If you happen to be of an eco-Marxist frame of mind, it’s tempting to regard global warming as the moment when capitalism will finally hit its limits. Endless growth cannot be sustainable, and so it is not difficult to imagine the planet itself as the ultimate barrier to capitalist development. While it is not outside the realm of possibility, it is a grim fantasy for the incredible human suffering that will likely have to happen first, and moreover it is one that severely underestimates the dynamism of capital. What’s more, it is not impossible to imagine a “sustainable” mode of production that also allows for continual growth.
This is the world of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s entry into the eco-apocalypse genre. The film is set in 2031, after a 2014 geo-engineering project to reverse the effects of global warming left the Earth in perpetual winter. What remains of the human race live in a self-contained environment aboard a train that continually circles the planet. In the front of the train the people live a life of comfort, the rear is a site of immiseration. Poor conditions and political repression of the dwellers of the rear spark a revolution that aims to reach the front of the train.
The train is an interesting space, as all divisions and functions of society are projects linearly, so that in each car the revolution moves into, we glimpse some new aspect of what sustains the hermetic environment on board: food production, water supply, and in the front education, relaxation in “Nature,” and recreation. The train distills spatially what readers of Foucault will recognize as a kind of biopolitics. Remaining in one’s place is the reigning ideology of the train, as Mason, played by Tilda Swinton, makes clear in a lecture that is laughable for the fact that she is filling the time while the rear dwellers watch brutal punishment meted out to one of their own. As we learn at the end, the biopolitical program extends beyond the organization of the train.
I get pleasure out of seeing the return of decadence topoi as anxieties over economic inequality seep into the motion picture industry (the outlandish fashions of the Capitol in The Hunger Games films comes to mind), and it makes a productive appearance in Snowpiercer as the revolutionaries push their way through a dance club car where the revelers are tripped out on Kronol, an industrial by-product that is also a drug.
We are treated to plenty of views of the world outside, as snowy mountains give way to the icy ruins of civilization. As we move through the train, we see the front dwellers sit by the windows and watch the scenes of devastation with the detachment in which train passengers have always experienced the sliding landscape through a train window (a history documented by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century).
How one feels about the film will probably depend on how one reacts to its farcical element. Mason’s party line speeches are comically banal. We witness indoctrination at work in the school car in a way that is laughably over the top. I found the violence too to be quite farcical – and there is a lot that could be said about the mutilation of bodies in the movie. The film is even complete with an indestructible Übermensch of the variety that you get in the early James Bond films.
So the train is a distilled image of late capitalist society, complete with the violent policing necessary to maintain the system. But this is where “sustainability” comes in. The term is a pillar of the ideology that structures life on board, it is invoked to justify the sentence of mutilation at the beginning, and it is invoked in a bizarre scene where the revolutionaries sit down to dine on sushi. But it is also a code word for the eternal recurrence that really underwrites the experience of the train, the maintenance of which turns out to be the end of the biopolitical program (without giving too much away, this is the crux of the major revelation in the film). It is not an accident that the train eternally follows a circular route.
While I personally roll my eyes at “spoiler alerts” (because I believe everything should be “spoiled”!), I’ll limit my comments on the ending to this: the film spares the protagonist the full weight of the final ethical dilemma, which from a storytelling standpoint could not have been resolved in an especially satisfying way, I suspect. What we get instead is a perspectivization on eco-apocalypse. In spite of what we thought we saw through the windows, Nature’s history has not ended, and in the last shot it looks back at humanity with a somewhat puzzled indifference.