by Carl Dyke

Saw an interesting movie last night, “Snowpiercer.” Based on a graphic novel, I gather. The premise is that in response to global warming, the governments of the world leap into action and seed the skies with a chemical meant to bring temperatures down. It does, there’s a catastrophic ice age, and all life on Earth is extinguished. Except for one special train, the work of a visionary inventor, that travels a continuous loop around the world with the few remaining humans, some fish and bugs and whatnot aboard.

The humans are segregated on the train by their conditions of boarding, from first class up front through non-paying refugees in the rear. The plot is driven by the revolt of ‘steerage’, so to speak. There’s a sort of Ayn Randian quality to the basic setup – in the distrust of goverment, of course, but also in that the tail sections in fact contribute very little to the functioning of the train (beyond the odd child of the correct height to tend the innards of the engine) and owe their entire existence to the charity of Wilford, the visionary industrialist and engineer. Consequently, the ethics of sympathy for the poor downtrodden are more Kantian, a la categorical imperative, than Marxist, a la exploitation and alienation. We then go back to Rand to admire the effective gumption of that one leader and his few talented confederates who organize the (incredibly violent) breakout. None of this is articulated with any great care.

What is articulated with great care, notably by Tilda Swinton in a magnificent performance as Wilford’s top henchwoman, is an ideology of sustainability based on rigorous ordering of a closed system. Over and over the rulers explain that the whole can thrive only if each part keeps its place in exactly calibrated balance. It’s a fabulous caricature of vulgar sustainability discourse, and pokes ruthlessly at the fascism that’s never too far away when urgent images of righteous living in relation to existential threat are about.

7 Comments to “Snowpiercer”

  1. “Over and over the rulers explain that the whole can thrive only if each part keeps its place in exactly calibrated balance.”

    Pretty much the usual line for hierarchically organized societies since the invention of agriculture. The critical question is whether status is inherited or achieved. Can the refugees rise in the ranks by demonstrating special skills or outstanding leadership?

    Anyway, the Frozen earth scenario reminds me of a science fiction story, read a long, long time ago, in which alien archeologists land on a frozen Earth on which all life is extinct. They discover a metal canister. Carefully opened, it turns out to be a container for a role of celluloid film on which images are captured. After reconstructing the technology required to see them displayed as intended, they marvel at how peculiarly the now extinct earthlings behaved. Having no Rosetta stone, they remain, however, unable to translate the words that appear at the end of the reel, “A Walt Disney Production.”

  2. Ha! Yes, you’re right about the ubiquity of that old-school steady-state holism. This is definitely the more modern fascist / Randian version though, where an initial excellence, real or self-proclaimed, justifies an enduring order. (Like the Reich, the Engine is asserted to be eternal.) As I said, none of the political or ethical stuff is carefully worked out, in the movie or in the historical fascisms for that matter – it’s all a pastiche. What struck me as more fundamental is that existential threat orientation, generating a control impulse that then pulls in the various ideologies to give it cover.

  3. Who maintains the railway line?!

  4. No one. The eternity in question is pretty explicitly tenuous. There is a dramatic scene of smashing through ice flows – the Engine is built for it but there’s still a lot of careening.

  5. Crikey. Sounds like a short-term solution, tbh.

  6. Indeed. Today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions, I always say.

  7. My daughter and I watched this movie the other night. Our sense was that the passenger manifest included some good set designers, cinematographers, actors, and fight wranglers but no competent screenwriters.

    Our life circumstances have changed, by the way, so you might be hearing from me again one of these days.

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