I scrupulously avoided reading any reviews of Snowpiercer once I became intrigued by the basic premise. Despite this, and not reading anything after seeing it this afternoon, I was aware, in that way we become aware of things through an almost social media osmosis, that it was quickly being heralded as a new film about the 99% and the 1%, about social inequality, and, more importantly, about revolution. In what follows I would like to explore these allegories for at least two reasons. The first, and most basic, is that the film openly invites such readings. Its particular premise, the Earth is frozen after a failed attempt to solve global warming and all of the survivors are left stranded on globe circling train, is so thin in terms of any pretense at credibility, and so packed with allusions and images, I am not sure it is even possible to watch it as "just a movie." Second, and more importantly I am interested in what it means to make or interpret a film as allegory of the present, recognizing of course that the line between making and interpreting can never be rigidly defined. (Spoilers follow)
Initially the film's premise is presented as a kind of freshman essay on dystopia. It turns out that the train was designed by a maligned but gifted engineer, known only as Wilford, who somehow foresaw that the attempt to solve global warming would fail horribly resulting in a new ice age. Already we have a kind of John Galt figure filtered through Fox news. Life on the train is a strict hierarchy with the ruler in the front, next to the sacred engine, followed by the elites in first class, the remainder of humanity is stuck in back, crammed in the tail of the train. This hierarchy is fairly static; occasionally guards from the front come looking for someone possessing a particular skill, a violin player, or, more chillingly a few children of the proper size and height. Other than that the people in the back do not seem to work, or serve much of a purpose. They only reproduce, this is the source of both their value to those who run the train and makes them objects of hatred of those in the front. As is so often the case in American popular culture, or even in the media, inequality is much more easy to imagine and discuss than exploitation. It is easier to imagine a world divided into rich and poor than a world in which the rich live off of the productive activity of the world. Thus, to butcher a phrase that has been quoted all too often, it is easier to imagine some dystopian tyranny than it is to come to grips with actually existing capitalism.
What makes Snowpiercer engaging, however, is precisely how it runs up against these limitations of imagination and representation. First, and to be fair, the film does not entirely present us a world without work. The majority of the people on the train are unemployed and unemployable, doing only the most basic reproductive labor of keeping humanity alive, a kind of surplus population even when humanity only numbers in the hundreds. Overpopulation, surplus, and reserve armies are not natural conditions, a species out of control, but are relative to a given mode of production. On an automated train almost the entire population is surplus, and an arbitrary line separates those unproductively languishing in the cramped read, and those reveling in the hedonistic excess of first class. There are of course a few workers, making protein bars, teaching kids, doing security, and making sushi, but much of the train, rich and poor, live a life without work. The train is thus a predominantly service economy, but overall it is a world in which a small elite governs over a fundamentally expendable population. They are kept alive not because they are exploited, but because they are potentially exploitable, might have something that the train could use. Viewed this way the film's effacement of labor brings it closer to a picture of the present.
It is when we get to the theme of revolution that things get interesting. First, there is a matter of how the film answers the question, why don't people revolt? What keeps the people in line, besides the few guards, is the recognition that as much as the order on the train subjugates them, keeping them living in crammed, dirty, and dark quarters, living off of a meager diet, it is also the condition of survival. If Tilda Swinton's performance has been compared to Margaret Thatcher it is fair to say that the train is the very embodiment of "there is no alternative." There is no life outside the train.
As much as we see a classroom where students are interpellated into the ideology of the train, taught to idolize the train and its conductor, all of this ideological indoctrination is a bit superfluous to the way in which the train itself materializes ideology. If people cannot live outside of the train, or can imagine no life outside of its walls, then there is almost no need to venerate it, or to indoctrinate people to love it. Material necessity supplants ideology when it is impossible to imagine other conditions capable of reproducing existence. It is easy, perhaps too easy, to see the train as an image of contemporary capitalism. The inequality is acknowledged by nearly everyone except for the lucky few, but as long as the world outside of it appears frozen and hostile, a gulag in the waiting, then the train just goes on and on.
The back of the train is dominated by what Althusser would call the Repressive State Apparatus, the masses are kept in line with a gun butt, while the middle, the school, is where you find the Ideological State Apparatus, the children are interpellated in the lessons which treat the train as the condition of survival, and Wilford, its creator, as their savior. Not just a "job creator," but a life creator. Of course these distinctins quickly breakdown in two interesting scenes. We learn that the guns that maintain order in the back are empty, all bullets have been spent repressing past revolutions. The loaded guns are hidden in the school, in the baskets of eggs which symbolize rebirth and renewal as the train makes another round. There is always symbolism, ideology, in every RSA, in every appearance of the cops on the street, and there is always violence, exclusion and guns, in every ISA. Breaking the repetition of the existing order entails being able to spot the imaginary dimension of violent force, and the violence and force existing underneath ideology. It is a matter of recognizing where belief becomes a force and force becomes just an idea. Even shock troops need black hoods (and must occasionally sacrifice a carp).
That the train is the necessary condition of existence, or at least appears to be so, puts any revolution are narrow tracks. The revolutionaries can seize the train, but seizing the train risks all too easily reproducing the same relations. In fact we learn that these revolutions are nothing other than the dynamic actions that keep the order intact. They reduce the population, functioning as a kind of unnatural selection, and they occasionally bring new leaders to the front of the train. Successful revolutionaries are bribed into becoming new leaders, or at least offered the chance. The only solution then is not to seize the train, to claim its engine, but to begin to imagine a life outside of it. The end there are two revolutionaries, two ideas of revolution. One (played by Chris Evans) wants to make it to the engine to seize control; he reads the signs of power and subjection aboard the train, spotting the ideology that sustains violence and the violence underneath ideology. While the other (played by Kang-ho Song) wants to escape the train, and he reads the signs of the changing conditions outside the train, seeing the possibility of life where others see only death. Snowpiercer is very much a film about what people see and cannot see. The visible and the invisible is given not only tactical importance, as in spotting the empty magazine on a rifle or enemies in a the darkened tunnel, but a utopian significance as well. In the end the future belongs to those who can imagine a life outside of the train and can realize it.
This is ultimately what makes Snowpiercer worth viewing, and even timely, it is not that it is particularly imaginative dystopia for our present, but that it stages the dystopia of our current imagination. We are so desperately in need of a vision of life outside of our particular economic and political system; it is clear that the train is going nowhere and we need something more to hope for than becoming a cog in its machinery.