Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer is many things: well-acted, well-written, well-directed, well-photographed, well-choreographed. Dirty, bleak, imaginative. At times, it can feel rather long, like we’ve been stuck on that train for the past 18 years. It is relevant in its subject matter, from the botched solution to global warming to the extremes of classism and social order. It’s all of these things and stylish to boot. It also boasts an ending that can either been interpreted as uplifting and hopeful or utterly disastrous.
Snowpiercer: The Hopeful Interpretation
The journey to the front of the train has been a long, bloody one. We’ve seen parallels between the Rodney King beating and quite possibly the most hellish Olympic torch relay conceived. There have been realizations about food supply, psychic drug addicts, child abduction, and the scariest elementary school teacher since the nun that ran my preschool.
So by the time our ride is actually over, everyone is dead, with the exception of Timmy and Yona. Not exactly happy time. However, what sight greets Timmy and Yona after all of this? A polar bear, set to the swell of uplifting music. The world can support a polar bear. It’s not absolute zero. There is hope that life can survive outside of the train.
From a social perspective, this means that the revolution was righteous. The tail passengers literally kept the machine going until the outside world was rendered viable again. The rich needed the working class to survive, and used machinations to manipulate and control them for nearly 20 years.While the tail passengers endured filth, the seizing of their children, food bars made of bugs and orchestrated revolutions designed to reduce their population, the front end passengers received luxury, education and a reinforced sense of social superiority. Nevermind that the tail enders were far more resourceful and imaginative; the front enders clung to the belief that, because someone had paid for a ticket 18 years ago, it somehow made them better. No one from the front got that survival is a game best played in teams, with everyone bringing something to the table. Nope, not the front-enders. They consume while the tail end produces.
We’re not worried about Yona and Timmy surviving. The world’s getting warmer. They survived the worst of it. Yona’s mother was an Inuit revolutionary, her father was a technological genius, and she can see the future. Timmy was born into a working-class environment and can run an engine. They’ll be just fine. There’s hope to live a life in a less complicated world, free of social constraints and manipulations.
Snowpiercer: Complete Doom Edition
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin: after all that death and destruction, we arrive at the front of the train to have Curtis confess to cannibalism and infanticide, then turn down the offer to lead the train into the future for the survival of the human race. He then yanks Timmy from the engine, effectively causing it to crash (not that the door explosion and resulting avalanche didn’t help) and winds up killing nearly every person on the train. The only two survivors are Yona and Timmy, a seventeen-year-old psychic drug addict who has spent the better part of her days in a type of hyper-sleep, and a five-year-old boy. What greets them upon setting foot on the outside world? A polar bear.
That’s right: we’ve gone through all of this to get down to just two people with no survival skills winding up face-to-face with a polar bear searching for food. This is how we spell “fucked,” kids.
Even if they could survive, we’re looking at about 7-9 years until Timmy could impregnate Yona and continue the human race. After that, the gene pool gets severely limted because only two people survived the train crash. Unless if there’s a small contingency that survived the crash off-camera, the human race ends there.
The implications of this ending are depressing beyond belief. In attempting to redeem himself by fighting against the machine that had him desperately resort to murder and eating babies, Curtis has destroyed all hope for the future. Curtis gives his hand and arm, the one thing he couldn’t bring himself to do for 17 years, and it results in the stopping of the train and certain death for what’s left of the human race. In saving a life that mattered to him and attempting to redeem himself, he rejected the calculated mathematics of keeping life going on the train. Our takeaway is now, “Please, don’t try to make yourself happy. Sometimes, people have to suffer for the greater good. You might not like, but it has to happen that way because life must go on.” Way to go, Captain America.
So, which one is it?
This film reminds me of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in that the interpretations typically divide the audience with very little middle ground. The responses elicited are passionate and stubborn, with ample proof offered up one way or the other.
Many choose to embrace the more optimistic interpretation. Much like Frost’s poem, it’s psychologically easier to accept and helps one justify his or her actions. No one likes the idea of the human race ending. We don’t want Curtis to have suffered for certain doom. We want the downtrodden to triumph in the end. We want to feel happy at the swell of music and the sight of a living creature. We want to be alive after the ride from hell.
On the other hand, the more depressing ending just seems so much more realistic. After the glow of the affirming decision to change and/or survive, reality will always set in, and sometimes, it ain’t pretty. It’s easier to make the change sometimes than to anticipate or accept the far-reaching consequences. Life sucks, then your train crashes and you’re eaten by polar bears before you can hit sexual maturity.
Bong Joon-Ho endorses this positive interpretation, but gamely acknowledges that it’s up to the audience to decide. So, which is it for you – did you take the road not traveled, or did you simply choose and hope for the best?