At the very start of the entertaining but nihilistic new Climate-Fiction movie “Snowpiercer,” more than 99.9999% of the world’s population die (thankfully off camera). The cause: A failed geoengineering experiment to stop global warming that turns the Earth into a frozen, dystopic wasteland. Darn you, Bjorn Lomborg and Bill Gates!
What remains of humanity ends up on long super-train powered by a perpetual-motion engine, which circles the now-frozen globe once a year. If you’re the kind of person who wonders why humanity would risk destroying the planet by widely dispersing an anti-warming industrial chemical when somebody already has developed a perpetual-motion engine, then YOU WILL HATE THIS MOVIE!
SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know how many of the remainder of Earth’s population die on the train, too, don’t read this review. Oh, and if you don’t like stories that ruin themselves in the last five minutes, don’t watch this movie.
I try to keep up on the latest addition to the post-apocalyptic SciFi genre, as readers know. And, in fact, there is a nascent effort to label a sub-genre CliFi (led “by climate activist Danny Bloom”).
Annoyingly, some Climate Fiction movies have this thing about freezing the earth — first, “The Day After Tomorrow,” and now “Snowpiercer.” I guess the directors and writers and producers think that stuff frozen quickly is visually more appealing (and more directly relatable) than stuff that is slowly heating up. Darn you, brainless frogs!
And one of the best things about “Snowpiercer” is how it looks, especially the unique character of each train car that the lower-class rebels (from the back of the train, of course) fight their way through as they try to break through to the upper class cars in the front — all in order to meet (and kill) the mysterious industrialist who created the super-train, its physics-defying engine, and its Dickensian social structure.
Yes, this is another post apocalyptic movie that is really more about class and the 99% vs. the 1% like “The Hunger Games.” Interestingly, “The Hunger Games” books are clearly CliFi, but it is much more debatable whether the movies are, since they are stripped of any climate references.
But for better or worse, “Snowpiercer” explicitly opens with text explaining that in 2014 the world decides to fight climate change — now that’s fiction for you! — and agrees to disperse some anti-warming industrial substance, which apparently has never been tested on a large scale. This is a change from the 1982 French graphic novel it’s based on, “Le Transperceneige,” which the UK independent says “is undoubtedly one of the greatest science fiction comics ever created.” Sadly, the novel lost something in translation.
The South Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, explained in a recent interview why he made the change and what the movie’s theme is:
In Snowpiercer, it’s more about how big business tries to both use and control nature. And how it backfires on them. Nature takes its revenge and sends them back to the ice age. This is an aspect that is different from the graphic novel. I wanted to make a story change because I felt that climate change is more current of an issue and will continue to be, because it’s not in the interest of big business to change, but to control.
At least that’s the theme he was trying to convey, but I don’t think he succeeds, thanks to the muddled, nihilistic ending.
In fairness, Snowpiercer totally passes the “Lost” test. Like the mind-bending TV series, “Snowpiercer” is very entertaining if you don’t spend any time thinking about the plot and you do not you watch the last 5 minutes.
The action set pieces are original and visually compelling. The acting is strong across the board, starting with a performance by Tilda Swinton that is killer. Literally. And if you wanted to know if Chris “Captain America” Evans can act, well, Snowpiercer makes clear the answer is yes.
But basically everybody on the train — that is to say, what was left of humanity — dies at the end. And rather pointlessly. Indeed, they die because the “brains” behind the train decide to try to keep the population in balance by starting a rebellion, which, surprise surprise, doesn’t turn out as they planned. Yes, two children are technically left alive, but they will have to fend for themselves in a virtually uninhabitable frozen icescape — a while that’s a different movie, it still ends very badly.
Now I don’t oppose nihilistic endings — I love “Memento” and “King Lear” — but the endings have to serve a dramatic purpose. Heck, I argued in 2008 that “No Country for Old Men,” one of the most nihilistic movies ever made, was “a perfect metaphor for modern American politics and global warming.” And the classic post-apocalyptic movie “On The Beach” has a very grim ending — but the purpose is to show that we can’t survive a global nuclear holocaust, so we’d better prevent it!
In “Snowpiercer,” however, the ending’s purpose seems to be to send the message that saving humanity is hopeless, that even after we destroy virtually all of humanity with our willful ignorance and greed, we are still doomed to finish off the rest of humanity. Not my cup of tea.
Worse, in this movie, everybody seems to die in the name of environmental principles like “balance” and “sustainability” mouthed by the powers that be. Admittedly, everybody dies because the supposedly brilliant people who mouth those principles grotesquely misapply them — but again, that would seem to be the theme of the movie: Humanity is doomed to destroy itself no matter how hard it tries to do the right thing because the greedy, powerful people are a lot dumber than they think.
And then there is the final image. After the two children emerge from the wrecked train, what do they see in this supposedly frozen wasteland? A polar bear!
Now it’s a bit hard to believe a sophisticated guy like Bong Joon-ho doesn’t know that the polar bear is perhaps the iconic image of a species whose very existence is threatened by global warming. But that would mean the ending and theme are beyond ironic: In its misguided effort to end global warming, humanity destroys itself but saves the polar bear after all. Ouch!
Is Joon-ho suggesting that no effort to end global warming is rational or possible or non-suicidal or even worthwhile? Since he never offers any non-nihilistic alternative, we have no positive alternative answers to choose from.
This is not a film whose premise or plot bears the slightest scrutiny. For instance, when and why did the world even build this immense circular railway? Certainly nobody would have spent money in such an inane fashion after the apocalypse. But as this screenshot from the film shows, the train goes over the open ocean for hundreds of miles, which would be bloody hard to do before everything froze.
Are we really to believe that the cold wiped out 7 billion people? I mean, it takes a drop of less than 10°F to bring us back to an Ice Age. But that wouldn’t come close to making the planet uninhabitable in the tropics. As you may recall, we actually evolved into homo “sapiens” during the last few ice ages. And given modern technology, it simply defies any plausibility that the only place anyone could survive on the entire planet is a super-train.
Where does most of the food on the train come from? It’s kind of an important question since the central premise is that the train can’t sustain its current, growing population, so people must be killed off in a violent fashion. But food would appear to be the only limiting factor.
Joon-ho sets up what he expects everyone to see as a “big reveal” in the middle of the movie — that the gelatinous protein bars the lower classes are forced to eat are made from insects. This is a yawner (if we ignore the question of where all those insects come from year after year). It is already pretty widely accepted that if food supply gets low people will eat (more) insects — as I wrote in May. Indeed NPR reported last year, “2 billion people worldwide already enjoy insects with gusto — in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australia.” In fact steamed/boiled silkworm pupae are a delicacy in Joon-ho’s home of Korea.
OK, now you’re thinking, sure, but if science fiction movies had to be in the least bit plausible, then from “Star Trek” to “Star Wars,” every major spaceship battle would be incredibly boring, with ships passing by one another and randomly blowing up (or not) because of course you can’t see the path of lasers (or comparable energy weapons) in outer space, as the spoil-sport website HowStuffWorks has explained.
Ignoring science to make a movie more entertaining or accessible is perfectly reasonable to me — it’s just a movie, after all. But to create a monumentally contrived premise that is wildly implausible to advance a nihilistic theme that doesn’t stand any scrutiny — that is artistic failure to me.
One of the characters says “the train is the world” as if this makes the movie an allegory. “Snowpiercer” is certainly all-gory. But an allegory (aka a fable or even an extended metaphor) is designed to “reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.”
I think you could argue “Snowpiercer” works as a grim allegorical critique of our class-based society. But the director went out of his way to frame the movie in terms of global warming. Sadly, he kept any positive or useful meaning on climate change too well hidden.