The end of the world won’t be prophesied by the feverish nightmares of the Book of Revelations, but instead by the apocalyptic fantasias of Hollywood.
Movie directors just can’t seem to get enough of crafting stylish dystopias. Doomsday is its own genre by now and, as New Yorker film critic David Denby quips: “In movies, the death of a single person is still a tragedy; the death of the human race is entertainment.” Or, at least, a convenient backdrop. A screenwriter or director rubs out humanity and voilà — a perfect blank slate for crafting the kind of action-packed, outsized morality tales that can fill a theater.
The apocalypse used to arrive in a couple of predictable forms — nuclear war, plagues, zombies. In the last decade or so, a new scourge has appeared: planetary environmental devastation, usually in the guise global climate change. The first of this dystopian sub-genre was the soporific Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld, a kind of Mad Max on the high seas. The next big climate change feature didn’t appear for close to a decade later, when Roland Emmerich unveiled The Day After Tomorrow, his 2004 blockbuster about the heroics of a climatologist played by Dennis Quaid. While The Day After Tomorrow was burdened by a slew of predictable action scenes (a wolf-pack chase, a couple of literal iceberg cliffhangers), it distinguished itself by its effort to sketch some science (however exaggerated) and its edge of irony. Climate change, we were told, would destroy civilization, not in a blast of heat, but with the hammer of a blizzard.
Since then, Hollywood’s eco-apocalypses have come hard and fast. Pixar’s Wall-E was all about an adorable robot tasked with cleaning up a trashed Earth. The Hunger Games takes place in an austerity landscape created by some vague environmental dislocation that occurred in the near-past. In last year’s Elysium, Matt Damon battles to get himself off an Earth that’s become a dusty wasteland. And don’t forget Avatar. The ugly humans were hell bent on razing the wonders of the forest-moon Pandora because they had already ruined our home planet.
You can now add to the list Snowpiercer, the hotly talented Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s fable about environmental hubris and social injustice. Snowpiercer is a potent — if overwrought — combination of magical realism and political commentary all wrapped up with the kind of harrowing battle scenes and shoot-em-ups that are expected in a summer release. The movie, loosely based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, is the smartest bit of cli-fi I’ve come across since reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Here’s the setup (and, warning, there are spoilers to come): A failed attempt to counteract climate change has left Earth in deep freeze, our cities cloaked with ice and the landscape a vast, snowy wasteland frigid enough to turn a man’s arm into a popsicle. A tiny remnant of humanity has managed to survive by living on a train that circles the planet in a vast loop. This “Rattling Ark” makes one circumnavigation per year, and is now on its seventeenth lap.
In the back of the train a wretched underclass ekes out a miserable existence eating rationed protein cubes made from churned up insects (they look like auburn-colored Jell-O). When the huddled masses get out of line, jack-booted thugs beat them down and they’re forced to listen to a lecture in Social Darwinism by the sinisterly pedantic Mason, deliciously played by Tilda Swinton in her best evildoer performance yet. (And given Swinton’s filmography of villains, that’s saying a lot; BuzzFeed recommends seeing the movie just to catch Swinton’s performance.) In the front of the train, meanwhile, a select group of swells dine on sushi, lounge in a wondrous greenhouse, enjoy spa treatments, and party their asses off in a rave car. It may the end of the world as we know it, but those in first class feel just fine.
The caboose proletariat, naturally, decide to stage a revolt. The rebels are led by the heroic Curtis (Chris Evans) and a crew of compatriots including the righteously outraged Tanya (played by the always-amazing Octavia Spencer), a virtuous orphan named Edgar (Jamie Bell), the wise-old seer Gilliam (John Hurt), and a pair of junkie hackers, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and Yona (Go Ah-sung). An Odyssean adventure ensues as the rebels move forward through the train cars, encountering one trial after another: A phalanx of ax-wielding, night-vision goggle equipped thugs, a machine gun touting school teacher (the perfectly cast Allison Pill), and a pair of uber-henchmen. The goal is to seize the front car, where the dictator-inventor-savior Wilford oversees the perpetual motion engine that keeps the whole thing running.
Suffice to say, this is not a movie for the literal-minded; if you have a difficult time suspending disbelief, Snowpiercer is going to be hard to swallow. Bong goes far beyond sci-fi into the realm of straight-up allegory. Everything here is a symbol, and the film as a whole is a fantasia, an extended dream sequence (make that nightmare sequence) designed to make some grand points about human nature and humans’ perverted relationship to nature. Subtlety is not Bong’s strong suit, and the symbols come across with all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer. Children turned into moving parts are the only thing that keep the vast machine running! Children turned into moving parts are the only thing that keep the vast machine running! Get it? Um, yes, we do — or at least we should.
Predictably, conservative commentators (see here and here) have knocked the film for its “overripe metaphors.” They mistake cause and effect. The persistence of underclass revolts in eco-dystopia films (again, see Elysium, Avatar, The Hunger Games) isn’t a case of Hollywood projecting its progressive agenda onto moviegoers so much as it’s an example of Hollywood reflecting widespread sentiments. These movies are popular for a reason. At some level, many people today understand that a brutal ecological reckoning is headed our way, and that the One-Percenters (who can insulate themselves from the troubles) carry a disproportionate amount of the blame for our situation.
Bong drives the point home in a climax scene in which we finally see the engineer-tyrant Wilford, played with perfect insouciance by a louche Ed Harris. We’re treated to the kind of Dostoyevskian Grand Inquisitor monologue that’s been a staple of sci-fi parables since Brave New World. Social relations, Wilford declares, are governed by “pre-ordained positions.” Every person has their place. And if this “eternal order” is disrupted, then humanity “will devour itself.”
On its face, the lecture is cynical and self-serving apologia for the train’s brutal caste system. I wonder, though, if perhaps there’s something else going on in Wilford’s big speech. Read another way, Wilford’s ideal of human relations — sociopathic though it is — could also serve as a pretty good description of ecology’s dynamic equilibrium. In a functioning ecosystem, every thing does, in fact, have its place. A certain order is at work in a healthy environment. And when that order is thrown out of balance, all hell breaks loose. Humanity is trapped in a giant metal box going in circles because we broke the living engine — the one and only perpetual motion machine — that is Gaia. First we damaged the living engine through climate change, then we completely destroyed it in a doomed effort at repair.
Most reviewers have described Snowpiercer as a climate change apocalypse movie. Actually, what we have here is the very first geo-engineering apocalypse movie. Many viewers (except for chem trail conspiracists) might miss it, but a voiceover at the beginning briskly sketches the scenario: “Protests from environmental groups and a number of developing countries continue … Today 79 countries will begin dispersing CW7 into the upper layers of the atmosphere … CW7 is the answer to global warming … According to scientists, CW7 will bring down global temperatures to manageable levels … A revolutionary solution to mankind’s warming of the planet.” Then we see a squadron of jets spraying a solution into the sky. And the next thing you know, the planet is an ice cube.
It’s this novel setup — more than any of its wonderfully surreal scenes or its provocative metaphors — that makes Snowpiercer truly exceptional. Hollywood to Earthlings: When it comes to atmospheric geo-engineering, consider yourselves warned.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate