Snowpiercer’s Underclass

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a visually impressive and thought-provoking film. While many of the thoughts that it provokes are of plot holes, political themes are evident throughout. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes,

Snowpiercer,” the dystopian adaptation of a French graphic novel about the residents of a train that houses the last people alive on earth, has been tagged as a liberal movie by many critics and commentators. To a certain extent, the concerns of the movie align with the progressive-conservative alignment at the moment. The movie about a savage struggle between a small group of hyper-privileged people who live at the front of the train and a large number of desperately poor ones, lead by a young rebel named Curtis (Chris Evans), who live at the back. But while Bong Joon-ho’s movie is certainly political, in that it is concerned with policy decisions and their outcomes as well as power and bureaucracy, I am not sure that it is in any way straightforwardly progressive. Rather, it draws ideas from many traditions and current controversies. If there is a real enemy here, it is the mindless worship of a preexisting order.

Symbolically, the film’s principal action revolves on a revolution against the class system and its machinery of oppression. It makes a point along the lines of the Matrix Reloaded (as pointed out in Grantland) that some revolutionary energy can actually be stabilizing or at least used for the purpose of maintaining overall stability. In the film, it’s a way to kill of individuals so that the train isn’t overcrowded while maintaining everyone’s sense of purpose–both before the revolution, during, and afterwards. Without such events, the choice would be–one supposes–killing without explanation, overcrowding, or the rear of the train (that is the bottom of society) being so frustrated with their station that they at a moment’s notice move against the order of the train.

One issue–again, among many–here is that the people in the back of the train don’t seem to provide much to the overall operation of the train. This is the opposite of the real world situation where the hard physical labor of the bottom rungs of society allow for the wealth accumulation of those at the top–or, rather, provide the labor to service those at the top of the societal hierarchy. They harvest the crops, transport them to market, cook and serve them, clean the toilets, and operate the sanitation facilities. For all kinds of goods, they are the labor. They are the masseuse, the waiter, the barista, the food truck operator, the dry cleaner, and the caterer.

In that sense, despite the revolution, the film’s imagery is something like a conservative would conjure: the people in the back of the train aren’t producing anything of value and are “moochers” surviving because of the benevolence of the conductor and others of the train’s hierarchy.

Why not have a factory car just ahead of the tail? With those passengers producing goods of value, then they actually would be critical to the operation of the train rather than a drain to it. Further, it would heighten contradictions as the factory workers would be producing goods that they never use themselves. In the end, it seems like a lost opportunity. The film provokes some thoughts but could have resonated more outside of the theater if a bit more care was taken to have its world resemble our own. If it’s goal was to critique not simply an abstract “mindless worship of a preexisting order” but the mindless worship of our world’s governing order, then the oppression of workers at the bottom of that order needs to be shown.

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