I like me some bottle episodes, postapocalypses, innovative action, and Tilda Swinton, so it makes all the sense in the world that I’d be excited for Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer:
But besides the obvious appeal of a lot of people armed with axes preparing for a climactic assault on a train engine room, Snowpiercer is an example of two emerging trends: a vision of the post-apocalypse that’s cold, rather than hot, and the idea that the primary division of the future will be along the lines of class, rather than race or faith.
It’s easy to think that global warming will produce a world that’s simply hotter than the one that we live in now, where melting polar ice caps swamp the coasts and reduce the amount of livable land available to support a growing population. But Snowpiercer is part of a school of fiction that considers another side of that scenario, that global warming could produce not just a uniformly warmer world, but one prone to extreme weather. It’s not yet clear why humanity is living on a continuously moving train in the movie, but it is obvious that the world has gotten dramatically colder, and that it’s not feasible for humanity to support itself on a large scale under those environmental conditions. Anna North’s novel America Pacifica takes place in a world with a similarly polarized climate. Most humans live on tropical islands that have been built out on landfill material, but some survivors live independently in much colder regions of the world. These alternate scenarios offer possibilities not just for new and innovative worldbuilding, as is the case in both of these works, but for meditations on how climate affects society. Cold obviously leads to different styles of dress and poses different challenges to humans who are trying to survive in large-scale settlements, but what happens in a world where some people live in extremely hot climates and others in extremely cold ones, with nothing in between? Who’s more resilient? Who will be more prepared if the climate swings dramatically again.
And Snowpiercer also is part of an even more wide-spread trend that assumes that the primary divide between humans in the future will be along class lines, rather than religious, racial, or even gender-based divides. In this movie, that division is expressed by space: wealthier people live closer to the front of the train, in more luxurious compartments, where they presumably have first dibs on heat generated by the engine, and would be the last to be jettisoned away if the train needed to shed cars to keep up its pace, or to outrace whatever might be compelling its flight. In Neill Blomkamp’s forthcoming Elysium, the divide is even sharper: the poor live on a destroyed and resource-depleted earth, while the wealthy have escaped to a space station that provides them with luxurious accommodations and amenities like robot butlers and high-end health care. Even The Dark Knight Rises depended substantially on the idea that Gotham was primed for class war, an urge that Bane exploited in the early days of his takeover of the city, a framework that ditched the racial implications of Bane’s origin story.
None of this is to say that I think rising income inequality is a problem that we’ll resolve quickly or neatly, and certainly not in the short term. But it’s intriguing, and telling, that there’s some sense that we’ll have largely gotten over racism (or, as is the case in District 9, that we’ll collectively transfer racial animus to crash-landed aliens) that’s in keeping with the idea — really the wishful thinking — that we’re almost over race as an issue in the present day. Even as Egypt is publicly undergoing a crisis occasioned by the alignment of secular rule with military power and a philosophy of governance rooted in religion with the democratic process, there’s something optimistic, and maybe reflective of Hollywood’s lack of publicly-stated religiosity about the idea we’ll have sorted that out that set of problems as well. And God forbid a blockbuster touch the idea that the future might involve a very different power structure along the lines of gender: that radical idea will have to stay in the pages of books like Sherri Tepper’s The Gate To Women’s Country. Income inequality is pressing, but it’s also a hot issue that risks offending very few people. In other words, class issues in the future are perfect for Hollywood in the same way race and gender equality issues are perfect for period pieces.