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Film Review: Snowpiercer

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

The most compelling climate-change related apocalypse on the big screen

By: Alberto Sclaverano

Snowpiercer is a 2013 science fiction film made by Bong Joon-ho, one of the most known and admired South Korean directors of his generation, and the winner of the Academy Award for best picture and best director for Parasite (2019). Based on a French graphic novel, co-produced between Hollywood and South Korea, the film has an assembled cast that combined western stars and South Korean actors. It is not directly a film about climate change, just like it is not primarily about class struggle and economic inequality (which will be the main themes of Parasite), but skillfully hidden below the surface of an action thriller it contains all these messages and many others.

In the movie, Earth has become the center of a new Ice Age, triggered by a failed attempt to stop global warming with experiments at the stratosphere level. The survivors live on a big train, always moving, and are harshly segregated based on class and census. Life on the train seems to reflect some form of XIX century social order, something that we can read on in Charles Dickens’s novels or Karl Marx’s economic and philosophical texts. Reach people and elites live a beautiful life in the best sections of the train, in which they have access to all the commodities, while the other part of the society is relegated to hell-like compartments which resemble factories’ workers’ compounds of the Victorian Age. And of course, this rigid social order is kept with the use of violence and armed forces who obey the elite. Inevitably the poorest will revolt and seek their revolution, but Bong Joon-ho’s world is way more complex than we think as it has a lot of hidden secrets. Snowpiercer, also the name of the train, can be read on several levels. It is an allegory of the conflict between the rich and the poor. The level of inequality in today’s society has reached a level never seen before in history, and even if a lot of people live better than fifty years ago, the wealth is more and more concentrated in the hands of a few people.

But the movie is also an exaggerated take on what could happen if we ignore the climate crisis. In the movie, humanity failed to tackle climate change, needed to act too drastically when it was too late, and ended to regress to an almost feudal system, even if they live on a super-advanced and high-speed train. But remember, this is not a classical catastrophic American blockbuster. Instead, it is a movie by the genius director of Parasite, The Host (2006, another movie that deals, at least partially, with the environmental crisis and its dangerous consequence, expressed there in the form of a dark monster movie)and the serial killer drama Memories of Murder (2003). It contains a lot of action and adrenaline set pieces, but at its heart, it can be very bleak and even disturbing. It shows us the humankind at its worst, and also at its most cynical. It is a very moral tale, like all the director’s films, and in the end, some characters’ choices will be very moving for the spectators. Snowpiercer is designed to entertain the public, but also to let us think about a great variety of serious things, from increasing economic divide to the use of violence and lies to control and establish a social order.

Snowpiercer asks every person who watches it to think about what we would have done if we were on the titular train. In this small, post-apocalyptic world elements like food and drugs are more important than gold and someone can kill for them. I recommend the movie not for a specific theme, but due to the fact it covers a great number of them under the umbrella of a thriller ride. The end, which I won’t spoil, seems to leave space for hope. Until, of course, the next bad idea made by humans opens the pandora’s box of environmental and socio-economic catastrophe once again…


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