Mad Max: Fury Road – A Feminist Film for Right Here and Now

Every once in a while a film comes out that really touches a nerve. When Avatar came out in December of 2009, the heads of conservative pundits collectively exploded while they denounced the film’s various progressive themes. Those efforts were in vein as Avatar clearly struck a chord with the masses, and it went on to become the highest grossing film ever. It was the right film at the right time.

While it probably won’t end up making $2.7 billion at the box office, Mad Max: Fury Road also seems to have touched a nerve. George Miller’s new film appears to be a piece of art having a profound political impact on society, igniting a fierce debate about women’s equality. Like Avatar before it, perhaps Fury Road is the perfect film for this moment.


Prior to Fury Road‘s release, “men’s rights” activist (or MRA) Aaron Clarey published a blog post on the website Return of Kings warning men not to be “duped” by the film which appears to be a “straight-up guy flick” but might actually be a “Trojan horse” designed to “force a lecture on feminism down your throat.” This post went viral on the internet and the topic was picked up by many mainstream news outlets. Since then, Mad Max: Fury Road has become almost impossible to see without considering the political subtext in some way. 

Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth Mad Max film George Miller has made, and the first since 1985′s Beyond Thunderdome. Fury Road is not exactly a direct continuation of the original series, nor is it quite a re-boot. Perhaps it could be called a “re-imagining” of the franchise, or simply a new stand-alone episode in Max’s life. But whatever it is, Fury Road is an immensely visceral and entertaining piece of cinema. However, while on the surface it appears to be a simple film, one that functions perfectly well as a straight forward action adventure, upon closer examination a very sophisticated piece of work is revealed. In fact, part of what makes it so entertaining, and so powerful, is that its momentum organically flows from a high-level understanding of the political terms involved in the struggle for women’s equality.


Fury Road begins with Max alone in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Australia, surviving on his own, searching for a “righteous cause,” as the opening narration states, after failing to protect his family during the collapse of society. The film jumps straight into the action, and he’s quickly captured by scavengers belonging to a society ruled by a man known as Immortan Joe, a warlord who has established a patriarchal dictatorship centered around a worship of cars and the glorification death in combat. Immortan Joe hoards resources and puts a strict limit on how much food and water is distributed to the general population. It’s a cult-like society defined by masculine violence and the repression of women. With sickness and death rampant, Immortan Joe is trying to produce an heir to continue on after him, and so he keeps sex slaves who function as “breeders” imprisoned, separated from the rest of society.

By chance, at nearly the same moment Max is brought into the Citadel, a woman named Furiosa begins to carry out a plot to rescue Immortan Joe’s “Wives” by smuggling the five of them out under the false pretense of an assignment to acquire gas from a nearby town. Once Furiosa’s true intentions become apparent, a wild chase begins, which Max is forced into against his will. What unfolds is one of the most breathtaking and visually amazing action films in recent memory, in part because it’s so unlike most modern blockbusters. While films like The Avengers: Age of Ultron or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 are basically soulless products of a corporate assembly line, Mad Max: Fury Road is obviously the result of a singular artistic vision. But as visually amazing as this film is, George Miller clearly had something more than simply creating an awesome thrill ride in mind.


It’s a film about a world in which women have been stripped of their agency by a warlord who champions macho violence, and uses religion as a tool of manipulation. The Citadel’s women appear to be kept mostly out of sight. They are used as incubators to produce more “war boys” and literally milked like cattle for the benefit of the elites. And even Furiosa, who appears to have some level of rank and authority, was originally brought into Immortan Joe’s society as a result of post-apocalyptic human trafficking.

Misogynists like Aaron Clarey fantasize about a world like this becoming reality and claim that women being forced into servitude and becoming nothing more than objects who need the benevolent protection of men to survive is the “natural order” of biology. George Miller’s film seems designed explicitly as a polemic against this idea, and it makes its case in a radical way.


While the first act of Fury Road reveals the horror of a reactionary’s fantasy world, the rest of the film is carefully crafted to show just how unnatural and fundamentally unjust that kind of society is. The film is loaded with nuance that undermines misogynistic ideology. For example, the kick-ass female lead character played by Charlize Theron is something idiotic men’s rights crybabies have bemoaned as “unrealistic,” but, in all honesty, there’s nothing new about a film with a strong female lead. But what is progressive here is the way that Miller refuses to sexualize Furiosa. Theron isn’t rehashing her Aeon Flux role here, she’s playing someone who is every bit as grounded in reality as Max, someone who is simply a strong human being who happens to be female, not a male-fantasy action vixen in skin tight leather.

In addition to having a strong female lead, Fury Road makes a point to emphasize things that are supposedly evidence of women’s weakness, and it turns those things into strengths. The Wives turn their pregnancy into a weapon, using their bodies as shields to protect Max and Furiosa. Later in the film the group is joined by a band of elderly female warriors. In the end, they form a cohesive team of pregnant, elderly, and disabled women, supposedly the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, yet they prove to be a force to be reckoned with. Max stands along side them side by side as an ally, and an equal.


Also, in a powerful symbolic statement Miller underscores the importance of women in society. “Mother’s milk” is one of the only viable forms of nutrition in the wasteland. In a world of insane masculine violence, women become a life sustaining antidote to the madness. Their emancipation is the righteous cause Max was searching for, and together both sexes stand against a system of patriarchal oppression.

But even while Fury Road has an obvious feminist theme, acknowledged by both reactionaries and progressives, there are also people on both sides of that ideological divide who want to downplay or flat out deny the the film’s feminism. There is one moment in the film that is frequently pointed to as evidence that the film isn’t as feminist as it may appear. After the first major chase sequence, Furiosa’s rig is stopped in the middle of the desert. Max, who had been thrown from a vehicle, wakes up and stumbles over to the rig. As he walks around the large tanker truck, all five of the Wives are revealed on screen for the first time, bathing from a hose attached to the rig.

At first glance it might appear that Miller is guilty of objectifying the women on screen, sexualizing the moment, but upon further reflection this isn’t the case at all. These are women who have just escaped from sex slavery and spent a couple hours stowed away in a sweltering metal truck. They are still wearing the skimpy outfits they had on at the time of their rescue. Should Furiosa have packed them a change of clothes before sneaking them out of Immortan Joe’s compound? And what exactly are these women doing at that moment out there in the desert? They’re using bolt cutters to free each other from the chastity belts they’ve been forced to wear, which are then kicked angrily into the dirt. Plus, the first moment Max sees what’s going on, everyone freezes and time seems to stand still for a few seconds. It’s a split second of humor in a film that hardly gives you a second to breathe.


Miller seems to have orchestrated this moment as if to deliberately mock the kind of exploitative film he didn’t make. In a lesser film, the camera would have lingered on the beautiful bodies on display, but Miller quickly subverts expectations by turning it into a fight scene, and there’s nothing very sexy about it. So, the moment that is frequently sited as proof of the film’s non-feminism is actually a scene where emancipated sex slaves are literally removing the chains of their bondage, and fighting to maintain their new-found freedom. 

Mad Max: Fury Road has a bold, clear aesthetic and an obvious style that distinguishes it from most major blockbuster films of this era. It takes artistic risks. There are times when the film is sped up, paying homage to the look of the original Mad Max series, and Miller also uses a couple long slow-motion shots. The characters fully inhabit this post-apocalyptic world, thanks mainly to Miller’s savvy direction. People speak in a dialect that is just the right balance between understandable and realistically detached from modern speech. Charlize Theron in particular steals the show as Furiosa, and her performance is likely what will be most remembered about this film. Tom Hardy gets the job done as Mel Gibson’s replacement, though the few times he has to speak come off as a bit unnatural, perhaps intentionally. All the supporting roles are filled out nicely. Nicholas Hoult is memorable as the deceptively well-developed character Nux, and all of the women who play the Wives and the Mothers add interesting individual flare to characters that could have been generic in the wrong hands.


Of course Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film, and the majority of the film is an extended chase sequence without much exposition. It could almost function as a silent film since the narrative is propelled primarily by the action rather than dialogue. 2013′s Gravity was similar in this way, and director Alfonso Cuarón actually thought about doing that project as a silent film. But Fury Road is perhaps better compared to another 2013 film, Snowpiercer. It is also a thrilling action film populated by characters pursuing a simple objective, and like Fury Road its narrative is defined by a sense of forward momentum. But Bong Joon Ho’s film also functioned as a highly sophisticated microcosm of revolutionary theory and could practically be used as a guide on how to overthrow a system of oppression. Indeed, BuzzFeed contributor Laurie Penny similarly describes Fury Road as “a feminist playbook for surviving dystopia,” and she’s right on the money.

The chase in Fury Road makes for very entertaining cinema, but the film’s central conflict is also symbolic of something much greater. It’s the struggle for what kind of future we want to have; one where women are the possessions of men, objectified, defined by their sexuality, and used as incubators, or a future where women are fully equal human beings with free agency to determine the course of their own lives. That is really what the women of Fury Road are fighting for, along with their male allies, and the action takes on a sense of urgency because the stakes are so critically important, both in the fictional post-apocalyptic future, as well as right here and now. That is why the Aaron Clareys of the world are so thoroughly threatened by this film, because what could be scarier to misogynists than a world where women not only refuse to meekly accept their cages, but where they are strong enough to dictate their futures on their own terms?

We live during a time in which the powerful would like the oppressed classes of the world to believe that the battle is over and that they have achieved victory. They point to Obama in the White House or female CEOs in the business world as proof that things have changed. But these are illusions that belie the continued brutality and discrimination women face because the system that perpetuates inequality and oppression is still in place, and the desperate struggle to achieve genuine equality is still ongoing.


This is why films like Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road are able to provoke such vile reactions from those who benefit from the oppression of others. These are films about the destruction of their reactionary ideology after the oppressed dare to stand up and say, “no more!” This message strikes a chord with society because the struggle is right now. Both Avatar and Fury Road feature a man and a women standing together as equals to resist oppression. The battles fought by Jake Sully and Neytiri and by Max and Furiosa reflect the very real battles being waged on the streets around the world right now, because they recognize not only the need not only to escape oppression, but but also the importance of defeating the system that perpetuates it. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road should be celebrated for infusing the complicated terms of radical struggle into their stories in such an easily accessible way, allowing them to resonate so profoundly with the masses through the power of pure entertainment.

[EDIT] Soon after publishing this piece I realized that I left out something very important I had planned on saying. Sometimes I get too close to my writing and forget to take a step back to make sure all the proper bases are covered, so I hope to correct that here, below.

There are people out there who have seen this film and think it’s awesome, but deny that it’s feminist. They want to enjoy the action without acknowledging that the film is putting forward an ideology they can’t stand, and so they make excuses and rationalize things. They say that it’s “just” an action film and that any feminism is a mostly accidental byproduct. Well, unfortunately for those people, that simply isn’t the case.

George Miller knew he was making a film with heavy feminist themes, and he wanted to make sure he got it right. So, to help him through the project he called in Eve Ensler, the feminist playwright and activist, to be a consultant on set. Miller wanted Ensler to speak to the cast and crew about the violence women continue to face around the world, especially in war zones. A Time Magazine interview with Ensler can be read here.

Miller also wanted the film to have a feminine touch in post production, and so he asked his wife Margaret Sixel to edit the film, even though she had never worked on an action film, or a film as large in scope. When asked why, Miller said, “Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie.” Clearly he was after something different than the standard action film, and it’s fair to say that was achieved. An article about Sixel’s experience on Fury Road can be read here.

THE FEDREV 100: A Progressive Exploration of Film (91-100) is happy to announce “The FedRev 100.” It’s a personal top 100 films list from a progressive perspective, and over the next several weeks articles will be published revealing 10 films from the list at a time. Once all 100 titles have been revealed, the entire “FedRev 100″ will be published in list form with links back to the write-up articles, so readers will be able to scan the overall list, and then click on individual titles to read up on why each was selected. An in-depth explanation of the list’s criteria will be given when the entire list is revealed, but to briefly explain, the list is comprised of great films that uphold a progressive view of the world. The list is a blend of personal favorites with celebrated classics, as well as a few obscure gems that deserve greater exposure. So, to get started, here is the The FedRev 100: films 91 to 100. munich fin 91. Munich (2005, S. Spielberg) 

Munich is Steven Spielberg’s fantastic drama about Israel’s secret revenge program “Operation Wrath of God” in the wake of the 1972 Olympic Games massacre in Munich, Germany. While I believe Spielberg approached the subject with what he believed was a balanced and sympathetic perspective toward both the Israeli and Palestinian points of view, Munich is a film that powerfully shows the moral vacuum entered into when an oppressive government decides to inflict even more destructive terrorism on the people they’re already oppressing. The leader of Israel’s strike team, Avner, ends up looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life, knowing that he’s created more terrorists than he’s killed, and left wondering what he’s actually achieved. Pro-Israelis and Zionists were outraged by the film and called for boycotts, and many reviewers blasted the film for insinuating that Israel’s actions were actually worse than the terrorism they were responding to. One scene even allows a Palestinian militant to make a powerful argument for their cause, and the film ultimately makes the viewer question the kind of “eye for an eye” policies that exacerbate conflict rather than end it. Spielberg’s film is expertly directed and the performances are excellent throughout. The Wind that Shakes the Barley92. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006, K. Loach) 

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a politically sophisticated war film set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War between the years of 1919 and 1923. The film has a very authentic sensibility and depicts the war between the Irish Republican Army and the occupying British force. The British harass, intimidate, and murder the locals in their attempt to squash the rebellion, and the Irish utilize guerrilla tactics to ward off their occupiers. The film centers around two brothers who fight together for the IRA, and then later against each other on opposite sides of the Civil War after a compromise had been reached with the British. Barley examines two ideologies: one, the principle that people should fight to completely free themselves of oppression and imperialist occupation, and two, that the occupied should resist just enough to force concessions from the imperialists. The second faction turns on the first when they continue to fight for complete independence even after the Irish government signs a treaty with the British. While Loach’s film portrays both factions in the Civil War with generally equal time, it’s clear his film sides with the Republicans who didn’t compromise their principles and continued to fight for freedom and true independence, and rightfully so. Cuckoo's Nest 193. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, M. Forman) 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the most beloved classics of all-time and features Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, a man who’s been ordered by a court to undergo psychiatric evaluation at a mental hospital. McMurphy doesn’t show signs of mental illness, but he does have a strong anti-authoritarian impulse, and he establishes himself as a leader among the inmates shortly after his arrival. He’s an obvious wild card in an otherwise stable population of patients who are tightly controlled by Nurse Ratched, played to chilling perfection by Louise Fletcher. Ratched employs a host of manipulative suppression techniques to keep the patients under her thumb, and McMurphy becomes her nemesis, attempting to subvert her authority wherever possible. The film, which swept the Academy Awards, on a surface level is about the personal struggle between the ideologies of the two major characters, but it can also be viewed as a metaphor for the culture wars of the 60s and 70s. The film also powerfully illuminates the oppression of the mentally ill under a system incapable of treating them with dignity, as they are stripped of their humanity and kept out of sight from society. snowpiercer-2-hp94. Snowpiercer (2013, Bong J.) 

The most recently released film to make “The FedRev 100,” Snowpiercer is an adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, which is a post-apocalyptic story that takes place following a man-made environmental disaster which caused the entire globe to freeze. The film is set on a continually moving train which houses the last remnants of mankind. A strict class system is imposed on the train’s passengers, and the poorest people are relegated to the tail section where they plot to overthrow the existing authority. The film is loaded with exhilarating action and beautiful cinematography, but what’s truly great about Snowpiercer is its highly sophisticated understanding of revolution. I have written at greater length about the film here. SVOD-L-Cry-Freedom95. Cry Freedom (1987, R. Attenborough) 

Cry Freedom is a film about the political awakening of white South African journalist Donald Woods after meeting black activist Stephen Biko during Apartheid in the mid-1970s. The film was produced prior to the end of Apartheid in 1994 and was based on the experiences of Woods who fled South Africa following the murder of Biko in order to publish books about the activist. Cry Freedom, along with the song “Biko” by Peter Gabriel, played a role in making Steve Biko a more widely known figure around the world, and also helped make a star of Denzel Washington, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Biko. The film is sometimes criticized as a “white savior” movie since it’s primarily about Woods rather than Biko himself, but the political transformation depicted in the film is significant in its own right. Woods pursues the truth and is eventually convinced by Biko’s radical argument, and as a result faced potentially severe consequences himself. Cry Freedom deserves credit for showing how systems of oppression operate, as well as for depicting the lengths people must go to in order to oppose such regimes. fortress96. Brestskaya krepost [Fortress of War] (2010, A. Kott) 

Fortress of War is a powerful war film that illustrates in microcosm the sacrifice made by the Soviet people in defeating the Nazis. Set in the Soviet outpost in Brest, Belarus, it’s an exhilarating film that takes place during the Nazi invasion in June of 1941. Vastly outnumbered, the Soviets bravely repel wave after wave of invading Nazi soldiers until they are eventually overrun. The film primarily follows Sasha Akimov, who at only 15 years of age was able to move around the fortress assisting many separated pockets of Soviet soldiers. While many believe the United States is responsible for defeating Hitler and the Nazis, in reality it was the Soviets who played the biggest role, and Fortress of War provides an excellent history lesson in that regard, as well as being an exquisitely made film. The Fever97. The Fever (2004, C. Nero) 

Adapted from Wallace Shawn’s play, The Fever is one of the more obscure titles on this list. It was made as an HBO film, but it never received much support from the network and subsequently was aired years after it was completed with little fanfare. It’s the story of an upper-middle class woman’s political awakening as she learns why there is such a massive gap between the rich and the poor, while coming to a realization about her own place in society. It utilizes long monologues and animated sequences to illustrate certain points, and it powerfully describes the exploitative and imperialistic relationship the first world has with the third. While some reviewers say it’s about “white guilt,” more accurately it’s about understanding the true nature of capitalism, as well as what is necessary to bring a new and better world into being: revolution. Hollywood legend Vanessa Redgrave stars and lends considerable gravitas to the controversial material. good-night-and-good-luck98. Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005, G. Clooney) 

Set during the reign of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt, Good Night, and Good Luck. is the story of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s public battle against the senator. Shot in a beautiful black and white, the film details the pressure put on the public to declare loyalty to the United States and denounce Communism, as well as the struggle to resist that pressure. Murrow was able to leverage his position in the media to expose the evil of McCarthy’s crusade, and the film shows the lengths he and his team had to go to do that, as well as some of the contradictions and compromises involved. David Strathairn is brilliant as Murrow, and all in all the film captures the mood and explores the terms at stake in that era with clear purpose. It’s also an interesting film on the question of objectivity in journalism. Murrow has a definite perspective, and yet his reporting is fair and accurate. This kind of “activist” journalism is more honest and truthful and ultimately informative than the kind of false “objective” reporting we’ve been conditioned to accept as the standard.

99. North Country (2005, N. Caro) 

A film inspired by the first ever successful sexual harassment class-action lawsuit against a corporation in U.S. history, North Country is based on the case of Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines. Charlize Theron turns in a powerful leading role as a coal miner who, along with her fellow female workers, endures a range of sexual harassment and assault. The film provides a clear road map for how to fight institutionalized injustice. While most people try to convince Josey to keep quite, keep her head down, and suffer through her work while being harassed, she refuses to take it and fights for her human dignity head on, in the process convincing several of her co-workers to join her struggle. The film features an excellent soundtrack of Bob Dylan songs, as well as excellent cinematography. The mine is always shot in wide angle, looming large over the landscape, often dwarfing Josey or her car in the foreground. It’s a David vs. Goliath story, but with a powerful lesson in strategy against seemingly impossible odds. Bravery and perseverance in directly standing up to injustice and exploitation is contagious. fastfoodnation100. Fast Food Nation (2006, R. Linklater) 

While perhaps not a cinematic masterpiece on par with much of what’s on this list, Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation is one of the most brutal anti-capitalist films I’ve ever seen. It’s an uncompromising take-down of the American fast food industry, following multiple narrative threads from the top to the bottom of a fictional (but all too real) restaurant chain. It exposes the exploitation of migrant and teenage labor, the chemical manipulation of ingredients, the cover-up of contaminated products, as well as unsafe working conditions, sexual assault in the workplace, and perhaps most powerfully, the torture of animals in slaughterhouses. This is a film that forces us to examine the way corporations allow nothing to stand in the way of the profits made on the backs of exploited labor and the rape of the environment.

- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 41-50)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 51-60)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 61-70)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 71-80)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 81-90)

Snowpiercer: Revolution in Microcosm

At the time of this writing, the Palestinian people in the open-air prison of Gaza are under brutal assault from their Israeli occupiers. Thousands of desperately impoverished innocent civilians are being deliberately targeted and killed, even as they seek shelter in designated United Nations schools and hospitals, and hundreds of thousands have been wounded or displaced from their homes by the actions of the well-funded and heavily armed Israeli state. Israel has sealed off Gaza, bombed its power plant, and made it virtually impossible for Gazans to get clean water and food, and any attempt by the people of Gaza to resist this brutal oppression is answered with even harsher military action on a totally disproportionate and inhumane scale.

The conflict in Gaza is a real-life example of the horror of capitalist-imperialism, infused with religion, and it illustrates the dire need for a revolution to rid the world of this genocidal system; a system which murders and exploits the poorest and weakest people with impunity, and then blames those victims for their own oppression. It’s time for this horrific injustice to come to an end, not only in Israel, but everywhere.snowpiercer-train4

Snowpiercer, a recent film by South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, takes place in a fictional situation that reflects the truth of what is happening in Gaza. Set in the not-too-distant future, Snowpiercer, based on the graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, takes place following an attempt by mankind to save the world from climate change by spraying a chemical designed to cool the planet. But the plan has disastrous effects, causing a global ice age which kills almost all of humanity. Mankind’s last survivors board a train owned by a man named Wilford, who has constructed a continuous track which spans the entire globe. The train has to keep moving, taking a year to complete each circuit, to produce energy enough to sustain the lives of the survivor’s on board.

The train is divided into strictly enforced class zones. The poorest people, referred to as “freeloaders”, are kept locked away in the tail section, and forced to live in a dark, dirty, over-crowded environment, with only “protein bars” to eat, the ingredients of which are a mystery.


The upper classes are allowed to live in luxurious cars in the front section of the train, where there is plenty of space and natural light, as well as quality food and a classroom for the children. The front has a spa car, a garden car, a dance club car, and even an aquarium. And, most importantly, the front section employs a large security force to maintain control over the passengers in the tail. Order is imposed with a brutal disciplinary system.


While there is obviously a certain element of fantasy involved, and a certain suspension of disbelief required to buy into the scenario of the last humans trying to survive on a train during an ice age, what’s important to keep in mind is that Snowpiercer is clearly meant to be a metaphor. “The train is the world,” the film makes clear; a microcosm of civilization under the system of capitalist-imperialism. Those who could afford it were granted access to the front section, and those who couldn’t were forced to the back, where they were then oppressed and exploited.

There is no doubt that Snowpiercer is a highly entertaining film. It’s well paced, exciting, and an ensemble cast of major actors provide a certain gravitas to the material. Three Academy award winners, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, and Tilda Swinton, have supporting roles on a cast which also includes Hollywood stars Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, and John Hurt. Song Kang Ho and Ko Asung also turn in strong performances, both of whom were in Bong’s 2006 Korean film The Host. Snowpiercer also has a definite visual style that is both aesthetically pleasing and keeps the audience engaged.


But while Snowpiercer is technically sound and entertaining on a surface level, what’s really important about this film is the way it depicts a genuine revolution of the people to overthrow an unjust class system. No fictional film could ever be a replacement for all the study required to fully understand this issue on a scientific level, but that being said, Snowpiercer’s understanding of the terms involved in people’s revolution is at an extremely high level, and the film illuminates several very important points.

Snowpiercer accurately depicts the way the ruling class systematically oppresses and exploits the lower classes for its own benefit. The poor people in the back of the train aren’t only prisoners, their labor is often exploited for the benefit of people in the front, as well as for performing functions vital to the train’s continued operation. Even children are not spared this, and one man is forced to spend years in a single room making the protein bars for the rest of the passengers in the tail. Without this forced labor, the train would not be able to operate, and the people in the front section would not be able to enjoy their lives in comfort and luxury.

The film also shows how the ruling class perpetuates the false idea that the class hierarchy is somehow the “natural order” of things, and that the passengers’ positions on the train were “preordained.” In real life, the elite also use this line to justify their exploitation of the masses, and to make people think that the only way to improve their circumstances is to play by the rules they set up. The elite “earned” their place at the top, they say, and those at the bottom of society “deserve” to live in poverty. This is of course completely false, but it’s an ideology that they infect society with in order to keep things running in a way that maintains their way of life.


Snowpiercer also gets many specific details of people’s revolution correct. First, there must be clear leadership to organize and prepare the masses for revolution. This is a point that is currently very controversial among those on the radical left, as there are many who believe revolution must be “leaderless.” But a people’s uprising without leadership is doomed to failure, and those who argue for a leaderless revolution are in essence ensuring that the current order will never be overthrown. The people in the tail section are reluctantly led by Curtis (Evans). He doesn’t want to lead, he’d rather Gilliam (Hurt) have that responsibility, but he is the unanimous choice of the people to lead them.

Part of why leadership is so important to a revolution’s success is so it can be determined when conditions are right for the uprising to begin. It has to be carefully planned and coordinated, and therefore can’t be done haphazardly. Throughout the opening minutes of the film people ask Curtis, “Is it time?” “Not yet. Soon,” he always replies. Curtis is forming a plan of action, gathering resources, organizing the people, and waiting for the right moment to make the big move. Even when a great injustice is being done to one of the tail section passengers as a public form of punishment, Curtis still makes sure the uprising doesn’t begin prematurely. “Are we just going to sit here and let this happen?” Edgar asks Curtis. While it’s difficult and painful to stand by and watch the unjust punishment be done, Curtis knows it’s not the right moment, and he keeps the larger goal of taking control of the engine in mind.

And Curtis knows that when the time is right, you can’t hesitate. When the moment comes, you’ve got to go for it all the way with steadfast commitment, even at the risk of your own life and the lives of those you’re fighting with. The scene in Snowpiercer when the uprising begins is brilliantly executed on screen, as everyone in the tail section works together to fight past the guards and jam the doors open, including women. Snowpiercer shows women fighting right alongside men as equals. Octavia Spencer might not be a typical action star, but her performance as a warrior is inspiring and illuminating. This is among the many things the film gets right, along with the general resourcefulness required of the masses required to succeed.

Because, of course, no matter how well your revolution is planned, things will go wrong, and unforeseen obstacles will present themselves, especially as the ruling order becomes more desperate to put down the revolt, further underscoring the importance of leadership to intelligently utilize the available resources in ways a leaderless revolution never could. There is one such moment where the lights are turned off and Curtis calls back to the rear to have torches made from recently discovered matches.


There is also a pivotal moment in the battle where one of Curtis’ friends is being held hostage behind him by an enemy soldier. It’s clear that he will be killed if Curtis doesn’t turn around and stop fighting. But ahead of him is a valuable target from the front section the resistance needs to capture in order to be successful. Conventional wisdom is to cut your losses, give up, save your friend, and live to fight another day if you’re lucky. But Curtis knows that if the revolution is to be successful, he has to go forward and achieve the objective at hand, even if it costs his friend’s life. You can’t give away the entire revolution to save one person, and this is something that Snowpiercer gets exactly right in a very bold way.

And finally, Bong realized something of critical importance. He incorporated into Snowpiercer the idea that it’s not enough to rise up and simply replace the existing order while maintaining the established structure of society. Curtis’ plan was essentially, “When we take the engine, we control the world.” He says, “It will be different when we get there [to the front].” But as well intentioned as this plan is, that ideology isn’t enough. There is no point in attempting a revolution if your only goal is to change out the leadership, maintaining the basic conditions that oppress the masses. The goal must be to completely smash the unjust system, and then build an entirely new system from the ground up, fundamentally changing the terms of human social relations.


The revolution Curtis led, as just and righteous as it was, didn’t go far enough on an ideological level, and was too limited in scope. But Bong, to his credit, developed another character who understood how Curtis’ plan, as bold and well executed as it was, was ultimately short-sighted. Namgoong Minsoo (Song) realized that they would never be free as long as they remained trapped on the train and argued an even more radical line than Curtis: they have to get outside and stop the train entirely. It’s the system that’s fundamentally wrong, after all, not just Wilford’s control over that system. If Curtis simply replaced Wilford, the train keeps going, and the only changes would be minor reforms while the system remains in place. This is not good enough, and so Minsoo takes radical action to destroy the system once and for all. The future of humanity must be outside the train, because even though it might have seemed like it to the trapped passengers, the train isn’t actually the world, and therefore truly revolutionary thinking must go beyond its boundaries.

The science of revolution is very complex, and it’s quite remarkable that Snowpiercer demonstrated a well-developed understanding of these issues throughout the film. Like Avatar before it, Snowpiercer not only shows a people’s war in a positive light, but it shows that struggle being ultimately successful, to one degree or another, and it deserves great praise for this. Given what’s at stake, and given the odds against progressive films in the current reactionary climate, Snowpiercer has achieved something truly remarkable. It should be noted that Harvey Weinstein, who owns the US rights to the film, requested that 20 minutes be cut from the film, and Bong refused to comply. The American distribution suffered as a result, but the film remained intact and its message uncompromised.

Snowpiercer was able to distill several important lessons about revolution down to their essence, and then portray them within the context of a highly entertaining, commercial film, which is no small feat. Given the state of the world we live in, a world where the ruling class is enabled through a system of exploitation to brutally oppress others for their own benefit, a world where the atrocities currently being carried out in Gaza are not only possible but common, a film like Snowpiercer is a much needed breath of fresh air. Humanity needs revolution, nothing less, and Snowpiercer reflects that urgency in a highly developed way.

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