This is the post with all the spoilers. If you want to take a look at my spoiler-free review, go here. Otherwise, know this is for people who have seen the film. If you haven’t, it’s currently streaming on Netflix Instant, so go watch it already.
It’s difficult to know what to start with. The film linearly progresses from the tail-section to the engine, but information is doled out in almost a reverse order so that each piece reverberates back onto earlier parts of the film. This is just one of the ways Bong Joon-ho suggests that this linearity is a false, limiting construct.
I was so struck by the film-making in Snowpiercer, it initially didn’t occur to me that others might not be so arrested with it. But this is not a film made for an audience expecting a classic Hollywood narrative. The biggest divergence is that the ending is ambiguous–Curtis’s revolution fails. In a classic Hollywood film, that wouldn’t be the case. Even if we kept the reveal Wilford gives that he and Gilliam had orchestrated this rebellion, and the revolts that came before it, Curtis would still kill Wilford, take the mantle as the new leader, and somehow reinvent the train’s class system. But how would the train keep going without children hidden in its innards working as the now unobtainable part? And perhaps that’s the question that keeps Curtis from attempting such an endeavor–in the end, the train is the train, and there are things he can’t change about it. Gilliam taught him that exploiting children (practically babies, after all) wasn’t acceptable to maintain the lives of adults, that it’s all just feeding on the weak to make the strong fatter. Curtis has taken this lesson to heart, and holds it as his touchstone even after he finds out Gilliam wasn’t the man he thought he was.
“The writers, I do believe, who get the best and most lasting response from readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending, I do not mean mere fortunate events–a marriage or a last-minute rescue from death–but some kind of spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation, even with the self, even at death.” (Fay Weldon, writer and literary critic)
So Snowpiercer’s ending doesn’t offer a traditional happy ending, but it does offer a moral reassessment and reconciliation and a smidge of hope. Curtis finds out that his revolution is all part of the system of inequality, but he makes a choice to literally become a wrench preventing the proper movement of the system by sticking his arm in the works to save Timmy, thus living up to his ideals. It is a personal victory, and a statement of faith in humanity by Bong Joon-ho, though it doesn’t save anyone but Timmy and Kona. He finally gives up his arm, as he had wanted to after meeting Gilliam and becoming cannibalistic because of the horrible conditions the survivors in the tail suffered before Wilford gave them the protein bars.
In many ways, the ending’s level of satisfaction is all about Curtis making the “right” decision. I emphasize “right” here because Bong Joon-ho makes deliberate camera placement choices to keep the tail-section to the left side of the screen and the engine to the right. Tony Zhou’s video essay explains this better than I ever could.
But Curtis’s decision to destroy the train rests on an entirely different set of symbols and information. He’s been so trapped in the tail/engine dichotomy, he has failed to truly notice what else there is. The middle of the train and the outside. The former literally offers a window to the latter–and ultimately a path. Evan Puschak, aka Nerdwriter, offers another outstanding Understanding Art House video essay on Snowpiercer that explains the sight, color, and lighting aspects that emphasize this path to the outside.
Namgoong, the gate-maker, has been a middle-section dweller during his time on the train. He’s had access to the windows, was taught by an Inuit woman the many types of snow and ice, and now sees signs that the snow is melting. As Curtis’s group moves through the middle-section cars, he teaches his daughter a new truth: what dirt is, that the airplane is more visible, that life is returning to Earth.
His final plea to Curtis is that he look beyond the gates–the doors that maintain the social hierarchy–to the one gate that matters, the gate to the outside. He tells Curtis what he’s seen but does not include one last detail, a detail so grand and improbable that Curtis would likely think Namgoong’s whole theory was induced by his drug addiction. But in light of what Curtis learns about the requirements of keeping the train running, Namgoong’s faith that the outside can sustain human life (a faith he trusts his daughter’s life to) is enough for Curtis to put his support behind. The two of them shield Yona and Timmy from the explosion blast, sacrificing themselves and society for a chance to start anew without the class/car barriers.
When Yona and Timmy set off outside from the burning wreckage of the train, we finally see what Namgoong likely saw–a polar bear. The sighting of the polar bear means that life is already on Earth again in an advanced form. As an apex hunter, the polar bear indicates that all of the animal and plant species required for its survival are also around: seals, fish, fauna, algae. While Yona and Timmy’s survival isn’t assured in the ending, all indications point to a hopeful remaking of humanity. His daughter is clairvoyant, a foreknowledge which might trump her lack of experience in the outside world. Timmy is fast-thinking and fleet-footed. Although we don’t see other train survivors, they have to exist if two people who were closest to the blast survived. And while many parts of the train plummeted into ravines, there are still resources of shelter, fire, and food on the train to get them going. No guarantees, but the inequity of survival on Snowpiercer wasn’t fixable within that closed system, nor was it worth surviving for. Humans would be better off opening the door to the outside and starting again.
Coming Up! What’s up with the fish? Plus the brilliance of casting Chris Evans as Curtis.