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Analysis of Snowpiercer Part III: Gilliam, Wilford, and the Brilliance of Casting Chris Evans

Spoilers ahead! Go watch the film on Netflix if you haven’t seen it, then come back.

Gilliam, Wilford, and the Brilliance of Casting Chris Evans

The ending reveals that there are two leaders in control of the train, Snowpiercer: Wilford and Gilliam played by Ed Harris and John Hurt respectively. These are two older, white men (traditional heads of patriarchy) with long-standing gravitas in their acting careers. They use their engineering skills (not just for trains!) to manufacture a new leader in Curtis who they hope will take Wilford’s place in the engine. The two have somewhat different ways of guiding Curtis into this position.

snowpiercer curtis gilliamGilliam speaks directly to his spiritual side, leading him from cannibalism and inhumanity to empathetic concern for the other tail-section dwellers. While Curtis takes this as truth, and certainly Bong Joon-ho seems to agree, we have only ambiguous indications that Gilliam himself believes this. Yes, he sacrifices both an arm and a leg to bring the tail-section in line. And ultimately he sacrifices his life during the rebellion, but his final advice to Curtis is to cut out Wilford’s tongue when he meets him, to not let him speak. This advice is to keep the lie of the rebellion in place. If Curtis believes he is the natural leader through revolution, he will take Wilford’s place and attempt to equalize the classes of the train. Gilliam may believe that equalization is possible, but only if Curtis believes in it, or he may simply know that if Curtis finds out the truth, he will be too shaken to assume leadership.

Snowpiercer Curtis WilfordWilford takes a different tack, appealing to Curtis’s intellect and practical, strategic mind. Wilford saw in Curtis the man who counted the seconds the doors were all open, gathered resources from the various hovels of the tail-dwellers to put together a battering ram/moving tunnel, and correctly interpreted each of his one-word clues for progression. Curtis, to him, is a man who sees the big picture of the train, the one man who has walked the train’s entire length, who has physically and morally been from the tail to the engine. Seeing this in him, Wilford decides to just lay out the entirety of his job thinking Curtis will see the great responsibility before him and be pulled in.

Gilliam turns out to be right. Curtis fails to cut down Wilford before Wilford reveals the truth of the train’s engineered ecosystem, including the revolts, and Curtis’s belief system is shaken down to his last core belief–the importance of sacrificing strength to protect the weak and the young.

Now the brilliance of Chris Evans as Curtis:

  1. He is another white male, so when the reveal comes that he’s been hand-picked by the older white males to perpetuate the train/class system, it makes sense. It’s equally intriguing that he chooses to throw aside the system, ultimately, to end the oppression of the classes. Not only have the tail-dwellers been blinded, so have the front-dwellers. The children are used to either be workers in the machine or brainwashed to be obedient, faceless soldiers protecting the machine.
  2. We expect Curtis to be the hero Chris Evans is now known for playing. Chris Evans sought this role out after doing multiple Marvel films, perhaps with the idea of keeping his range visible to the public. Ironically, Curtis is a perfect anti-Captain America. He seems, at first, to be that hero fighting for the weak against tremendous odds. He’s brave, smart, caring, and a good fighter. But he’s also been what Captain America has never been–inhuman, self-loathing. He addresses this issue early on in the film when he discusses Edgar’s hero-worship as being undeserved with Gilliam, his own hero. Gilliam says few heroes are truly what we think they are. It foreshadows the reveal of Gilliam working with Wilford but also points a finger at our own expectations of Chris Evans.
  3. winter soldier capitalThere’s even more intertextuality with Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spoiler alert for Winter Soldier. In the Captain America sequel, Cap is disturbed to find out the people he’s been working for, S.H.I.E.L.D., has been infiltrated by the terrorist group Hydra. He’s been used by Hydra to further their nefarious plans of world domination by instilling fear in the public. Fear will make the people look to authority for guidance and safety. They will give up their rights in the name of safety. This is also true for Curtis in Snowpiercer. Wilford has used fear of the ever-present death outside the train to keep the train in line. Curtis believes he’s doing right by rebelling against the system. He doesn’t realize his actions feed into the plans Wilford has to perpetuate that same system. Taken together, these two films both offer a critique of a very familiar society–our own. The class inequities. The policies which have taken our rights to supposedly insure safety. Both films ask what the cost is and offer scathing answers.
  4. Although I don’t tend to think of dramatic gravitas when I think of Chris Evans, I’m not sure just any ol’ actor could believably pull off this monologue without it passing into complete campiness. Those lines are cringeworthy, the subject matter is certainly cringeworthy, but Evans sells the speech, and I for one bought it.
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Analysis of Snowpiercer Part II: Symbolism of the Fish

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

aquariumThe 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.

executioner fish*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.


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Analysis of Snowpiercer Part I: The Ending

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.

The Ending

Classic Hollywood action movie ending with heroes victorious, eating schwarma.

Classic Hollywood action movie ending with heroes victorious, eating schwarma.

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.

snowpiercer2His 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.

yona timmyWhen 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.


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Movie Review: Snowpiercer (Spoiler Free)

snowpiercerA post-apocalyptic ice age forces humanity’s last survivors aboard a globe-spanning super train. One man (Chris Evans) will risk everything to lead a revolt for control of the engine and the future of the world.

We had Snowpiercer on our Instant Queue “My List” for months before finally making the time to watch it last night. I ended up being decidedly impressed with it. Here’s my spoiler free review. Spoilerific analysis to come later this week.

At the heart of the film is a post-apocalyptic dystopia. A man-made ice-age, brought on by a last-ditch attempt to counter the effects of climate change, has made life on Earth all but extinct. What’s left are the few humans, animals, and plants that circle the globe on a train called Snowpiercer.

The designer of this “ark” is a man named Wilford, a mysterious man who occupies the front of the train, the engine room, and holds a status on the train just below God. But the film focuses on the lowest strata of the train–those who live in sub-human conditions in the tail of the car. These survivors live in overcrowding and filth, eat gelatinous protein bars for every meal, and are at the mercy of the whims of the front cars and the guards who keep the tail in line. Meanwhile the passengers in the front of the train enjoy steak dinners and other luxuries the tail-people can only imagine.

The injustices have caused a tipping point in the tail-enders–they are ready to follow the risky plan of Curtis (Chris Evans) forward to take the engine, and thus control of the train.

swintonsnowpiercerThe film begins as a fascinating dystopian vision. The soot-covered tail inhabitants, their grubby clothing, and their interactions paint a picture of oppressed community attempting to function underneath a fascist system they have no power to oppose. As the plot thickens, stirring the tail-people to revolt, director Bong Joon Ho is not afraid to show the audience the horror of a social system kept in place through violence and fear. And while there’s plenty of bleakness to the world of the tail-enders, there is also dark humor, often through the absurd costuming and mannerisms of Tilda Swinton’s character Mason. She gives a speech early on meant to bring the tail-enders back in line which centers on how you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head–stay in your place–while adjacent to her a man is being brutally punished for a recent offense against a front-dweller. The mix tonally echoed a film like Judge Dredd (2012), though the film-making overall was much stronger.

As Curtis’s plan gets underway, the film becomes a riveting action film, one built especially for those who might be sick of the action sequences of big blockbuster films whose directors have no sense of direction or the 180-degree rule. In Snowpiercer, location and direction are very much the point, and Bong Joon Ho uses these to heighten the tension and build the reveals until the ending.

So while the film is a fascinating sci-fi action spectacle, it is also a piercing social critique, skewing systems of class especially and how those systems are kept in place through cyclical routines. The structure of the train, the color and lighting choices, and the cinematography all echoed these themes. The film kept me thinking about its implications over night and into today–and I’m sure I’m not done yet.

Snowpiercer is a vision of society that infested my dreams and has begun resonating strongly, like, Apocalypse Now-level strongly. I intend to unpack some of that thinking in a later post. Until then, I can only recommend as highly as possible that you view this on Netflix Instant while you still have the chance.