Fri Nov 14, 2014

It takes me a while to get to the latest films nowadays. I thus missed out on a lot of the excitement generated by Snowpiercer. The lively premise is that an ever-running train circumnavigates a world frozen by atmospheric particulates. These were dispersed into the sky to mitigate global warming. Consequences were not anticipated, and apparently all other life has become extinct.1 The train was built by an excellent man, a man of vision. Successful businessmen are like this. They cannot tolerate the enforced mediocrity of bureaucracies. Most fail, but those that succeed push us forward into a new tomorrow…

Where was I? Yes, Snowpiercer. The train itself is larger than usual and divided into many compartments. A teeming multitude in the back, apparently those taken on the train out of pity or those who couldn’t afford first-class tickets, lives in crowded industrial squalor. Why they are tolerated at all seems quite mysterious. One apparent answer is that they provide biopower in the form of children small enough to replace some damaged equipment. Another explanation, as Aaron Bady proposes is that “the tail section passengers must exist so as to provide a zero-point from which pleasure and desire can be measured.” It is not enough to succeed, as Gore Vidal reminds us, but others must fail.2

These preterite souls subsist on insect-protein gelatin, not too dissimilar from the cricket-protein power drinks you can buy at many salubrious outlets.3 They are subject to illustrative amputations when they rebel. (The amputations, we learn at the end, were once a form of illustrative sacrifice to dissuade the starving passengers from cannibalism. Heavy, when you think about it.) The biopower that the economy passengers provide is not limited to chimney-sweeps, however. The Sardaukarian conditions are also designed to produce a new leader.

Most of the film shows the progress of this leader’s rebellion upwards through the compartments of life. The actor is apparently famous from superhero films that I haven’t seen and will never see while there are still Henry James plays left to read. A security expert is recruited to open the doors. He asks for a drug made from the engine’s waste in compensation, but this putty blows more than minds. Perhaps the most effective (and most Brazil-ian) scene is when they discover a classroom compartment being taught by a wonderfully cast Alison Pill, whom I’ve now decided to forgive for The Newsroom.

After much action, including a prolonged fight with a Terminator-like security figure whose will seems strong enough to have been forged in the economy class, the hero (who perhaps played the Silver Surfer now that I think about it) meets the industrialist. Predictably enough, the rebellion was engineered from the beginning, but the hero’s Promethean fire was unanticipated. This bold stroke makes him capable of directing the train. In the meantime, the security expert finally blows open the door to escape. He’s noticed that the snow is melting and thinks humanity can survive outside of the train. When his daughter and another child walk out in the mountainous snow, they see an ecologically improbable polar bear.

The polar bear (and premise of the film in general) reminded me in a vague way I’m not willing to explain of the totemism in Gene Wolfe’s “Tracking Song,” which also involves the circumnavigation of an unusual world. That the polar bear is the charismatic megafauna most closely associated with climate change seems embarrassing somehow, but I don’t know if it’s a necessarily sentimental ending.4

  1. That the intriguing bacteria around the abyssal vents wouldn’t survive the Plutonian chill seems unlikely, and I suspect that it would be just cool enough for the middle spirits to descend.

  2. Readers of Nietzsche’s Genealogy may recall the glee with which he quotes Tertullian and Aquinas on the heavenly pleasures of beholding the eternal torture of the damned.

  3. While there is ecological language throughout the script, how these insects maintain themselves seems hard to explain. The glimpse we have of them makes them seem more like nanorobotic salamanders or perhaps the larvae form of some alien life that has terraformed the planet to their liking.

  4. Bady surmises that the bear will eat them. Polar bears do eat people. At least they do not fear people.