Snowpiercer is a funny one. In a lot of ways it’s a mere shadow of films like The Road or I Am Legend, in the sense that humanity’s last remnants must struggle to survive after some great global calamity. However, it’s also about the Arab Spring. Maybe. Or about the Occupy movement. But, again, it’s not. Because the film was based on an obscure French graphic novel released some thirty years ago.
The parallel most easily drawn, I think, is with Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. In terms of setting, mood, tone, colour palette, the two films work quite well in this politico-apocalyptic mode. The fact that Snowpiercer (and its originator, Le Transperceneige) take place on a train, is often secondary to the class struggles that occur within. I’ve not read the comic, but I watched the French-language adaptation documentary on the bluray, and it seems that director Bong Joon Ho was determined to adapt the story rather than just translate it directly to the screen. This works, for me, in the film’s favour. The characters are mostly changed, from what I can tell; rather the setting, mood, and overall arcs are what remain from the comic.
As a few friends have noted, the pacing is odd, and I tend to agree. Rather than build and build right to the climax, the film seems to peak and trough with no rhythm. There are some stunning sequences, including the long-distance gunfight between carriages on a long bend: possibly my favourite from the entire film. These great set-pieces, though, are disconnected, and don’t fall into any sequential logic.
Snowpiercer fits alongside the other texts I’ve mentioned as ‘political’ cinema, albeit speculative. However, more than that, it fits into a cultural movement that transcends culture: what scientists and social commentators are calling the Anthropocene. McKenzie Wark has written and spoken eloquently on the cinema of the Anthropocene, in terms of a broad definition. He suggests it is now worth exploring cinema not in terms of character, but more in terms of setting. Further, he writes that maybe we should ‘ask about cinema as both a practice and a representation of energy-using systems.’
Snowpiercer is ‘Anthropocentric’ on all counts. The setting is crucial, despite its seeming obliviousness to the narrative. All characters are aware of the cold, and know they are secondary to it. The environment, thus, is the true tyrant. The train’s engine, ‘sacred’ as it is called by all the front passengers, is a representation of mankind’s reliance on technology, but also reflects this need to present energy and its considerations on screen. The cinema of the Anthropocene is contradictory in that human characters are both central to it, and yet entirely external. Rather, it is humanity’s irrevocable ruin of the landscape, inscribed as it is now geologically and atmospherically, that truly takes a starring role.