalities at play as well as to their own preordained position.
Thus, Curtis’ journey across the length of the train, being the only human to have ever done so, justifies Wilford’s request: he’s been a shoe, and now as a hat, he can truly witness the repercussions of his actions and see method in the madness, that the pot must always be stirred once in a while to create and invent chaos if it itself does not arise from the preordained insanity. Insanity, as Wilford eloquently puts it, is required to accept this and live at peace with oneself on the train. Tilda Swinton’s memorable Mason acts as humanity’s rationalization for this insanity.
That Curtis would, even for the slightest of moments, consider this ironic request of Wilford’s is indicative of a trait that sums up the hypocritical nature of the human condition, and that is that our desire to be controlled and our desire to control are one and the same – they are innate. We require order (an “engine”) to make sense of the world (the “train”) that we live in. At the same time, we want to be at the head of that order for, if “we control the engine, we control the world.” Essentially, we all want to be Wilford, echoed in Curtis’ final lines: “There isn’t a soul on this train that wouldn’t trade places with you.”
We loathe our corrupt governments and hate our two-faced presidents and iron-fist dictators, but by seeking to overthrow them as a result of our unhappiness, we become them. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrowing in 2011, only to be replaced by Mohammed Morsi and the oppressive Muslim Brotherhood, which has now been overthrown with the threat of the return of a regime similar to that of Mubarak’s (which is what spawned the revolution to begin with), is history’s most recent example of this truth.
Both Curtis and Song Kang-Ho’s Namgeong Minsu character, after being at odds with each other throughout the film, have this beautiful realization. At the final explosion, they decide to shield the innocence of Yona and Timmy with the love still present in their corrupted bodies. Left at the end after the purge are these two unlikely survivors that become humanity’s last hope: a teenage girl and a young boy.
While the Adam and Eve metaphor is unavoidable, it does recall what I said earlier, and that is that we are given a second chance to start over on a clean slate. Even though this farfetched ideal is unwanted, “the horror” that Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz spoke of in his dying breathe at the end of Apocalypse Now, echoed by Wilford in Snowpiercer, is alive within us all and while the purge may never become imminent, we can find an alternative solution within ourselves to shield us from this inherent evil: love and the preservation of innocence.