After the movie sets its context (the main characters are passenger-have-nots on a train that preserves them from an ice age outside it), we are introduced to Tilda Swinton’s brilliantly played Mason, who immediately points to the audience, through the movie screen, as first class passengers. Mason has her back turned to us during this time. She is speaking on our behalf. She is saying what the director is telling us we’re saying to the have-nots. She tells the revolutionaries that they are the shoe, worn on the foot of the train and society. The audience starts the movie being on the defensive, without even having a chance to root for the assumed protagonists just yet, knowing we’re complicit to this mistreatment. If there was any doubt by the audience on whether or not we’re actually not on the side of supporting the revolution, the start of the revolution puts it to rest. The first action the revolutionaries perform to ensure that they can start taking control of the train is to jam a long, cylindrical barrel between two doors that keep them isolated from the rest of the train and that are meant to stay shut. Forceful imagery like this can arguably be used to illustrate frustration, or even release; but I feel like in this case, juxtaposed with the opening introduction of the audience above, we’re supposed to abhor this imagery. We’re supposed to feel like the revolutionaries are bad people, even in their sub-textual motivations since revolutions are often violent assaults on our sensibilities of a calm, collected and civil society.
As the protagonists travel up the length of the train, within three cart-lengths, they blackmail a drug-addict into joining them for their mission while simultaneously threatening his life, they do not object to fueling a teenager’s drug addiction to further their goals, infighting among them starts over a single cigarette and they turn their back on a brain-washed friend. We’re not watching a cathartic release of a justified reaction. We’re watching outlaws and pillagers. And this is where the movie thematically provides us with its strongest argument against revolutionaries. The fuel and spirit of revolutions are born from people willing to break the law, bend the rules and rise above their superiors to achieve their goals. We’re meant to feel alienated by the continued direction the protagonists take, even though thanks to the movie’s setting it is simply forward, because mechanically the characters are fueled by anger, but more importantly thematically, we are the first class. We don’t live in a world where eating children is a reality (as we later find out was Chris Evans’s lead character Curtis’s guiltiest memory). We will never experience the depths that are necessary for us to cross the line and revolt. But the movie keeps asking us whether we need to out of moral compulsion. This directly mirrors the more recent media-reaction to revolutions within the past 5 years, which left many people in the middle-east wondering why Western media had been overlooking their causes and then objectively misinterpreting their motivations once their uprisings started. In many cases, we’re blinded to the privilege we’re afforded, and these misunderstandings travel all the way up to the highest levels of the countries we live in leaving us with a very opaque picture of how we’re supposed to help, or even if.
In the next cart, Curtis valiantly guides his fellow revolutionaries into setting fire to an ambush cart filled with axe and gun wielding soldiers to further their progress. Curtis valiantly guides his fellow revolutionaries into murdering a hundred people who were just following orders. Orders that he grew tired listening to the likes of. Curtis feels no empathy for his fellow equal. We’re directly led to conclude that his motivation doesn’t include empathy for someone in as difficult a situation as he is in. Curtis’s motivation is entirely personal. He’s the man who rallies everyone he knows into a suicide mission to clear his mind and conscience, and to fulfill his misguided notions of freedom: a freedom only for himself. This isn’t only exclusive to Curtis. John Hurt’s Gilliam, Curtis’s mentor, we later find out is motivated by promoting the survival of the luckiest and orchestrated the massacre of his cart-mates multiple times in order to maintain the ecosystem balance of the train. Jamie Bell’s Edgar, we’re in passing led to believe is only a co-revolutionary. He would never instigate a revolt on his own, only in support of Curtis and Gilliam. And he has no decisions or motivations of his own to make. He only moves and lives to copy others. The final main characters of our revolution are Kang-ho Song’s Namgoong and Ah-sung Ko’s Yona. These are the aforementioned drug-addicts who we later find out are only trying to blow up the train. The movie makes it abundantly clear that the revolutionaries only coincidentally had aligning motivations to start the revolution, but it is not one born out of righteous anger. This sits at the core of the movie’s anti-revolutionary message. In every case in recent history, revolutions in any part of the world only served to overpower a bad ruling candidate for a worse one, because people of conflicting motivations, goals and methods put them there. In a society where democratic processes fail or are not present, expecting a power struggle resolved by the most violent to yield a net good will always fail.
Juxtaposed on this scene is the surrealism of a new year celebration between and among the mercenaries with their axes and guns and our protagonists with their crowbars and metal sheets. We’re told that this is the way it is. The hope the new year brings, the hope new starts bring with them is lost among the violence, anger, and class-war. The torrent of violent people we see in front of us is not the exception, but the rule. They just happen to have their crowbars out this year. And with the fire the revolution has started (quite literally), what we’re led to believe is the evil overbearing Mason joined forces with our protagonists to aid them in their quest to the front of the train to take control of it. As she does this, she takes out her dentures, baring the fact that the antagonists don’t really have any teeth. They can’t bite. They are trapped within the system, too. Their only failing is that their motivations have been clearer for a longer amount of time. Our only fault is that we maintained the status quo, not that we hurt anyone.
But the help our protagonists receive from Mason is useless. The poorer class finally has access to clean water, gardens, an aquarium that serves sushi, and a school. If dissatisfaction with living in abject poverty were the cause of the revolution, they’d have hit the jackpot here. But our passengers are still on a set track to nothingness, and the breadcrumbs they’ve achieved here already show their sustainability issues. The revolution apparently achieved what it wanted, but not what it, and more importantly its sub-textual motivations, needed. We’re shown soil in the garden, we’re showing the protagonists interacting with it and reminiscing walking on it outside the train, we’re shown the protagonists being given basic human expectation as a miracle. And yet we’re reminded that worms belong in the same soil, and are expected to live and survive underground simultaneously. Our protagonists were denied their unalienable right to be human beings, and even though it is justified, their anger and realization that they can change their situation for the better overrode their better judgment to not cause any more damage.
Soon, though, just like real world systems do when they appear to work after failed promises, failed deliveries and a collapse to class-warfare, the seemingly pro-protagonist Mason leads the party into a gunfight they’re not prepared for. Even though she’d sold out the system and become its enemy, she was not yet a friend to the revolution. She was their enemy’s enemy, but she was not their friend. Similar to all of our protagonists, she piggy-backed the revolution with her own motivations in mind. She just had an exit plan in place a lot earlier than anyone expected. The exit plan involved a pregnant teacher opening fire on our protagonists in a daring act of self-sacrifice. This surrealism of the upper class sacrificing both itself and a future generation in a final cry of apathy and resentment for metaphoric worms mirrors what happens in real world revolutions, where both sides of the battle come up with reasons to hate one another and oppose each other.
After a barrage of fire-fights against a mercenary that take our protagonists through a swimming room, a spa, a sauna cart, a night-club cart, and a drug cart, our protagonists finally reach the front of the train in a pyrrhic victory that left only three of them alive. They’re faced with a choice here once Namgoong reveals that he intends to blow up the side of the train to give them a way out. Curtis is opposed to this plan. He has made it this far to meet Ed Harris’s Wilford, the man who the entire upper class seems to worship for his invention and maintenance of the train and its engine. He wants to meet the man who was a saviour to everybody but himself, and he wants Namgoong to open the door to Wilford’s cart. Anti-climactically, the choice is made for Curtis and Wilford invites him into his private cart to talk to him. We find out that the man at the top of the train was not the problem. He himself lives without purposes, tortured to see his creation fall to its limits and capacity every few years. We find out Gilliam had enabled the revolution in accordance with a plan he and Wilford hatched to curb the population. We learn that the engine that represents eternity was nothing more than an ending itself. It was nothing more than the limitation our revolutionaries had been fighting against the entire time, and that the distractions of drugs, sushi and fruit were symptomatic of a system falling to its trappings and running around in a circle, instead of actually moving forward.
Curtis has to deal with a moment of immense cognitive dissonance, realizing that the revolution was ultimately meaningless. He is given a choice by Wilford to succeed him in leading the train. The revolution’s ultimate victory dangles in front of our primary protagonist. The uprising has won. And it has won nothing. Because nothing can change. The resources are just as limited, the train that excited the imaginations of our revolutionaries was nothing more than a series of distracting sights, and the life afforded to the winning side by the victory was just as hollow and meaningless – a mere property of life on a predetermined track, not of life under the rule of a careless, cruel upper class.
There was never an evil upper class. Our protagonists never saw through the truth of their system. They thought they did in that they thought the upper class’s infatuation with worshipping the eternal properties of the engine that supported their life-style was misguided. But in their folly, our revolutionaries also failed to see that they themselves worshipped a different form of eternity. The eternity of existence itself. Curtis never found the solution to the problems that Wilford himself dealt with every day. In fact, he failed to even see it. He didn’t try to improve his situation, he tried to prolong it unwittingly. He treated himself as part of the machine in the very path he chose to try and transcend it. With his last few actions alive, Curtis gives up the three things he never thought he’d give up in his final moments thanks to his realization: his sense of revolution, upon realizing its meaninglessness, his arm, in order to pull a child out of manual labour in a part of the engine (and symbolically help others out of the system he realized he was a captive of), and his life, upon realizing that there was no redemption for anybody involved. Namgoong’s explosives take the lives of almost everybody. Two survivors, make it through the door Namgoong originally intended to blow up.
Humanity finally transcended their trappings. It just had to be willing to blow up the entire system for it. And that is where the true spirit of revolution lives, as a revolution of the system, not of the people. People are messy. The protagonists that movies have taught us to root for murdered, pillaged, and switched alliances (in Gilliam’s case) to prolong their demise. The first class that movies have taught us to loathe also murdered, pillaged and switched alliances (in Mason’s case). All the actions were leading to a zero sum game. When a revolution happens to do to the limits of a system being reached, it’s time to go an explosion to solve the problem. It’s time to realize that people all have the same prejudices and limitations, and that we impose them on the systems we occupy. Some times we fail to see that the systems we occupy parallel the experiences we have within them, for example our protagonists being hell-bent on moving up the train, while the train itself, their world, was hell-bent on breaking through icy mountains to keep going, and that the more we make the systems our reality, the fewer solutions we leave ourselves with.
Hidden among the revolutionaries were numerous motivations, some by people who wanted to see the revolution rise and fail like Gilliam, some who wanted to prolong their own survival, like Mason, people without a cause, like Edgar, and people who wanted to justify their existence and transgressions to themselves, like Curtis. Not so hidden among the revolutionaries was the fact that their greed for power and control blinded them to the true solutions that presented themselves. And more importantly, with the parallels constantly drawn between the revolutionaries and ourselves as the audience, we too are told that we’re blind to the solutions that exist within our current systems to our current problems. We’re not asked to run with a torch into battle like Curtis encourages his peers to do. We’re encouraged to leave the train entirely. We’re encouraged to use our privilege, to avoid distractions, to accept our humanity and stop courting eternity. We’re told that a new regime is more of the same as long as it exists within the world that gave rise to the old. We’re told to stop moving forward, and start making our own tracks. This isn’t for our sake, or for the sake of those less privileged than us. It’s literally for the sake of the entire human race as we know it that we sidestep our biggest issues for novel solutions.
The protagonists failed at every step of the way, starting with the violent assault imagery, their disregard for each other and their peers, their acceptance of revolution as the solution, their readiness to otherize the enemy, their failing to find any solutions but infinite ability to pose questions, and their inability to redeem themselves once they achieved everything they wanted. I’ve watched Snowpiercer, and it told me the story of Curtis, a young man who never had a chance or a choice. But it reminded me that I do, and for his sake I continue to. And that is where true novelty is, where the message of the movie lies. It abhors revolutions, it exposes them for the broken social glitches they are, and it invites us to start a revolution starting with our concept of revolutions.