Snowpiercer: Man thinks he can control nature; nature squashes him like a tiny, tiny bug (many spoilers)
I’m trying to write my last paper for the semester. It’s a systems theory analysis of the movie Snowpiercer. But when I try to write in academic words, my brain dries up and blows away. So I’m going to tell you what I think, with much profanity, uninformed opinions, and lack of citations. Then maybe I can write this frakking paper. Here goes!
I watched Snowpiercer about a month ago on Netflix. It is supremely disturbing, and pretty much a masterpiece. In the vein of Cabin in the Woods, nothing is what it seems. This is not your typical man-destroys-the-earth man-survives-much-hardship man-learns-his-lesson man-and-nature-live-in-harmony-amen kind of story. This is not WALL E. Snowpiercer makes WALL E look like a Disney movie. Oh, wait…
I had the idea of looking at the movie through a systems lens, because when I was reading some of the basic systems literature, it became obvious that people have very different ideas of what systems theory does and what it should be used for. Note I say should not can. I’ve always conceived of systems theory as a lens that reminds you that your lens is never big enough. Everything you touch may have repercussions you will never be able to predict. Any drastic change you make to your social world, your economic system, your ecological system, or your psychological system will have many, many unintended consequences, so fuck with the system at your peril. That’s how I conceive of systems theory. Some people conceive of it the same way. “Soft” systems theory is more about understanding and less about exerting control and prediction. But positivist systems theory is obsessed with the other thing. With controlling everything, engineering everything. It’s predicated on the assumption that we can see all the important parts of the system and bend them to our will. Hence, Snowpiercer.
The premise: Man is fucked. It’s 2014, and the nations of the earth have decided to release a chemical into the atmosphere that is supposed to control global warming. Instead, it brings on an instant ice age. The on-screen text at the beginning of the movie tells us that everything on earth has died.
Meanwhile, a totally freaky dude named Wilford has designed a perpetually running luxury train that contains its own sustainable ecosystem and an engine that never wears out or breaks. (Riiiiight…) The remains of humanity, about 2000 souls, are sequestered on the train, according to social class. Poor people in the back; rich people in the front.
So, according to the opening lore of the move, we fucked with Nature, who started to kill us, so we fucked with her some more, and we killed everything. Except the train. 17 years later, the train is the Universe. When Curtis, the hero, asks a little boy what he wants, he asks, “In the whole wide train?” because in the minds of the children of the train, that is the world.
Curtis, urged by Wise Man, Gilliam, (he of few limbs) leads a rebellion of the tail dwellers with the help of Namgoon, an engineer who knows how to get through the mechanical doors that separate the train cars. Much wackiness ensues. If by wackiness, you mean dismemberment, murder, cannibalism, burning man raver zombies, child slavery, and polar bears.
At this point, I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie (or at least read a review or summary somewhere). Here’s what I thought was interesting.
In Snowpiercer, humanity has lost. We’re already extinct, but we don’t know it yet. And that’s the crazy bit. Usually, in similar pieces (Wall E, Battlestar Galactica, ) the of the human spirit eventually forces us to adapt, change, make peace, win, or otherwise survive. In Snowpiercer, this same spirit serves to make us think we are still alive, and more importantly, still relevant. Wilford (the creator and God of the Train), a freaky caricature of Fredrick Taylor, has been obsessed with trains since childhood, and is attributed with foreseeing a post apocalyptic world where humanity’s last survivors would live on his comfy train of death. The train is a closed ecosystem in which every birth and death is orchestrated by Wilford, who is finally living out his childhood dream of never getting off the train.
Wilford’s Minister, Mason, played to bizarre perfection by Tilda Swinton, spouts all sorts of nonsense about the “Sacred Engine” and the “Divine Wilford,” attempting to reinforce a tightly controlled social system where the tail dwellers accept their impoverished, bug-eating (for reals) station in life, and don’t resent or try and mass murder the privileged elite at the front of the train. Clearly, this isn’t working so well, except, it is! By the time Curtis reaches the front, only he, Namgoon, and his daughter remain. Wilford reveals that he worked in concert with Gilliam to enforce population control by orchestrating wars between the back and the army of the front. Psych! So that’s all right then.
Except Wilford is batshit crazy, and his train is breaking down. He’s been taking little kids from the back of the train to act as replacement parts for his not-so-eternal engine. Curtis, in a revelatory talk with Namgoon before shit gets really real, reveals that he used to snack on babies before the cockroach bars were made available. Kids do not have a good time on this train. So Curtis is pretty crazy too. The back of the train was able to re-establish some kind of social order when Gilliam traded Curtis one of his limbs for a baby, thus ending baby sacrifice. (There are a lot of old people missing arms and legs.)
Curtis hates himself, and he can’t see beyond gaining control of the train, and getting relief for his people at the back of the train (most all of whom Wilford has executed). But Namgoon, the Shaman of the lot, has been watching out the windows for 17 years, had an Eskimo baby-mama who taught him about how to survive in the snow, and has been seeing signs of environmental warming and life beyond the train. Curtis has been paying him for his help in drugs, but it turns out the drugs are also explosives. So Namgoon, his daughter, and Curtis blow the train door after rescuing one of the replacement-part children. An avalanche takes out most of the train, but the two youngsters survive and walk out into the snow, and see a polar bear. Psych again! The world is not extinct, it just took a little constitutional in order to rid itself of a particularly malignant cancer (that would be us). So instead of humanity winning through it’s stick-with-it-ness, humanity gets pwnd.
The moral of this story is, Nature wins. Nature is an open, chaotic system, that will kick any Man-made system’s ass. Wilford and his train are a mockery of the idea that humans can create, engineer, and control natural systems. While he does manage to control and brainwash a good chunk of the population for 17 years, he can’t stop the earth from warming, throwing ice down on him, and killing him and his train. Wilford, the ultimate metaphor for the human control freak, finally has a system small enough that he thinks he can control it. But he forgot that the system it resides within is way more powerful, and he really can’t control anything.
Does humanity survive? That’s not really the point. Humanity couldn’t predict warming the earth, we couldn’t predict freezing it, and we couldn’t predict its fairly rapid re-warming. Our puny brains can only encompass so much, and nature is much, much vaster. Namgoon is the only character who actually sees outside the train, and outside the collectively created reality of the train.
So I see this movie as a big fuck you to the people who think they can somehow tame an ecosystem that far more complex than we can comprehend, let alone control. The earth has been around way longer than we have, and it may be getting very tired of our shit.