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Sci-fi movie Snowpiercer is one of the most political films of the year

Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer
Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer
The Weinstein Company
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Warning: If you have yet to see the film Snowpiercer, this post, which discusses plot details from the last half of the movie, is not for you. But, also, if you haven't seen Snowpiercer yet, you should really rectify that. It's an exciting, inventive science-fiction movie with some of the most innovative action sequences you'll see this year. In fact, it might be worth it just for Tilda Swinton's performance, which is an act of mad genius. All right. Everything after this paragraph should be avoided by the uninitiated. Go see it and come on back.

Numerous reviews of Snowpiercer, a tale of revolution set onboard a speeding train that is the only thing protecting citizens of a post-apocalyptic future from a freezing cold wasteland outside, have pointed out how the film deals with income inequality and rapidly calcifying social classes throughout the world. This is also largely being read as director Bong Joon-ho's critique of conservative economic policies, since the system that governs the giant post-apocalyptic train that is the film's setting benefits a privileged few at the expense of teeming masses who have a much harder lot in life.

This is evident in many ways throughout the film. Think, for instance, of the way that Bong makes the forward sections of the train, where the privileged few live, into shockingly surreal settings for the action. There's an aquarium, strangely, and a car where a teacher played by Alison Pill spends all of her time indoctrinating children into worship of Wilford, the builder of the train, through song. When the protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans), and his supporters make their way into this section, their very presence seems to offend those who exist here and don't question what that existence is based upon. Or consider the more subtle ways the film reinforces its political message, like how Swinton's performance as Minister Mason seems to channel Margaret Thatcher, or how the system that props up the train is worshipped with religious fervor by those who benefit the most from it.

Yet suggesting that Snowpiercer is solely a critique of calcified social class systems and conservative economic policies limits the film's far more complicated ultimate message, one that Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson layer in fairly early on in the story. Around the film's midpoint, when Curtis and company (with Mason as their hostage) make it to a car seemingly set aside just to serve sushi to the privileged twice per year, Mason offers up an explanation of why that's full of jargon and buzzwords that could be taken from the pamphlet for any local food co-op. ("Sustainable" gets thrown around a fair amount.)

Though the ultimate joke here is on how Mason seems to think this is some sort of sacrifice for her and her fellow privileged passengers to make, there's also the sense that Snowpiercer is simultaneously critiquing progressives who throw everything they have into making sure the lives they live are more righteous than their neighbors' lives, but ignore the problems anyone with less money than themselves has to deal with. At a certain level of privilege, the only difference between political approaches becomes one of semantics, the film argues. For the underprivileged, however, simply being able to survive is the ultimate struggle.

That sense only grows as the film builds toward its twisty conclusion. When Curtis finally makes it to the Sacred Engine, which houses Wilford (Ed Harris), he learns that he was set on this course by Wilford, working in cahoots with Curtis's mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt). Revolt is a necessary tool of the privileged, who use it both to thin out the ranks of those in the tail section and to provide cheap entertainment for those closer to the engine. (At one point, Wilford discusses Curtis's journey as if he's offering script notes on the story immediately preceding. It seems almost like Bong's lament that even a really great movie amounts to a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to battling inequality.)

Wilford offers Curtis his job, but after being sorely tempted by it, Curtis realizes Wilford utilizes child labor to run the engine and opts to sign on to the plan of one of his compatriots, which is to blow up the train and see if humanity can survive in the frozen wastes outside the vehicle. One of the most common critiques of the film has been that this last quarter (roughly everything after Curtis makes it to the door to the engine) lurches into a long series of implausible twists for the sake of having twists. But without this last quarter, Snowpiercer simply wouldn't work.

This is far from a subtle film, and it traffics much more in symbolism than it does in realism. Having all of the characters baldly state their motivations in these closing passages can be a bit frustrating, but it helps Bong underline his point over and over again: So long as the system exists as it is, those who seek to change it are doomed to become chewed up by it. You can say you want to do something about income inequality, but the only thing that will really change it, in Bong's view, is exploding the order as it exists and embarking upon something new entirely, even if that something new leads to certain death. (It's no accident the last shots of the film blatantly evoke Adam and Eve, or that they suggest the two characters we see left alive face a terrifying, uncertain future.)

But if you have any amount of comfort, that idea is too difficult to comprehend. Far easier, then, to live according to a rigid code of self-righteousness and ignore all of the awful things that must exist to prop that code up. Blowing up the train in the film's closing moments could seem like an act of supreme idiocy easily enough, but in the view of Snowpiercer, it's the only way to create a world that lives up to Curtis's ideals.

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