Snowpiercer imagines a world where the class system follows us to the grave, but in doing so, does it fail at its own goals?
It was Snowpiercer, not Parasite, that was meant to be Bong Joon-ho’s big western debut, but the film had the misfortune to be picked up by the Weinstein Company. Harvey Weinstein wanted a shorter cut of the film with more action and more Chris Evans. Joon-ho’s cut rated better with test audiences, so Weinstein allowed him to keep it, but only gave the film a limited release. I remember seeing the trailer for Snowpiercer years ago and thinking it looked like a generic action movie: Captain America on a train. Despite being lauded by critics, it sailed well under the radar because of the limited release, until Parasite destroyed us and we all went looking for more Bong Joon-ho.
Both Snowpiercer and Parasite engage with and critique the class system. Parasite is the more successful of the two, and even won the Oscar for Best Picture, the first foreign language film to do so. It manages to actually interrogate class. It asks who is the parasite and who is the host – who is leaching from whom. Snowpiercer, on the other hand, seems only to acknowledge that class exists; something we hardly needed an analogy for. My unpopular opinion is this: Snowpiercer, while being an incredible work of art and a bloody good film, fails at its own goals. There are gaping holes in its analogy, but those holes identify more about class and the structures that uphold it than the film itself.
In addition to the film is the Netflix series no one asked for. This was a tough watch. I was very disappointed to reach episode eight, think I was done, and then find two more episodes had been released. However, the series is worthwhile if you want a deeper dive into the world-building and a deeper imagining of the possibilities and sub-cultures that would arise when the last dregs of humanity are stuck on a train circling the globe.
The film sets out to make a statement on class and falls short of the mark. Meanwhile, the series doesn’t feel like it wants to engage, but actually does so incidentally. It shows indoctrination of the young to fear the poor, and a few characters becoming upwardly mobile, and then being considered class traitors. Both show and film put forward the idea that class is somehow central to a functioning society as an organising principle. Tilda Swinton’s character says, “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.” She holds a shoe to represent the third class, while explaining that she’s a hat and therefore belongs on the head. It’s a frightening idea: that some have a sacred duty to be poor.
The concept of this sacred duty felt incomplete in both versions of Snowpiercer because it failed to depict the role of labour. Labour and class surely can’t be separated. The third class, or “Tailies” in the series (because they’re in the tail – get it?) barely do anything. In the series a few are taken out to do some menial work, but it’s the middle class that does nearly everything. In the film, two kids are taken away and it’s revealed that they’ve been put in the engine to replace broken parts because their bodies are small enough to fit. But this is all the poorest class is depicted as doing. Yet they’re fed and told they have a place in the system. Without their labour, their place in the order doesn’t make any sense. Class can’t exist without labour, because it’s the exploited work of the poor that allows the luxury of the few.
The lack of labour sat uncomfortably with me, because it seemed to perpetuate the idea of the poorest classes as beneficiaries that should be happy with their protein bars. I had an argument with a date recently about whether it was right or fair that his colleague was paid $500 an hour (you can imagine how well the date was going). He argued that his colleague had put himself through law school and worked hard, thus deserved to be paid such an exorbitant sum. I asked him to look around at the world post-Covid, at who was working the hardest. Who was keeping society functioning. It certainly wasn’t him or me. It wasn’t his very educated and hard-working colleague. It was the checkout operators, nurses, courier drivers, and the people working round the clock to make flour bags so we could get back to our sourdough. I explained to him, as his eyes unglazed long enough to check his watch, that I’d been at uni just as long as his colleague yet I answer the phone at a recruitment agency for less than the living wage; work I’m OK with because my personal value isn’t determined by how much money I earn.
This wasn’t to say his colleague doesn’t work hard – I’m sure he does. I also work hard, though not as hard as if I were working in Countdown. It’s to say that we’ve assigned particular labour with a particular dollar value, and that value has nothing to do with how hard we work or that work’s intrinsic worth to our society. It was my enduring hope through lockdown that we as a society would emerge from our homes, blinking in the sunlight, knowing that the people who came to save us were not the rich, but the people doing work that’s generally paid less than the liveable wage. I hoped we’d be done with the idea that the rich are better. Snowpiercer was right: we all have a place in our very flawed system, but it also suggests that being working class and being poor have to stand and fall together. We need the working class. We don’t need them to be poor. We need to understand the true value of their labour.
One thing the film did show in a compelling way was that the kids in the engine were valued purely for their bodies. They had the same worth as the engine part they replaced. In the same way, the bodies of garment workers and brick makers and cacao harvesters, and the labourers in Amazon warehouses who can’t call in sick if they get Covid, are valued as automatons, or cogs in an engine, valuable while they work, replaced when they break, rather than as smart and complex people with intrinsic worth.
I think a deeper understanding of class would have come with this ending: Chris Evans, despite being appalled that there are kids in the engine, decides to close the door rather than driving his arm into the spokes to rescue them. Then he’d be making the same choice we make all the time. We choose a certain level of comfort despite knowing the labour that sustains it. We buy chocolate and smartphones, and expensive yoga pants, while maybe just not thinking about who’s producing those things, and how much they’re being paid. We’re meant to relate to Chris Evans/Daveed Diggs’ character, but if you watched it on a computer, and if you’re reading The Spinoff, it’s more likely that you’re Tilda Swinton’s.
Though we’re victims of the class system, we’re not the worst hit. It’s the middle of the chain that links the two ends together. We’re the ones funnelling money up the line. There’s a point in the movie where the Chris Evans Gang has been ambushed by the upper-class cronies. Tilda Swinton picks up a gun, gets it kicked out of her hands, and says, “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me.” A lot of the discourse around class and capitalism seems to absolve the middle class of guilt. As Swinton’s character says, there are shoes and hats. But what about the gloves that consume the products made by exploited labour forces, and pass the profits along? The wealth divide is a scandal that we, as a society, both suffer from and protect.
The film suggests that class is written into our DNA; that when there’s only a handful of people left alive at the end of the world, class will remain with us. The film wraps up with a hopeful shot of a polar bear, to suggest that nature is healing and humanity might kick on a little longer. This felt like a sudden divergence. Neither the film nor the series sets us up to wonder if humanity will survive, but whether the class system will follow us, right to the bitter end.
You can watch Snowpiercer (both the film and the series) on Netflix now.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.