If you watched Snowpiercer and were left with questions, you might have turned to any number of reviews available that often had the same complaint: The movie is a fantastic spectacle, but there are lots of narrative issues that keep the film from making literal sense.
That’s what I want to address here. Not every narrative follows the same logic as a newspaper article, where A leads to B leads to C. There are at least two other ways of looking at Snowpiercer a little less literally, first as an homage, second as a myth (where I’m riffing on a previous io9 article). Watching the film through these lenses might help the film make more sense than wondering why they’re doing what they do in the first place.
As an Homage
One way of looking at the film is how it seems to be a bit of an homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), a film about an anti-tsarist revolt on a Russian battleship. Many of the early shots in Snowpiercer recall Eisenstein’s shots of the sailors sleeping in the cramped hull of the ship. Eisenstein experimented with odd angles in his experiments with montage, and we get similar angles in the tail section. Eisenstein’s film is also broken up into five sections that have parallels in Snowpiercer:
1.) Men and Worms, where the sailors find their food is infested with worms.
- Echoed in the protein bars being literally made of insects.
2.) Drama on the Deck, where the sailors who refuse the wormy food are found guilty of insubordination.
- The tail-enders fuss about the protein bars, and act up when the two children are taken. Mason also finds them guilty of insubordination.
3.) The Dead Man Called, when the sailors successfully mutiny, but their leader is killed in battle.
- There are a few leaders who bite it in Snowpiercer, including Edgar and Gilliam.
4.) The Odessa Steps, where the Tsar’s Cossacks mow down an unarmed crowd and the sailors attack the Cossacks.
The Odessa Steps scene is one of Eisenstein’s famous examples of cinematic montage, and you can watch it below. Any of the characters in the scene wouldn’t be out of place on Wilford’s train.
- The closest parallel here is with the night vision militia, who just kill indiscriminately while the tail-fighters try to take them out.
5.) One Against All, when the sailors decide to take their battleship off to face the Tsar’s fleet. But instead of blowing the Potemkin out of the water, the fleet refuse to fire on them.
- The direct analogy doesn’t quite work here, but you do end up with fewer and fewer tail-enders fighting their way through the All, until that scene at the end when Nam is the one holding off the rest of the All on the bridge. Plus Wilford wants to join with Curtis rather than blow him off the train.
So that’s one way of looking at the film.
As a Myth
Another way of looking at the film as as a myth. A while back, novelist Michael Hughes posted an article looking at the film as a sci-fi version of an 2nd century Christian heresy, Gnosticism. I largely agree with his assessment, but think Hughes makes the parallels a little too pat. There does seem to be a good bit of Gnostic influence on the structure of the story, and I’m more interested in the specifics within the film, but I don’t know if it quite works as an allegory of what he lays out. Perhaps the film works better as another version of that story, a new myth taking on some of the same ideas.