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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

spoiler alert: about the ending of Snowpiercer

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[major spoilers for Snowpiercer; spoiler-free review here]

I confess to being a little mystified when I hear that some people are upset by how Snowpiercer ends. Because while what happens in the last ten minutes or so of the film may not constitute a traditional happy ending, it is the only possible — the only honest and authentic — “happy ending” for the story as it has been set up. Anything else than what we get would render the story a tragedy on every level.

Stories of rebellions against evil overlords and unfair systems are rife in our culture. From the story of Jesus to Star Wars, we are bombarded with men — it’s almost always men — who are rankled by the injustice they see around them and often suffer under, and who are moved to attempt to upend it; sometimes the job of righting wrongs is forced upon them, but they eventually accept this job as a thing that Must Be Done. It’s not a coincidence that many of these tales of rebellion are structured around how the protagonist is changed by his fight, and how even if he is successful and sees evil overthrown and a new world begun, he knows he will never quite fit into it. What it takes to destroy the evil changes him too much. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins (just two accessible examples): they both almost succumb to the seductive darkness they are fighting, and it leaves them damaged in ways that even those who love them and fought alongside them can’t quite appreciate.

In Snowpiercer, we have Curtis, played by Chris Evans. He has been living for 17 years in conditions of squalor at the back of the postapocalyptic ark train while those in the front of the train are enjoying the end of the world in luxury. He has been formulating a plan to get a small band of his fellow passengers up to the front, to the Engine, to take control and make life for everyone a lot fairer and more equitable. And he gets there! He gets all the way to the Engine, where he meets Wilford, played by Ed Harris, the designer of the train and its overlord, who is perfectly happy for Curtis to take over from him. And so Wilford begins to explain to Curtis just what it takes to keep the train running.

This is when it becomes clear that Snowpiercer is never going to have its Death Star blowing up, or its Ring thrown into Mount Doom, at least not in the same unequivocally satisfying way that those other stories got those moments. Because here, the train is the Death Star; the train is the Ring. The train itself is the evil that must be destroyed… as a representation both literal and metaphoric of how power becomes its own self-perpetuating force.

Curtis’s attempted seduction to the Dark Side begins long before he ever meets Wilford; it begins long before the film opens. For Curtis, we learn, has been receiving secret messages from the front of the train for a long time: inducements to rebel, suggestions that he will receive help along the way. And then he learns that Wilford himself had been sending these messages! (If it hadn’t been Curtis intercepting them, it would have been someone — there’s always someone who’s disaffected and thinks he can do things better.) The train is a carefully balanced ecosystem not only of air and water and food and similar resources but of people… and part of keeping the rabble in the back of the train in check is giving them hope and letting them think they have a chance of a better life. In this world, fear and chaos are carefully regulated distractions, kept in check by hope… and vice versa. The society of the train requires, explains Wilford, “a proper balance of anxiety and fear, chaos and horror, and if we don’t have that, we have to invent it.”

(If this sounds awfully familiar, stay tuned.)

Here’s the real kick in the pants for Curtis: If he were to take over from Wilford, he would have to continue to use Wilford’s methods for keeping the balance just right in their precarious little society. The risks of failing are too great: the fate of humanity is at stake, and the world outside is uninhabitable. (Or so everyone has been told. By Wilford. Who may or may not know otherwise. But this is what Curtis believes to be the truth.) The train must keep moving, for its own motion is what generates the power that makes life possible; even the squalor at the rear of the train is preferable to freezing to death outside.

But there’s more than just planned “revolutions” and orderly chaos. The train itself, as a machine, also needs caring for, and with so many physical things — such as cigarettes and bullets — going or gone extinct, there is no way to manufacture the replacement parts the Engine requires. So, in a horrific Dickensian way, small children are being used as replacement parts: Wilford has them taken from the back of the train and sets them in among the works to do the little jobs of the broken bits that are now missing. Wilford makes it plain that without enslaving little children, the train stops and they all die.

If this sounds like a terrifying metaphor for the real world, well, it is. This is a place where the poor are literally cogs in a machine designed to maintain decadent luxury for a tiny minority, where the hope among those abused poor that someday they will see a better life for themselves within that system is what prevents them from completely throwing over that system. (Think about how poor white people are encouraged to vote against their own interests and blame some nebulous Other — immigrants; racial minorities — for keeping them down, rather than placing blame where it belongs, on the oligarchs and those who directly serve them.)

So Curtis learns that if he were to take over from Wilford, he would have no choice but to keep using small children to run the Engine. This is the final horror for him. This is the moment when he realizes that this unfair system cannot be fixed, or taken over for the better: it must be smashed. Curtis is already halfway to the Dark Side — that happened when he killed Wilford’s representative, Mason, played by Tilda Swinton. This is where he comes back.

He destroys the Engine.

The other option — Curtis takes over, and the rebel becomes the establishment — is akin to Luke joining Vader to rule the galaxy as father and son, or Frodo putting the Ring on forever. It would be a tragedy for Curtis… but also for the people on the train. Even the rich ones. Because it’s only after the train is destroyed that the people on the train discover that at least some things they’ve been told about the world outside are not true. There is life outside: only polar bears that they can see so far, but still, it’s something, and those bears show up instantly. (What are the odds that the train crashed at the only spot on the planet supporting life now? Slim.) And it suddenly becomes impossible to believe that there aren’t other pockets of human survivors somewhere, too.

Snowpiercer’s ending is powerfully satisfying in one important sense: it’s extremely radical in a way that has deep resonance for our real world. It asks us to consider whether a society that requires abuse, slavery, and entrenched inequality and injustice is worth saving. Is it even possible to reform a society that is built from the ground up on such horrors, or must it be destroyed and reconstituted in an entirely new way? Should we believe those who say there isn’t another way to do things?


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