Wednesday, December 03, 2014


We popped into the video rental store last weekend and treated ourselves to a few "keep-for-5-nighters", some old, some newer releases. Snowpiercer is going to be the one that'll remain in my memory longest. The movie was among a handful mentioned as potentially interesting in an August post of mine. So far, Snowpiercer is the only film from that list we've managed to see.
As mentioned in my earlier post, the nutshell Wiki synopsis:
In 2014, an experiment to counteract global warming causes an ice age that kills nearly all life on Earth. The only survivors are the inhabitants of the Snowpiercer, a massive train, powered by a perpetual-motion engine, that travels on a globe-spanning track. A class system is installed, with the elites inhabiting the front of the train and poor inhabiting the tail. In 2031, the tail inhabitants prepare for the latest in a series of rebellions....

From that brief outline of the plot it's not hard to guess there will be a strong theme of "them and us" - the haves and have nots, the eternal struggle, running through this film. Have you ever travelled on a plane in that part now known as "coach", and peered longingly from your cramped seat, legs numb, plastic dinner tray of plastic food before you, into "Business" or "First Class" - through the curtain that stewards will occasionally leave slightly open? That's the feeling, but multiplied by millions, the people who live in the tail end of the Snowpiercer train experience.

The heart of the Snowpiercer train is "the eternal engine" - perpetual motion engine created by industrialist, Wilford who has come to be revered almost akin to a god aboard this long, snake-like vehicle. At the train's tail-end live the "lowest" class of humans, crowded together in near darkness, filthy, no access to soap and water, fed only nasty gelatinous bars known as "protein bars" (you don't want to know what goes into them - it's not the same ingredient as Soylent Green by the way) . We learn, in the course of the movie, of even greater horrors these people had to face, in order to survive, during earlier years on the train. As the film begins the train has been circling the Earth for some 17 years, the year is 2031. It takes exactly one year to make the round trip of the globe. New Year is "celebrated" each time a certain location, the Yekaterina Bridge, is reached.

Revolution is in the air - again. It won't be the first, but could well be the last. This is the main strand of the movie's story. A reluctant leader, Curtis, and his friend are determined that a new effort be made for invasion of the forward carriages where the "elite" enjoy obscene luxury, then right on to the very head and heart of the train, in order to take over the entire working system. Easy in theory but difficult, and at times even darkly funny, in practice.

I'll say no more about actual plot detail, so as not to spoil it for any who might still wish to see the film on DVD, Netflix or whatever. For any who'd like a little more detail without full spoilers, there's a very good review with illustrations at a blog called If You Want the Gravy.

I will, though, mention a few of things (among too many) that new viewers might like to watch for.

As the film has a Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and is loosely adapted from a French graphic novel, with American production and distribution companies involved, there are bound to be reflections of multi-cultural sensibilities. Stereotypes and a few snide, occasionally funny, "digs" at certain stereotypical myths are noticeable. For instance, myth of the low quality of British dental work was one I picked up on, being British by birth myself. Said "dig" came via one of the film's most memorable characters, "Minister Mason" played by an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton, speaking with a thick Yorkshire/Lancashire border accent, mistaken by one American reviewer as Scottish - Tsk!! Tilda's "Mason" made me think of Ayn Rand, others have likened her to Margaret Thatcher, but think of more recent conservative females who seemed at times to be batshit crazy, "out there where the buses don't run", and you've got "Mason".

As the revolutionaries struggle to progress ever further towards the snakey-train's head, things become more and more bizarre to their eyes (and, indeed, to ours). They move through carriages which contain a whole eco-system in miniature. We then see another of those easily recognisable (to UK or US viewers) "digs", this time at the fascism, propaganda and religiosity barely hidden in some American educational establishments these days, as the rebels crash through a well-heeled version of a private school.

Something about two-thirds of the way through the movie struck me as possibly significant in a different way: a close-up shot hovering for several seconds on Curtis, the rebel leader's hand, bloody, pierced right through by a spear. "Jesus reference?" I thought. Then - "Probably not." But later I came across an article at KINJA, by novelist Michael M. Hughes, ​How an Obscure 2nd Century Christian Heresy Influenced Snowpiercer. Snip:
"Snowpiercer is shaping up to be the sleeper success of 2014. But no one has yet commented on one of the film's most unusual subtexts — its direct allusions to Gnosticism, the ancient Christian belief system that was damned by the Roman Church as heretical and virtually extinguished by the 5th century.....................
A core tenet of Gnosticism is that our world, or the physical universe, is the creation of a false god, or demiurge, who pretends to be a benevolent creator but is in fact a malevolent impostor intent on keeping humans imprisoned in an artificial world of illusion and suffering. The only means of escape is gnosis (Greek for knowledge) —rising up from base materialism to reject the demiurge and break through into the higher world of the spirit....................

Wilford, the creator of the eponymous Snowpiercer in Bong Joon-ho's visionary science fiction epic, has fabricated our world in microcosm. It's an enormous, interconnected ecosystem that — because of its function as an ark for the all that remains of humanity —truly is their only world (young Timmy calls it "the whole wide train"). Snowpiercer flips the Gnostic model of the cosmos sideways, however, and instead of moving vertically from the lower material world to the higher, more exalted spiritual realm, the tail-enders' quest takes them horizontally from the Dickensian hell of the caboose to the rarified heaven of the eternal engine. ............

Because the Gnostic earth is a prison, the demiurge is its insane, sadistic warden. Wilford (played by Ed Harris) openly admits his madness: "I believe it's easier for someone to survive on this train if they have some level of insanity," he tells Curtis. "We need to maintain a proper balance of anxiety and fear, chaos and horror."
From what I've written so far, a passing reader might get the impression that Snowpiercer is a straight-up politically "lefty revolutionary" tale. It isn't quite as clear-cut as that. As the movie ends (and I'll not give away the ending, which is ambiguous anyway) one is left with the thought, "what was the alternative - was it better to be alive, even in those circumstances, or would it be better to be dead? What would have happened if Curtis had......" 'Bye to the old boss, here's your new boss - same ol' , same ol'?

Is there but one perpetual system for humans on Earth, whoever happens to be in the driver's seat?

Snowpiercer is a thought-provoking movie, probably not one for viewers who like stories with no plot-holes, or for those who cannot countenance a few illogical factors. The best way to approach this film is as a fable for the 21st century, an allegory, a mirror - an ultra-quirky Hall of Mirrors mirror.


mike said...

The "Snowpiercer" may present a glorified view of climate change...we might be fortunate to have such a train in this tragedy yet to unfold, regardless where we are compartmentalized upon the train. I obviously haven't seen the movie, but your description sounds as if "Snowpiercer" is a metaphor for the human condition throughout our existence.

I enjoyed your quote by M.Hughes...Gnosticism has been popping-up in many items lately. Just about everything, from the daily news, politics, movies, books, and particularly religion, has the gnostic edge: duality, falsity, demigod, materialism, etc.

And along that Gnostic theme, I thought Chris Rock's SNL monologue was perfection regarding Christmas. Here's a's an 8 minute video, but the Christmas portion starts at 5 minutes, if you want to skip to it:

Twilight said...

mike ~ Yes, I suspect you are correct - the movie can be seen as a metaphor for human experience, from (just about) day one onward.

I had a vague idea what Gnosticism is, but this morning read this

I found it interesting and easy to take in, though the last couple of sections became a bit hazy for me.

I think Bong Joon Ho has put a mixture of ingredients into "Snowpiercer", so that different viewers will find different ingredients in it, according to their own taste and experiences. Clever!

Thanks for the link to Chris Rock's monologue - hadn't seen that before. It's a good one, all through. We usually miss the SNL monologue but occasionally tune in part way through the show, watch for 20 minutes and switch off in disgust. A show that used to be so iconic has become so absolutely terrible (I know this from DVDs of early episodes which were so great when Gilda Radner, Bill Murray etc etc were the stars). The show has burnt itself out and should have been laid to rest several years ago (IMO).

mike (again) said...

Completely agree about SNL. I watch the local news at 10 PM on Saturday night, but typically switch the station to avoid SNL and catch "Modern Family" on abc. Extended football disallowed "Modern Family", so I caught the intro to SNL with Chris Rock.

I'm a little confused regarding the differing sects of gnosticism. I would think that the Essenes would be in that membership, but they are not listed...I suppose due to their belief in Moses. Our friends, the Cathars are listed as gnostic. I thought the Cathars were later spin-offs of the Essenes, they must have reformed some beliefs. Interesting that, as always, Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, is the antithesis, literally and figuratively.

Wonder of wonders - the "Please prove you're not a robot...type the text" is now a photo. The one shown right now is a house address (real photo)!

mike (again) said...

I may have to be more careful how I describe my belief, when asked if I'm a Christian. No...I'm not. That usually conjures devil worship in the ears of the receiver, so I typically indicate that agnostic comes closest. But maybe I'm more gnostic than agnostic!

"Agnostic (from Ancient Greek ἀ- (a-), meaning "without", and γνῶσις (gnōsis), meaning "knowledge") was used by Thomas Henry Huxley in a speech at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1869 to describe his philosophy, which rejects all claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge.

Early Christian church leaders used the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) to describe "spiritual knowledge". Agnosticism is not to be confused with religious views opposing the ancient religious movement of Gnosticism in particular; Huxley used the term in a broader, more abstract sense. Huxley identified agnosticism not as a creed but rather as a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry."

For years, I told people that I was a pantheist, but that has dual meaning. I would be the non-religious:
"Pantheism is derived from the Greek πᾶν pan (meaning "all") and Θεός Theos (meaning "God"). There are a variety of definitions of pantheism. Some consider it a theological and philosophical position concerning God.

As a religious position, some describe pantheism as the polar opposite of atheism. From this standpoint, pantheism is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing, immanent God. All forms of reality may then be considered either modes of that Being, or identical with it. Others hold that pantheism is a non-religious philosophical position. To them, pantheism is the view that the Universe and God are identical."

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Hmmm re the robot blog gatekeeper thingie - I think Blogger or Google must have been tinkering with things this morning - I find I'm unable to get into my cableone e-mail at the same time as into the admin side of Blogger. Dang! It always takes me ages to figure out how to get them running in tandem again.

Anyway - hmmm - your mention of the Cathars had me going back to the post where they came up here not long ago for a refresher:

The whole -ism thing, especially in religious context gets ultra- complicated, doesn't it!? A bit like a family tree where several illegitimate births gum up the works ;-)

I don't think anyone has ever asked me if I'm a Christian, but if they did I'd say that I believe that the man we have been taught to call Jesus Christ was a teacher whose teachings, because of their quality, obvious good sense and deep empathy, have lasted for 2000 + years, in spite of some so-called followers establishing a church (or churches) for their own ends of greed, power and control. All those churches do the exact opposite of Christ's teachings. Yet theses churches followers are so brainwashed as to not be able to see it.

I'd probably be run-out of Oklahoma on a rail if I actually said that within anybody's earshot here. %-(

One of the other DVDs I rented was "Philomena" with Judi Dench playing the lead - a true story of a woman in Ireland who, unmarried but pregnant had to be taken in by a Roman Catholic nunnery. The horrors she underwent then and later, you'd think would put RCs off their religion for good. I'm sure many similar stories have done so for many, but certainly not all!

The whole Gnostic, Cathar, Essene, Dead Sea Scrolls, Book of Enoch, thing is an ongoing source of fascination to me. There has to be something, just beyond it all, I reckon that could, if only a new clue were found, answer so many questions that, to date, have no answer.

mountanto said...

Thanks for the citation! I loved this movie and am glad to see it getting the attention it deserves!

Twilight said...

mountanto ~ My pleasure - I very much enjoyed your review - best of the several I read. :-)

mike (again) said...

Inhofe, Perry, Ted Cruz...where does it all end?

"Inhofe's Grand Climate Conspiracy Theory: It's All About Barbra Streisand...That's what the GOP senator who'll be taking control of the environment committee told me several years ago." By David Corn

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Yes, I read that.
How embarrassing it is to live in a state where the people continually vote this guy in to a position in the national Senate!! :-/