So Long and Thanks for The Fish: The Beautifully Absurd in Snowpiercer
In the middle of the world, the struggle resurrects itself. The faceless, jack-booted enforcers of a linear hierarchy. The oppressed, filth-clad masses that will no longer accept subjugation. The former armed with axes and firearms. The latter armed with pipes and brimming fury. A long, ominous moment hangs between them.
Someone, from within the ranks of the soldiers of the “elites,” produces a dead fish.
It takes no great leap of logic to point out that the film Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho, is, at least in part, something of a love letter to the Marxist concept of class struggle. After all, the movie’s plot centers around a brutalized class of people who live on a train and rise out of their squalid conditions to fight through their oppressors and create a new world order. The film is dark, grimy, violent, and seemingly pessimistic about the stubbornness and ignorance of humanity, a species which, in the world of the movie, still manages to create fictional social hierarchies even after an apocalypse. But as you watch the film, certain things keep happening. Near the beginning of the movie, a man is sentenced to amputation via, of all things, the cold weather. The fish mentioned in the prose retelling above appears right as the tension of an action scene becomes thick enough to cut open, making the viewer do a double-take and wonder what the hell is going on. Near the film’s climax, the protagonist confesses through agonized tears to having cannibalized a baby.
In most situations, these events by themselves would be enough to classify a movie as out and out ridiculous. They should derail (pun intended) the movie by consistently disengaging the viewer and ruining the chance at immersion. I am sure, for some, this is exactly what happens. But the movie was not ruined for me, nor for a great many other people. So the question that follows is why. I’ve watched, listened to, and read many thoughts and debates on what it is about Snowpiercer’s repeated silly moments mean in (and do to) the context of the movie. In particular, the action scene with the fish gets a great deal of attention, partially because that scene is probably the height of ridiculousness and partially because there are other scenes that involve fish with clearer potential meanings, which allow for some interesting connections. The moments like this are not particularly funny, at least not any but the most sardonic of ways. They are also not especially poignant, in and of themselves. If they were included with some thematic weight in mind, their sheer incongruousness robs much of that potential. The only conclusion I can come to is that these scenes, these events, are enjoyable and satisfying because they are truly and wholly absurd, and by extension, they make the movie itself absurd as well.
To be clear, I am not using absurd in either a negative or a positive context. Too often we hear the word “absurd” and assume that thing being assigned the label has no intellectual value beyond condescending comedy. We live in a post-postmodern world where deconstruction has been deconstructed and we are taught from an early age to view everything through a lens of cynicism and skepticism. Again, I say this without judgment. Our governmental, philosophical, and economic institutions have thoroughly betrayed much of the trust and hope invested in them. But the downside to this perspective is that many of us have become very comfortable in a kind of high-minded passivity, using cynicism as an intellectual cocoon that “protects” us from evidence that would challenge our pessimistic conclusions and immobilizes us so that we are inclined to ignore opportunities for progress. Snowpiercer derails (oops, did it again) this feedback loop of neutered criticism by bringing its values to the forefront, exposing them to the light, and making you realize you are participating in a narrative.
Let’s start with the setting. The Snowpiercer is an enormous train that is meant to run forever on a track that spans the entire world. The train is powered by a perpetual motion machine that requires children to keep it functioning. The world rushing by the train’s few windows is a post-apocalyptic one that resulted from an effort to combat global warming. Boiled down, we have a vehicle that contains all of humanity, runs on human sacrifice and breaking the laws of physics, and is surrounded by an accidental ice age. Try running that sentence by studio executives and see if they green light your spec script. But apply the same logic to any post-apocalyptic movie and trim the fat away from the reasoning behind it and you find that ultimately the genre itself is rather absurd – not because apocalypses themselves are irrational, but because our need to make humanity the focus of everything is. Inevitably these movies, Snowpiecer included, center around a person or a family because we have to be made to care about the possible end of the species. We demand that our narratives focus on individual lives and tragedies because it is too difficult or too confusing to comprehend mass extinction. The Center for Biological Diversity claims that we are “experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago” and we aren’t even actively trying to kill most wildlife.
At the end of the movie, the only apparent survivors are a young woman and a boy who find a polar bear. The scene is brightly lit in white of the snow and it is treated as a happy ending with a suitably hopeful turn in the score. But think about what we are seeing. The two survivors cannot breed for at least a few years (even if one allows for post-apocalyptic statutory rule bending) and they are the last two humans anyway, meaning that the species is effectively extinct. Moreover, the polar bear almost looks surprised when he sees the people emerging from the giant train, as if the bear couldn’t remember the last time it had seen a human. Furthermore, the last two remaining humans, who are exhausted from struggle and walking out into a lethal environment, are immediately confronted by a polar bear, a ten-foot tall carnivore that is faster and stronger than them by an order of magnitude and which, given the snowpack, probably doesn’t see such easy meals come along very often. We, as viewers, want and expect even our post-apocalyptic movies to come with happy endings. We want the family to be reunited, the unreasonably burly protagonist to be misogynistically rewarded with an attractive woman for his heroism, the human race to have that glimmer of survival hope which we can immediately assume is actually a guarantee of survival. So the movie gives these things to us. Kind of. And none of them hold up to even a moment of actual consideration.
The burly protagonist of Snowpiecer is played by Chris Evans, an actor whom I have come to admire for both his skill at acting and for breathing new life into a career that was careening from trainwreck to trainwreck (damnit, I can’t stop). He does a good job of acting in this movie. He sells emotion very well, whether he is dealing with betrayal or guilt or determination. That compliment counts double if he was in on the Snowpiecer meta-commentary, but his character Curtis no more holds up to scrutiny than the idea that Yona and Timmy will befriend the hungry polar bear. If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ll remember that Curtis ate a baby. The heroic leader of the rebellion and champion of the little people ate a baby. The moment of confession in the movie is played as highly emotional and even kind of liberating. But it still amounts to the movie having a laugh at its audience and its willingness to excuse. We love anti-heroes and bad boys and anti-establishment rebels, especially when they are Chris Evans levels of handsome, but congratulations because you just spent the last hour and a half cheering on a baby eater. Going another level (train car?) deep, we remember that Chris Evans is the actor who plays Captain America, the most patriotic and freedom loving hero in all of our absurd amounts of comic book movies (especially now that Superman likes to quietly sulk and murder people). I hope for the sake of dignity that Disney and Marvel don’t have a scene where Captain America breaks down and cries, because the impeding emotional confession could be horrific and unintentionally amusing.
I do not know if all of this absurdity and its commentary were intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Maybe they were trying to create a gritty movie and the stranger moments were meant to give the audience a break from the bleakness. But artist intent is merely one perspective through which to view any piece of art, and a decidedly narrow one at that. The value of the absurdity here, for me, is in how Snowpiercer holds up a mirror to the kind of stories we tell ourselves about the darkest futures we imagine. The fun-house effect comes not from the distortion of the mirror, but from the silliness of what is being reflected. We are absurd for wanting to call our shots for the end of the world but still wanting a happy ending. We relish in the bleakness and the cold, but only from the warmth of our spectating seats. Rather than take over the system and do the hard work to change it for the better, we want to derail (had to get one more in there) the whole enterprise. I think Snowpiercer wants us to have fun with it. It knows what kind of movie it is, in spite of and perhaps because of its tonal inconsistencies. And it probably wants us to have fun with other apocalyptic movies, so long as they are better than 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. But it also reminds us against taking any of it too seriously. These are stories meant to entertain, not warnings of the possible fates of humanity. After all, there are real world-spanning issues rearing their ugly heads, and if we don’t get out of the tail car and deal with them, we are going to wish we had a magic train to save us.