(POTENTIAL PLOT SPOILERS)
Set in the near future, humanity is on the verge of extinction after a fateful engineering disaster overdid its correction of global warming and froze everything but a futuristic train completely solid. Snowpiercer is a summer blockbuster that pulled no punches in its action packed, spectacular delivery, but that still failed to capture the imagination of the American masses, though it managed to set box office records in its home of Korea according to koreanfilm.or.kr. Perhaps this is due to its light initial launch in only eight theaters in the entire country according to boxofficemojo.com, though it moved to several hundred more the following weekend, totaling upwards of a million dollars in profit. Maybe the movie was stifled by its competition, with the simultaneously launched on June 27th new Transformers movie making 100 million dollars on its opening weekend (almost half of its total budget) despite only receiving a 17 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes even while Snowpiercer was given a 94 percent fresh rating.
It may have been neither the competition nor the low hype that blunted Snowpiercer’s blow, but rather it could have been its pessimistic and perhaps too-realistic portrayal of the hopelessness of humanity. The film's director, Bong Joon Ho, unflinchingly portrays human nature. Throughout the film undertones of nature’s judgment harmonize with overtones of hyper-critical dialogue and with the pain found in the main melody of the story to provide a beautiful but haunting picture of human nature. Although it is punctuated by spectacularly choreographed and gripping action that follows through without flinching, the story takes the viewer on a rollercoaster ride of cynicism that will undoubtedly leave them stunned at the end.
We like it best when stories about natural disaster or our species’ failure as stewards stress our ability to come back and win through destiny, luck or sheer force of will. The blockbusters I Am Legend and World War Z serve as several great examples of this attitude. We expect the heroes to effect a spectacular reversal of humanity's apparent self-inflicted fate, rallying whatever ingenious or communal effort is required to turn the tides against the odds and put everyone back on track to rebuilding society as it was meant to be with our great lesson in environmental stewardship, international peace and collaboration, technological arrogance, medical ethics or whatever else the issue was well learned and duly noted for the future.
However, Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer only alludes hauntingly to the possibility of redemption and completely stamps on the face of this familiar trope with violence that will not be redeemed or brought to justice. The worldview of Snowpiercer does not resonate among modern Americans. It condemns us not for our failure at environmental stewardship, but rather uses that as just one of many tools by way of really getting at the matter of our species’ damnation. Even those who are hopeful and try to coexist in their newfound frozen wasteland are brutally cut down by the cold and are frozen into a monument of human failure. If repentance for destroying our world is not sufficient then what is it that Snowpiercer’s sense of justice demands?
The movie is a no-holds-barred judgment of humanity, deeming us unworthy of continuing to exist. The ark-like train that bears an implicit promise of salvation for all of life serves only to funnel the inner conflict of humanity into a single hallway. The train allows the inner evil of humanity to flourish to its extremes as exemplified by the boiled down and purified examples of class warfare, classic sins like gluttony and adultery, cannibalism, murder, religious fundamentalism at its extreme, violence on the most uncompromising levels, hate and most tellingly, betrayal.
At the end of the story the viewer does not even want the humans to succeed in their mission, it almost seems justified that we would all die by our own hand trying to fix the world we broke. In the end nonhuman life goes on, not to be wiped out in the icy judgment of mankind. One almost feels happy that the world can go back to a state perturbed no longer by human meddling, but I fear that this is the very reason Snowpiercer failed to resonate with crowds. We prefer a story with a hero. Curtis, the apparent protagonist feels like a hero, but in the end his act of heroism is not to save mankind; Curtis helps to destroy humanity once and for all, and from the preceding events we cannot really blame him.
The justice found in Snowpiercer is not the resolution of human negligence or class suffering or any of the other issues faced by protagonist Curtis, but rather the justice is the complete termination of mankind’s injustices, allowing the real protagonist, life on Earth, to recover in peace. It would not be surprising if the success of the film in Korea is due largely to Korea being its homeland and if its failure abroad is largely due to its striking a distinct dissonance with our expectation of harmony and resolution in works of art, an expectation that is contradicted by the icy, heroless landscape that is Snowpiercer.