Joon-ho Bong, the fantastic South Korean director who made films like Mother, The Host, and Memories of Murder, brings us Snowpiercer. Straight away, it is clear that this action-packed film is not going to be anything like a Hollywood production. The film stars Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Ed Harris, John Hurt, the amazing Tilda Swinton, and Octavia Spencer in the leading roles. In a nutshell, the story is set in a world where the only survivors of the human race are doing the rounds in a train, and the prevailing class system on the train leads to conflict. But there are layers to this film’s story and characters. Do give this movie a watch. Here’s the film Snowpiercer explained, spoilers ahead.
I’m going to jump straight into an analogy that movie gives us. Let us for a moment consider a large fish tank that has a variety of fishes. It contains fishes that feed on plants and fishes that feed on other fishes. It is a closed ecosystem and unlike the ocean, this is a monitored one, usually by a human. The fishes on the bottom of the food chain are consumed by the ones higher up. There needs to be a healthy balance maintained at each level else the ecosystem will collapse. If there are too many plant-eaters, they will eventually consume all the plantation, starve, and die to cascade up to the higher levels. Now if we replace the fish with humans, the tank with a train, the food-chain with a class-hierarchy … we have the movie Snowpiercer.
Let’s go right to the beginning. Humans have destroyed the planet’s atmosphere causing a severe situation of global warming. To counter this, scientists come up with a chemical called CW-7 (an artificial cooling substance) which is dispersed into the air. While this initially reduces the heat, it leads to a hell-freezes-over situation and the planet turns into a snow cone.
A while before the CW-7 dispersal, Wilford (Ed), a genius of sorts, invents a perpetual engine. He designs a train powered by this engine to have it circumvent the globe. Now, it is advertised that Wilford created the train because he foresaw what the CW-7 would do, but it could merely have been a train for a traveling experience which later became a life-saver. The train’s first set of passengers begin their journey, and the world starts freezing over. The human race begins to die. The last of the survivors find themselves a place in the rear compartments of the train and the rest of humanity dies an icy death. The train is organized like any transport service, upper classes at front, lower (economy) classes at the back, and finally a tail section for the free-loaders.
Wilford’s soldiers take everything that the tail section passengers have and leave them with no food or water. After a month, they go cannibal and eat the weak. It goes from there to eating babies as they taste better. Curtis (Chris) is one such passenger who turned cannibal in the tail section. He kills a woman who is hiding and takes her baby but is interrupted by an old man who cuts his own arm off and asks people to feed on it and spare the baby. The old man is someone by the name of Gilliam (John). The baby’s name is Edgar. And then one by one, other people in the tail section start cutting arms and legs and offering them. Curtis tries to cut his arm too but is unable to build that kind of courage. A month pass by, and Wilford’s soldiers come back with protein blocks to feed the passengers.
Gilliam and Wilford
This is disclosed at the end of the movie, but Gilliam and Wilford are friends and are working as partners. The two of them strategize that the train is a closed ecosystem and its population needs to be kept in check. History tells us that one of the biggest population reducers has been wars. The two of them scheme that from time to time, there needs to be a revolution which faces off two units – the tail side and the soldiers. This will result in deaths of considerable proportions. Additionally, a large group of tail end folks is gunned down. These events are planned at regular intervals of 4-5 years by the duo. They pass around messages in capsules to coordinate. Each time, Gilliam prepares one person as the leader of the revolution over a few years and guides them with some tricks and cheats. The revolution gives the tail-enders some sort of a purpose to stay under control while they are in preparation, and it culminates in planned failure. After the defeat, most of the survivors are killed leaving a handful to start over again. This bit is very similar to the fate of Zion in The Matrix.
Why keep the tail-enders alive at all? Why not kill them all?
Well, the train needs workers at many levels to serve passengers from the upper class. Periodically, people are taken from the tail side for this purpose, many a time by force.
After the event of global extinction, 18 years pass and the train has never halted. Curtis grows up hating Wilford under the guidance of Gilliam. Edgar grows old as Curtis’ apprentice not knowing that he was once going to be eaten by Curtis. Over the years, the train has seen many revolutions, and the tail side is preparing for their next. This is where the film begins.
The soldiers do a regular headcount of the people on the tail side. We’re shown how the tail side is treated, like scum. After the count, they hand out the protein bars and then call for a violinist. An old couple approach to say that they were violinists once. The soldiers want only one person and the old man says it has to be the both of them or they won’t agree. For which, his wife is beaten, her hands broken, and he’s taken away. The violinist job is another example of the tail section serving the upper class for their entertainment.
An informant has sent a message from the front (the capsule inside Tim’s protein bar) mentioning a name – Namgoong Minsoo. Remember there really is no informant, this message is planned by Gilliam and Wilford. Namgoong is a security expert who’s now in the prison section of the train. Curtis plans to take his help to get all the way to the engine to take full control. Namgoong is someone who initially worked on the design of the doors, goes rogue, and is imprisoned inside the train.
Later, the guards come looking for some kids to take to the front section for some work. Well, what’s happened is that the perpetual engine is slowly dying. Many of its parts are past the point of repair and are replaced by kids doing the labour manually (kids can fit into the tiny places). Wilford’s assistant comes to measure the right kid for the job – Tim and Andy. Tanya (Octavia), Tim’s mother, tries to hide him, although unsuccessfully. Andrew (Andy’s father) throws and hits Wilford’s assistant with his shoe demanding for his son back. As punishment, Andrew’s hands are stuck out into the blistering cold as Mason (Tilda), a senior official, gives a speech about how disorder would not be tolerated. After that, Andrew’s hand is pulled back into the train, it’s frozen solid. A guard smashes it into pieces with a hammer, much like a Sub Zero Fatality.
Curtis notices Mason asking one of the guards to put down his useless gun, and he concludes that these guns are empty as they ran out of bullets in the previous revolution. During the next headcount, Curtis runs up and confirms that the weapons are empty and the revolt begins. They head to the prison section and locate Namgoong and free him and his daughter, Yona. To take them to the front, they offer them two lumps of Kronole per door that is opened. The train has limited space. The prisoners are drugged and kept sleeping in small morgue like conditions. Kronole is an industrial waste which is used as a hallucinatory drug on the train. Namgoong is addicted to the substance but he also knows that it can work as an explosive. He agrees to the deal to build himself a bomb which we’ll get to later.
They reach the pantry section where one of their old mates works in now, he too was taken away by force. This station produces the protein bars. It used to be automatic, but parts went extinct, and it’s now run by a human, all alone. Curtis and team peek in to find out that the protein bars are made from thousands of insects crushed and mixed in goop. Strangely, Curtis is really disgusted given that he was a cannibal eating babies at one time. Apparently, over time you move on to believe what you want to believe.
Happy New Year
Curtis notices that Yona is clairvoyant, she can see what’s behind a gate before they open it. At the next door, before Yona can warn them, they are ambushed by an army of what looks to be the train’s Axe-Gang. There are a group of executioners that are a part of Wilford’s plan. After a lot of bloodshed, they stop to celebrate the crossing of a bridge by the name Yekaterina Bridge. The train crosses this bridge every year and is the mark of a new year. Note how the countdown is more ritualistic and not a celebratory one.
According to the plan laid out by Gilliam and Wilford, this is the location where the revolt would be crushed. The train is to enter a long tunnel which leads to complete darkness, and the soldiers are equipped with night vision. This would be more than sufficient to get the upper hand in the battle. While initially, the darkness becomes the advantage to the soldiers, Curtis calls for backup with fire, and this changes the game in favour of the tail-enders. Curtis makes a choice to sacrifice Edgar to capture Mason. With her in custody, they begin to move forward. Even Gilliam doesn’t foresee this and Wilford needs to counter this situation and a new plan is set in motion.
Mason says she can guarantee them safe passage to the font of the train in exchange for her life. Gilliam says many men have died, and he suggests that they retreat, but Curtis decides to push on. Gillam and Curtis talk about the scar on the arm and Gilliam mentions how it is better to have both arms especially if you want to hold a woman. He asks Gilliam to stay put with the wounded as he and a handful take Mason and proceed further. Gilliam tells Curtis that when he gets to the narrow bridge, there will be a big gate with a “W” on it and Wilford’s behind that. Gilliam asks him to not let Wilford talk, and to cut out his tongue. We see Gilliam plotting against Wilford because he knows now the revolt is gone past their control and he’d rather survive this one than Wilford.
The next section they go through has an artificial plantation and a large aquarium where they are offered sushi. Mason explains the core of the film here with these lines – “This is only served twice in a year. In January and July. Balance. You see, this aquarium is a closed ecological system. And um, the number of individual units must be very closely, precisely controlled. In order to maintain the proper sustainable balance.”, which explains what is being done with the humans on the train as well.
In the next compartment is a schooling section where Wilford has planned his ambush. The children are clearly upper-class passengers and are prim and proper. However, they have been thought that the tail section folks are filthy. This shows how the class distinction has been ingrained in the kids right at an early stage, they grow up with a bias. Not very different from how societies in the real world behave at times, a class-based prejudice. They watch a video about the invention of the train, and the teacher explains how death is the only thing that awaits people who try to exit the train.
The Frozen Seven
3 years after the train began to move, there was a revolution – The Revolt of the Seven. Unsuccessful they jump out the train and freeze to death. Apparently one of them was an Eskimo, but they had underestimated the cold. The teacher uses their frozen bodies as a lesson to never exit the train. That violinist shows up to perform for them. His conditions seemed to have improved just because he’s attending to the upper class, isn’t that all but how it happens in our world too?
They come around serving boiled eggs, and this turns out to be the ambush. The undercover soldiers handing out eggs pull out guns and open fire, Tanya gets shot. Curtis retaliates by killing Mason even though she claims she had nothing to do with the attack. Gilliam along with the wounded tail-enders are shot and killed. Namgoong and Curtis push forward past a section of dopeheads, steal their Kronole, and reach the gate marked with the W.
While Curtis wants to keep on with the plan and take over the engine, Namgoong intends to use all the Kronole and blow up the door which takes them outside the train. He says that each year he has noticed the snow levels have been reducing. Namgoong observes a crashed plane and each year he has been seeing more of it, which means the snow is melting. Curtis tells Namgoong the entire story of the life of cannibals in the tail section, and this is his moment of revenge. Namgoong proceeds to prepare to blow up the exit door and is interrupted rudely by a bullet from Wilford’s assistant’s gun. She asks Curtis to join her to go meet Wilford.
Curtis meets Wilford to find out that Gilliam and he were working in tandem. About how regardless of the classes, everyone is a prisoner inside the hunk of metal on wheels, and the closed ecosystem had to be kept in balance through death. Wilford also mentions that he needed to execute Gilliam because of him not being able to keep the revolt under control. Finally, Wilford gives the order to kill everyone in the tail section and spare only 18 people. The idea is that 74% are killed off as part of the revolution in order to maintain the headcount for the balance of the ecosystem.
Yona joins the wounded Namgoong and assists in setting up the explosive on the door while he fends off the dopeheads and guards. Wilford takes Curtis to the center of the engine and allows him to feel the tranquility of being alone. Curtis breaks down as he hasn’t been at peace in decades. Wilford then offers him the train saying that he’s old and someone needs to keep the engine humming and humans in balance through anxiety, fear chaos, and horror. Wilford says that without a leader, humans will only devour each other as that is the only thing they know. Yona comes to Curtis to get the matches, but he pushes her away. It appears that he’s considering the proposal to inherit the train, who wouldn’t? Clairvoyant Yona senses the presence of Tim underneath and opens the panel. Wilford explains how the engine might be eternal, but its parts are not, and they need to be replaced by small kids because of the spacial restriction. He also explains how the tail section provides a constant supply of children. Curtis snaps out and beats up Wilford.
The kids who are working on the engine parts are kept in some sort of a trance to keep them from running away. Curtis uses his arm to stop the rotors and pulls Tim out and his arm breaks in the process. He’s finally able to sacrifice his arm for the sake of a young kid, something he couldn’t do back in the days he stopped eating babies. With the matches that Curtis gives, Yona sets fire to the charge, and they all brace for impact. Unfortunately, the explosion sets off an avalanche, and the train is thrown over the mountains and is destroyed. The engine manages to enter a tunnel and de-rails on to the snow. The train is destroyed, and everyone on the train is killed except for Yona and Tim. They step outside to realize that the ground is not solid ice, it’s loose snow. Looks like Namgoong was right and the snowy earth is finally warming up. The film ends with Yona and Tim looking at a polar bear at a distance.
It’s interesting how the film portrays the protagonist, Curtis, as the fearless leader. The antagonist is shown to be the ruthless Wilford. By the end of the movie, we are told that Curtis, at one point, was someone who could murder a woman to eat her baby. And if not for Wilford, all of humanity would have perished. It is his invention that is keeping the last set of humans alive and moving. So now, who really is the good guy and the bad guy? The lines between good and evil are massively blurred. Curtis is not the all-righteous hero out to save the day. When he’s offered the train, the mere thought of the kind of power corrupts his thinking. He remembers his promise to Tanya when he sees Tim. Had it not been for Yona’s clairvoyance, they wouldn’t have located the boy. In the end, no one is left alive except a 17-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy in the vicinity of a polar bear which is probably starved on frozen Earth. Yes, it is a fact that the polar bear indicates that life exists on earth, and also means that there might be resources (food & water) which can sustain human life. But Yona and Tim are both train babies. They have never been outside the train, they have never seen or interacted with other species. It is going to be several years before they can become the new Adam and Eve for the next wave of humans. Can they survive that long? Yona is clairvoyant, may be that would come in handy for their survival in these harsh conditions, but it’s not going to be easy.