If I were going to sell Snowpiercer to someone, I would probably sum it up like this:
Captain America leads a rebellion against the engineer of a supertrain containing the last remnant of humanity, and during an axe fight he slips on a fish.
The ‘slips on a fish during an axe fight’ part was what sold me when I heard about the movie, so I figured that’d probably attract other people too.
I’ll be discussing spoilers pretty openly, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to, then I’ll just say that it’s good, the world-building’s fun (if implausible), the performances are all wonderful, and Tilda Swinton as an Ayn Rand lookalike is perhaps the most sublime bit of parody I’ve seen in recent memory.
We good? Good.
Now, besides the slipping on a fish bit, I also became interested in this movie after reading this analysis of it as a gnostic allegory. It’s an interesting analysis, and after seeing the movie, I’m on board with what the author’s saying. You do have loads of Christian imagery overlaid on a story about someone upending a created order, from the aforementioned fish (I’m still not entirely sure why the hatchet men dip their axes in the fish’s blood before the fight starts, especially considering they’re on the side of the engineer; you don’t need to anoint yourself with Christ’s blood if you’re working against his purpose, but whatever) to the tail-enders sacrificing limbs to feed everyone in the initial months of the train’s run (it’s kind of twisted, but I really want an audio sample of Chris Evans saying, “I know what babies taste like;” I think it’d be a great way to win any conversation) to the fact that Curtis (our hero) was redeemed by the same self-cannibalism.
Of course, you don’t have to take the whole gnosticism angle if you don’t want to. As an offshoot of Christianity, I think gnostic theology’s flawed in its fixation on escaping the current world, as this breeds an attitude of indifference to physical suffering (I’ve written before that I think gnosticism, while one of the earliest heresies recognized by the Church, has managed to creep back into a lot of contemporary Christian theology by way of an emphasis on eschatology). Snowpiercer tells a story about people suffering in the physical world and being oppressed by other people. The strange pseudo-sanctification that Wilford encourages the people on the train to engage in does reflect a symmetry with the concept of the demiurge, but we have to remember that this is also a story where one person is oppressing other people. That narrative fits a lot of systems that occur in the physical world too. For me, the reveal that the entire rebellion was engineered as a way to weed out the population and pick Wilford’s successor doesn’t resonate as a metaphysical story about the order of the universe (even if that theme gets hammered on often enough, starting with the scene at the sushi bar and continuing forward) so much as a parable about how when human systems are designed to inflict deliberate suffering, then they need to be changed. The fact that this particular system serves the purpose of preserving humanity through an ice age doesn’t impress me, but then again, I’m not one to find the argument that humanity has to continue forward at all costs imminently persuasive (and let’s face it, if the only survivors on the train are Yona and Timmy, then they’re going to get eaten by that polar bear and humanity’s done for).
Still, this is also a movie where Tilda Swinton’s character pulls out her dentures as a gesture of goodwill toward the tail-enders, so if you don’t want to think too hard, or you’d rather bask in the bizarre, then you can totally do that too.