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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