In our current trend of dystopian stories, it would be easy to think that young adult literature and films have always dominated the genre, or that the genre itself is a new invention. But long before Katniss ever pulled back her bow or Tris joined Dauntless, Orwell’s Winston challenged Big Brother and Guy Montag hid books from the Fire Chief. The genre hasn’t always been about young adults. But it has always been about simultaneously warning us of the consequences of our ill-advised decisions in the present and showing what sacrifice will be required to undo those societal consequences in the future. Snowpiercer, in like manner, is more about those two things than it is anything.
In South Korean director Joon-ho Bong’s world, Earth has been turned into a wintery wasteland by a misguided attempt to correct global warming. Humanity is all but extinct, the outside world being far too cold for survival. The Snowpiercer is the only reason that the human race still survives. It’s a self-sustaining train that circles the continents, providing in it a very carefully guided ecosystem. Life isn’t great with a protein block diet and armed guards bossing you around all the time, but at least they’re surviving. That’s enough, right?
It’s not enough for Curtis. Or Gilliam. Or the other passengers that follow their leadership. And to a certain extent, it’s hard to blame them. After all, the passengers farther up the train have a path of luxury, get to eat sushi on occasion, and they even have a sauna. The passengers in the economy section, however, get none of that. They eat protein blocks. Their children are taken from them. Early in the film, one man is recruited to play the violin, but refuses when his wife is not allowed to go with him. The guard’s response is to beat the wife senseless and bring the man by force.
These broken and abused men and women look to Gilliam for leadership. Gilliam, however, wants to hand the baton to Curtis, whom he believes can set things right. And in the dark bloodbath that ensues, the answer to the question of whether Curtis truly was a virtuous leader depends greatly on the perspective you choose, and there is no lack of those to choose from.
The majority of the rebels’ path through the train is dependent on Curtis and Minsoo, a Korean man who knows how to open all of the locked doors in the train. He helps Curtis, even through the language barrier, in exchange for an industrial waste material that also works as a drug. They and Curtis’ young friend Edgar work their way through the train, fighting with fists, axes, and just about everything except for guns in this bloodbath of a rebellion.
As Gilliam makes clear from the beginning of the film, this is a story about Curtis. The villainous Mason, the young Edgar, the determined Tanya, all of their stories are told only in a way that relates to Curtis’s own story. It’s hard to imagine that it would be any other way, with such a huge name as Chris Evans headlining that role, but Curtis has his doubts. We don’t immediately know why, other than the whole cliche reluctant hero trope, but we find out later on in the film that he has some pretty serious regrets. This likeable and self-sacrificial hero has some pretty scary skeletons in his closet, which brings me to the thing that sticks out the most about this film: its pessimistic view of human nature.
If there’s anything that the film wants us to garner from the dark revelations about Curtis’ past, it’s that dark times turn human beings into dark people. They do things that we would never expect them to do, because it’s all about survival. Above all, mankind wants to survive. But that view isn’t entirely without hope. Curtis shares a rather moving story about a character who sacrificed himself to save a small baby that he didn’t even know. Curtis throws himself to the front line of every battle, and makes daring sacrificial moves several times for the good of the people that he leads. And while the film ends on a bit of an anti-climactic note, shrouding the outcome of Curtis’ actions in relative ambiguity, Curtis does emerge from this mess a bit of a hero.
But I have to say “a bit,” because not one character emerges from this downer an unblemished hero. Minsoo readily gives himself for a woman he loves, but he’s a drugee. Curtis sacrifices himself but he has a dark past. Gilliam is a mentoring father figure but he too is hardly innocent by the film’s ending credits. The film’s talent, from headliner Chris Evans to all-star supporting talent like John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, drives that point home with a chilling effect. That’s caused some Christian reviewers to criticize the film, but a much different approach occurred to me as I was watching the film; one that views the diverse immorality of these characters in a less pessimistic way.
There’s some aspect of Christian pop culture that has spoiled Christians, and not in an altogether good way. From films such as Facing the Giants and Courageous, we’re presented with views of the world that are so sanitized that it becomes difficult for us to imagine that people can struggle with things that are truly violent and depraved. The danger in that is we begin to have a view of humanity that is safer than the way God truly views us, leading us to become more judgmental when we come across someone who actually does struggle with those things and really does have those skeletons in their closets.
The question I pose is simple: how would we react when meeting Curtis? If we knew his whole story, there are some Christians who might not speak to him, or always speak to him with a level of caution, acknowledging his former sins. But Snowpiercer challenges us by showing us what someone who has been wicked can accomplish when he chooses to be good. As we can see from the haunted persona of Curtis, the decision to do good, whether that be in answer to God’s plan of salvation or to sacrifice yourself for your fellow man, does not make the consequences of past evil disappear. But it does mean that evil people have the capacity to change, when prompted by the right things. In our case, the right thing is God and His mercy.
That’s not to say that the film is a bastion of Christian morality. Far from it. The film earns its R rating in violence alone, not to mention the smattering of f-bombs and other profanities. But what the film eventually has to say is that people that have been evil can be good, and people that have been good can be evil. Curtis is no Steve Rogers, and the lack of unadulterated good in the film is a valid criticism. But an honest look at humanity that reminds me of my own sins and the far-reaching consequences of our decisions, both individual and societal, is a valid praise of it as well.