Bong Joon-ho‘s Snowpiercer is as perceptive and self-aware as it is visually impactful and poignant. Beneath exhilarating fight scenes and potent emotional beats lies a notable moral conscience: the examination of self-determination and survival amid the dangers of propaganda. These overarching themes strictly guide the film’s wider metaphoric expressions towards bleak yet important observations about human nature and fraught political systems.
Bong’s frenetic narrative highlights the cyclical despair of humanity’s worst tendencies, noticeably doing so by intertwining setting and characterization. Snowpiercer‘s production design doesn’t simply establish time, place, and aesthetics. It frankly speaks volumes about the film’s narrative motivations, feeding into the germinating conflicts and clashing worldviews that underpin the movie as a whole.
Snowpiercer unfolds on a gargantuan locomotive bound to loop around the Earth. The planet has been irreparably ravaged by a man-made ice age and so its last survivors have all boarded a nightmarish version of Noah’s Ark. Life on the train is contingent on a simple, harrowing fact: step outside into the blistering cold and meet your doom.
In Snowpiercer, cultural norms — leftovers from a world that existed before a perpetual motion machine — provide some functionality to this insular civilization. However, such customs eventually prove to be deeply problematic.
The film establishes that every train car begets specific environments at the behest of the social class that populates it. The train’s more pompous carriages — complete with an aquarium, spa, and party den, among other things — may appear to be logically unsound, per production designer Ondrej Nekvasil. But the very fact of their gratuitous existence excellently portrays humanity’s penchant for ostentatious excess.
Vitally, though, the devil is in the details of each train car. Snowpiercer carefully contrasts its more ornate depictions with appropriately dire and sobering parallels for maximum effect. As the richest, most drugged-up passengers dance around garish cabins in the front of the train, thousands of poorer riders fight for survival in the overcrowded squalor of a derelict back-end.
Snowpiercer implores us to empathize with the miserable but resilient lives of the film’s ostracized tail-section occupants. Circumstances are beyond frightful in that last car. It is doused in a perpetual dimness due to a lack of windows and its conditions are thoroughly unhygienic. Everyone and everything is awash in murky grey tones thanks to years’ worth of grime and filth coating surface and skin.
There are simply far too many tail-sectioners and not enough room in the car. Thus, makeshift bunk beds are crafted from old storage shelves. Rusty barrels become cradles for infants. These resting quarters are then piled atop one another for optimal use of limited space. Consequently, the car appears to be a thorny jungle of sorts, with passengers regularly climbing over each other to get around in cramped areas.
This unseemly situation is only worsened by the abusive crew members of the train who regularly terrorize the tail-sectioners. Passengers have no choice but to rely on rationed garbage for food (specifically, “protein blocks” made of roaches). They must also persist against the constant brutality of law enforcement that threatens to hurt them and steal away members of their community, especially children. Furthermore, tail-sectioners withstand condescending speeches proclaiming them to be the “ingrates” and “freeloaders” of the train. According to Tilda Swinton‘s shrill Minister Mason, they are nothing but a burden to “the sacred engine.”
Thankfully, tight-knit group dynamics and distinct social codes have been built among tail-sectioners over time. They operate their own barter system, wherein passengers trade anything from toys to more illicit items such as the addictive hallucinogen Kronole for new possessions and provisions. Over time, the self-made ecosystem of the tail section has grown into an intimate faction, allowing camaraderie and the idea of revolution to percolate.
Leaders who are adamant to precipitate change routinely emerge from the community, as well. Gilliam (John Hurt) — a paraplegic who has ostensibly sacrificed plenty for the greater good of the tail section — has worked as the gang’s natural figurehead in the years leading up to the events of Snowpiercer. Now a much older man, he finds an evident, if reluctant, successor in Curtis (Chris Evans).
It seems like a no-brainer of a choice. At his core, Curtis embodies the best of the tail section’s hardy values, proving himself to be charismatic and capable when necessary. That said, on the flip side, the worst qualities of his environment have shaped him, too. Curtis’ bubbling rage and thirst for vengeance against the oppressive regime of the train are deeply rooted in the violence of his early years.
As audiences accompany Curtis on his journey of atonement, they come to understand that his good intentions are paired with irrevocable baggage. The film consistently hints at the fact that he is possibly too disillusioned to have the capacity to think outside the box as the revolution requires. So instead, Snowpiercer offers a glimpse into various alternative futures. They all involve the train’s younger generation.
In truth, there isn’t another demographic that is as detrimentally affected by the train’s cultural blindspots as its kids. This is especially so for “train babies” — those who were born on board — and there are major discrepancies between the ways front and tail section children are taught and treated.
Snowpiercer has its own educational car. It is arguably the most gaudily dystopian set piece in the film, slathered in sickly pastel hues and brimming with menacing energy. Here, privileged front section children are indoctrinated to sing praises of the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris). They are taught to fear the outside world through eerily cheery nursery rhymes. Fables such as “The Revolt of the Seven” are also told in class, during which the resident teacher (Alison Pill) takes many an opportunity to dehumanize the proponents of such uprisings.
In the officially sanctioned curriculum of the train’s school system, the prospect of leaving the comfort and safety of the train is openly ridiculed as foolish. The front section children can be as cruel as they are impressionable, having been taught in a lurid environment that fosters meanness and judgment.
Comparatively, the young ones living outside this cocoon of comforts fight considerably different and far more tragic battles against their predetermined destinies. Many like Curtis’ second-in-command, Edgar (Jamie Bell), aren’t able to escape the desolation that raises them. They grow up battle-scarred before meeting untimely demises.
Luckily, some children who survive have compassion and shrewdness to complement the purity of their malleable, growing minds. Yona (Go Ah-sung) is a key example of this.
Curtis first finds her imprisoned on the train alongside her father Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang Ho) and frees them in order to set his scheme in motion. Nam and Yona make for a fascinating pair. Supposedly hooked on Kronole, they clearly interact and operate in ways that puzzle the more jaded tail-sectioners.
Most notably, of the few times that the audience is privy to Nam’s teachings, he offers his daughter a perspective that is remarkably different from the self-interested drills of the train’s syllabus. Although Yona has never encountered soil in her life, Nam points out that it exists beneath the thick snow blanketing the outside world. He reminds her of its potential to cultivate life should the Earth defrost. Moreover, Nam advises Yona that the individuals behind the Revolt of the Seven aren’t mere faceless shadows in the reprobative annals of history. Rather, their efforts demonstrate true bravery and drive, regardless of their results.
These instances of foreshadowing are laced throughout meticulous visual cues in Snowpiercer. They all eventually come full circle when Curtis, Nam, and Yona finally arrive at Wilford’s car at the front of the train.
Taking a look at Wilford’s abode, it is spacious; sparsely but elegantly furnished with expensive vintage items. The room’s floors are made of varying tones of polished patterned wood. And at the opposite end of the car, the imposing, almost mythical engine hums mysteriously.
Unlike the chaos of the cars before it, Wilford resides in a relatively peaceful haven. That peace comes with a price, though. Now that Curtis has walked the entire length of the train and seen both the allure and the depravity in their full glory, Wilford reveals his carefully calibrated attempts to keep everyone on board on the path of their “preordained positions.” As it turns out, Gilliam was involved in these plans all along.
The alliance of Wilford and Gilliam facilitated rebellions across nearly two decades. This ensured that enough tail-section passengers could be killed every so often, keeping population numbers in check and balancing out the train’s sealed ecosystem.
Curtis is hence met with the hopeless realization that the odds had long been stacked against his favor. When Wilford, who is himself an old man, attempts to convince Curtis to take over the role as the train’s caretaker, the latter almost surrenders and accepts a terrifying reality: that a society upheld by fear is the only way to truly thrive.
However, Yona unveils the most game-changing albeit heartbreaking revelation of Snowpiercer yet. She attempts to yank open the floorboards of the engine room. With Curtis by her side, she discovers that underneath them exists crawl spaces just big enough to fit the smallest children. Together, they witness a young tail section boy named Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis) curled up among rotating cogs and gears, manually operating the train.
For years, structural wear and tear of Wilford’s awful machine became impossible to fix and all this time, tail-sectioners’ offspring have actually been responsible for keeping the engine running. This blatant exploitation serves as Curtis’ final wake-up call to do the right thing. He finds absolution when he chooses to protect Timmy and Yona, destroying the train in the process.
Snowpiercer concludes with the cathartic derailing of the “eternal engine.” Yona and Timmy emerge from the locomotive’s wreckage, seemingly its only survivors. Stepping outside, Yona spots a polar bear in the distance and observes that signs of life are slowly but surely reappearing as the Earth warms up. Finally rid of the confines of the repetitive, virulent civilization that threatened to corrupt them, the two children are now free of political ubiquities. They have a chance to definitively write their own futures for the better.