Snowpiercer: An Unequalled Portrayal of Inequality

Ever since I saw the trailer for Snowpiercer, I had wanted to see the film for several reasons.   First of all, it is a film independently made outside the mainstream Hollywood production system, and involves international collaboration.     Secondly, it deals with a subject of economic inequality, which is listed by the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Risk Report has the 4th highest risk of global concern.    Thirdly, it is told through the medium of science fiction, with a bold visual style that stems from its origins as a French graphical novel rather than the more traditional science fiction novel.

This evening, I saw the film and, although I think it is unequaled in recent portrayals of the same subject matter, there are relations between it and other science fiction movies that have dealt with the same subject of economic inequality, and these relationships are the subject of my blog post.

1.  Snowpiercer and the Time Machine

H.G. Well’s was an ardent socialist, and his book was written with the background notion that the gap between the working class and what we would term today as the 1% was widening, with the middle class threatening to disappear from that gap.    He postulated about what would happen if the gulf between the two became so wide as to create, in the space of evolutionary time, two distinct post-human species:   the Eloi, the descendants of the aristocracy, and the Morlocks, the descendants of the working class.   The Eloi devote all their time to leisure and none to the pursuit of knowledge, which irks the time traveler from the 20th century.    There is another race, the Morlocks, have evolved or perhaps it would be better to say “devolved” into an underground civilization that does have some of the technological knowledge from its forebears, but has lost all of its moral values.    The plot uncovers the symbiotic relationship between the two:   the Morlocks provide the food, clothing and shelter for the Eloi, but the Eloi provide food for the Morlocks–in the form of themselves.     This shocking revelation forces the time traveler to try to break this symbiotic relationship in order for the human race to evolve once again.

In Snowpiercer, the different classes are represented by the different cars on a train.    The world has become uninhabitable due to an engineering solution to global warming which has the unintended affect of triggering an ice age.   The remnants of humanity crowd onto a train which is fueled by a perpetual-motion engine and takes humanity in a never-ending circuit around the world.    At the beginning of the film, the protagonist named Curtis (Chris Evans) starts a revolt of the working class who are in the rear of the train, and the film proceeds as they make their way towards the front to confront the “conductor” of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris).    As a closed ecosystem, the train could be seen as a metaphor for the larger ecosystem of the planet.    By defending themselves against a revolt among the masses, the “1%” of the film think they are protecting their own privileged position in that ecosystem, but they somewhere along the way have forgotten that that everyone is actually is in the exact same position with regards to the survival of that system.   If it dies, so do they.

2.   Snowpiercer and Cloud Atlas

In Cloud Atlas, which was released in 2013, the six interlocking stories that make up the film all have a common theme of economic inequality, but manifesting differently in different ages.    In the first story that takes place in 1849, the inequality is between whites and blacks via the institution of slavery; in the fifth story that takes place in 2144, the inequality is between “purebloods” or natural genetic humans and the “fabricants” or clones through another form of slavery.    In that story, the heroine, a clone or fabricant named Sonmi 451 discovers that the “cruise ship” that the fabricants are sent to after 12 years of indentured servitude is actually a slaughterhouse.    The bodies of the fabricants are used as a food source for the womb tanks which will give birth to the next generation.    In other words, the workers are forced as a class to cannibalize themselves in order to maintain the privileges of the dominant class.    This theme of cannibalism is also present in Snowpiercer, and is a metaphor for the “divide-and-conquer” strategies used to keep the workers in today’s society fighting each other to prevent them from combining their energies to challenge the system that is exploiting them all.

3.  Snowpiercer and Elysium

Another film that came out last year was Elysium, a story about the 1% who have retreated from the decaying ecosystem of the Earth and have set up a space station where they can maintain their luxurious lifestyles.    This is another story that has the protagonist, Max (Matt Damon) do a break-in into the space station from the planet’s surface in order to try to bring equality to the worlds.    However, in that movie his sacrifice has a more positive ending in that the equality is more or less forced upon the system.    In this movie, equality is forced upon the system, but in a much more negative and stark way.

4.  Snowpiercer and the Day after Tomorrow

In Snowpiercer, the ending is at once more pessimistic and more optimistic.    (SPOILER ALERT!)   The ecosystem of the train literally crashes at the end of the movie, but there is hope that humanity will be able to survive outside of it.    The metaphor for our own times is the threat of global warming, which just happens to set up the backdrop of this movie.    If global warming destroys civilization, the 1% may imagine themselves as being “at the front of the train”, but if that train crashes, they, like the rest of us, will be off the rails.

In the movie The Day after Tomorrow, the ice age ironically triggered by global warming (by the altering of ocean currents and jet streams) also causes a collapse of the North American government, but not of civilization itself, so it ends on a more positive note.    In Snowpiercer, civilization ends but humanity may live to see another day.    The message is clear, a system that extracts all of the energy from its components will not survive, because those components are what fuel the system in the first place.

As the lyrics of the song Eclipse go in Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon.

All that you touch
All that you see
All that you taste
All you feel.
All that you love
All that you hate
All you distrust
All you save.
All that you give
All that you deal
All that you buy,
beg, borrow or steal.
All you create
All you destroy
All that you do
All that you say.
All that you eat
And everyone you meet
All that you slight
And everyone you fight.
All that is now
All that is gone
All that’s to come
and everything under the sun is in tune
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.

5.   Snowpiercer and Aliens

This is why economic inequality is perhaps one of the most important problems to solve.    The lifecycle of the parasitic wasp is a good metaphor.   The wasp paralyzes a caterpillar, but does not kill it.   Why?   Because it deposits its eggs in the live caterpillar, and the eggs when hatched literally eat the caterpillar from the inside out.    This life cycle is the background for the movie Aliens, where we have become the host of a parasitic species of aliens who treat us like the wasps treat the caterpillars.

In my country, the 1% are trying through local instruments (ALEC at the state level) and international ones (the TPP) to paralyze the government regulations at the national level that might keep them in check, and the international corporations that they are enabling to grow are eating the substance of the commonwealth of those governments.     In the real world, if the caterpillar is weakened to the point that it dies completely, the parasitic wasp and its progeny will die out as well.

And this is the fatal flaw in their scheme.   As the authors of the book When Nations Fail point out, those nations which are led by institutions that extract wealth from their members rather than building up their wealth have always failed, either because they lead to a political revolt against the system, or because the society is left weakened and unable to cope with some catastrophe that befalls it (invasions, plagues, etc).   In the case of the global civilization we have today,  the international corporations and their backers among the 1% that are attempting to weaken national governments will leave them unable to cope with the catastrophe of global warming by making them unable to implement measures to mitigate or adapt to the consequences of global warming (rising sea levels, extreme weather events, etc.).   These consequences comprise #5 on the list of global risks of highest concern on the 2014 Global Risk Report mentioned above, right after concern #4 (economic inequality).    And the fact that these two risks appear next to each other on the list is symbolic of their causal proximity as well.    If we do not cooperate on a global scale to solve the problems created by global warming, the entire economic system and the physical ecosystem underlying it will collapse, along with who derive sustenance from it, meaning individuals and corporations.

It is important to keep the train running of the economy, yes, but in a way that strengthens all of its parts, and does not weaken some members in order to keep others stronger.   The model here is of the geodesic dome invented by Buckminster Fuller.    The individual rods which make up the geodesic dome are not in and of themselves very strong, but when they interlock, they can withstand hurricane-force winds, whereas more traditional forms of architecture which concentrate strength in only certain sections will be blown away by those same winds.

The movie Snowpiercer in its bold visual style and memorable film sequences, is an unequaled portrayal of the inequality that underlies our global economy at this point.    It is a warning about global warming, but also of a system that may become politically overheated if is stressed too far.     We are all on the same spaceship Earth, after all, and any ideas of escaping it if it damaged beyond repair are not in the realm of science fiction, but of fantasy.



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