Again, I warn you I will be giving away all the spoilers for Snowpiercer. Go watch it on Netflix before reading this.
The Symbolism of the Fish
The fish aquarium is a microcosm for the Snowpiercer train which is a microcosm for the world, at least until Wilford’s final reveal opens Curtis’s eyes to the nature of the real world.
The first fish appears somewhat mysteriously when Curtis’s revolutionaries open a gate to find a platoon of masked executioners waiting for them. As a twisted kind of opening ceremony, one of them slits the throat of a fish then passes it around. Creepy to be sure, but also head-scratchingly weird. Later in the scene, Curtis slips and falls on the fish. A strange and darkly humorous moment, but one that plays into the allegory Bong Joon-ho is putting forth.
The meaning of the fish doesn’t become clear until Curtis and a very few of his cohorts make it through the executioner’s car on to the aquarium car. Tilda Swinton’s character, Mason, invites them to sit down for sushi, which she says is prepared only twice a year to keep the balance of ecosystem. That’s the key. Here’s the scene again, in case you’ve forgotten.
The more overt meaning of this scene is the tension Curtis carries with him about who eats what. He makes Mason eat the protein bar (made of insects) as a punishment, while the rest of his dwindling group eat sushi. This tension comes home to roost near the end of the film when we find out that Curtis, during the initial chaos of boarding the train before any actual leadership or protein bars were supplied, became cannibalistic, attacking and eating the weak and the young. He hates himself for this, and the underlying menace in his manner when giving the protein bar to Mason foreshadows this for the audience.
But back to the meaning of the fish. Her comments about the balance of the aquarium ecosystem are directly analogous to Wilford’s philosophy of how to keep the train running smoothly. The taking of fish to make sushi twice a year is the same as his manufactured revolutions. The chaos and death toll keep the system balanced. They keep the social order by releasing the tension of oppression in the tail-cars and ultimately showing the power of the front-cars. They keep the population under control as the revolution is put down. According to Wilford, the magic number is 74%, and he admits that he and Gilliam had only planned for Curtis’s revolution to get as far as the executioner’s car.
*Lightbulb!* So that’s why the weird fish gutting at the start of the executioner car scene–it was symbolic for what this fight was meant to accomplish and foreshadowing for the analogy to come. Curtis’s slip on the fish was likewise symbolic. This is a scene where he has to make a crucial choice to move forward–sacrifice Edgar to capture Mason. Edgar knows why Curtis makes the choice he does–their eye contact shows this–but he doesn’t understand the moral ramifications for Curtis. Nor do we until much later when Curtis reveals that it was Edgar’s baby life that was spared when Gilliam intervened on Curtis’s cannibalistic rampage, offering his own limb to eat rather than the baby. Edgar is a reminder of where Curtis has been, the inhumanity he sunk to, and to let him die now is the most difficult decision he has faced. When he gets to the engine and Wilford tells him that he and Gilliam engineered the rebellion from the beginning, it seems Edgar’s death has been in vain. Curtis is defeated, slipped up on a fish.
At least until he starts thinking outside the train.
Coming up! Why Chris Evans was a perfect Curtis and the two father figures of Wilford and Gilliam.