SNOWPIERCER’s Liturgy of the Machine
“Eternal order is prescribed by the Sacred Engine. All things flow from the Sacred Engine. . . . So it is.” —Minister Mason (Snowpiercer)
In computer animation, there is a point at which an animated figure looks just human enough that its lingering artificial qualities—perhaps a glassy stare, a plastic smile, or a hand gesture that seems just a bit too smooth—inspire instinctive revulsion in viewers. Something in the brain senses that it is seeing an inhuman thing that is very good at faking humanity: a creepy doll, a cunning yet erratic changeling. The surface elements of a human body are all present, but something is not right. This difficult-to-articulate sense of deep wrongness is known as “the uncanny valley.” Anyone who has seen an offputting computer-generated cartoon or been to a wax museum has probably encountered some of this valley’s indigenous life-forms.
If there’s such a thing as an uncanny valley of spirituality, then not only has South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho discovered it, but his recent film Snowpiercer sets up camp squarely in the center of it. In fact, Bong’s whole aesthetic in the film revolves around sly distortions of familiar genre tropes, which makes him a brilliant, if unconventional, sci-fi storyteller.
In an icy, post-apocalyptic future, Snowpiercer’s titular train houses and protects the tiny remnant of the human race. To the people who were lucky enough to end up at the top of this new dystopian society, the train is literally a technological miracle, which in turn makes its architect, Wilford, a godlike miracle worker. As the train wends its way around a frozen Earth in an unbroken loop, the societal elites proselytize their underlings with their new belief system. The Sacred Engine has saved them. The Sacred Engine maintains order in their new world. “So it is.” A liturgy of the machine.
Fittingly, the application of this liturgy is as cold and inexorable as the machine that powers it. A caste system develops: the farther people are from the deus-machina at the front of the train, the less deserving they are of the train’s bounty. The people in the caboose are the farthest away of all, and they live in squalor, wearing rags and subsisting on rubbery, tar-black protein bars. Any show of discontent or rebellion is brutally suppressed by the people at the front of the train, usually to the accompaniment of a propagandistic lecture from Wilford’s right-hand woman, Mason (Tilda Swinton).
A word about Swinton in this film: she is a delight, giving a performance that’s precisely as unhinged as her fever-pitched surroundings require. Mason is pedantic yet savage, buffoonish yet cold blooded—a fascist parochial-school principal of the apocalypse. It’s not surprising that the protagonists led by Curtis (Chris Evans) revolt against her off-kilter tyranny, just as it’s not surprising when it’s revealed that she commands a brigade of ski-masked hatchet-wielders to prop that tyranny up. Anything seems plausible within Snowpiercer’s reality.
Are these things plausible because they are so outlandish that we can accept any peculiarity as part of the film’s crazy-quilt pattern, or are they plausible because we can detect traces of the real world within that pattern? The genius of Snowpiercer is that both of these statements are true simultaneously. It is one of Bong Joon-ho’s directorial trademarks to thrust the bizarre and the familiar together, forcing them to coexist queasily in the same space. Only Bong could conceive of a deliriously comic scene—in which a pregnant grade-school teacher perkily chirps propaganda songs at her eager pupils—veering into a violent action sequence. The resulting dissonance has an effect similar to that of the uncanny valley. All the elements are here—of a dystopian fable, of a social satire, of an action movie—but they are so strangely warped and melded together that we can’t get comfortable with them.
Bong doesn’t want his audience to get comfortable. Snowpiercer is haunted by the awareness of total human depravity in the hearts of the “good guys” just as much as in the hearts of the villains. The scrappy band of insurgents is full of addicts, killers, and worse—a late-film revelation about Curtis’s past reveals the depths to which even the heroes can sink. If we root for him to succeed in overturning the status quo, it’s mostly because of our instinctive revulsion at the twisted techno-theocracy created and sustained by Wilford and Mason. Action films are supposed to give us heroes we can cheer for, but Snowpiercer‘s central conflict is not between white hats and black hats. Its conflict isn’t even between gray hats and gray hats. The people inside the train wear only their humanity on their brows, and the collective portrait is ugly indeed.
People are people, Bong tells us, and all of them are equally prone to oppression and abuse when they find themselves on top.
What makes Curtis and the rebels so sure that they can fix this society simply by taking control of its primary seat of power? From the beginning, the rebels do not have a clear idea of what they will do once they depose Wilford. They’ll still be stuck inside the same machine, still traveling the same tracks in the same endless loop around the same dead world. Is it possible for a society to be so rotten at its core that it is beyond redemption?
There is a radical anarchist streak running through Bong’s answer to this question. If the society aboard the train is irredeemable, then the only way to break the circle of subjugation and revolt is destruction. Jam the machinery of the system, even if that means “putting your own body upon the gears and upon the wheels.” This answer does not contain an abundance of hope, and depending on how one interprets Snowpiercer’s final sequence, Bong may recognize that. Hopeful or not, though, its moral conviction is obvious. To watch Snowpiercer is to be galvanized by the audacity and inventiveness with which it communicates its convictions.
For the Christian, there is an additional undercurrent of meaning here. Snowpiercer’s drastic conclusion constitutes a sort of uncanny valley in itself; it is a representation of reality that unsettles because it is ever so slightly askew and incomplete. There is yet a third approach to living in a fundamentally corrupted world—not perpetuation, not destruction, but transformation of it. Transformation of our dark world and our darker hearts is the eventuality on which all our hope is built. Our hope is not in a creepy amalgam of authoritarian might, incredible technology, and pseudo-mysticism. Ours is not a liturgy of machines and systems but of a living God. So it is.
Loved Snowpiercer for being such an un-comforting sci-fi film in the same company as some of Gilliam’s films. I appreciate your unwillingness to fault the movie for what other people have faulted it for; being unrealistic. I like Snowpiercer for being what it is, an unconventional film with a lot to think about and a lot to enjoy.
Beautiful and thoughtful article, Kevin. Keep up the great work!
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