I may be late to the party, but I have to admit that Snowpiercer is one of the most striking I have ever seen recently. It also has many intense and challenging characters acted well by the likes of Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-Ho, John Hurt, and my favorite actor Jamie Bell. The visual text Snowpiercer (2013), is directed by Bong Joon-ho, and there are several narrative features that convey certain ideas, themes, and motifs, and work to make the overall experience of the film surreal, intense, and susuccessful in the message it is trying to get across. Snowpiercer is a science-fiction action film, set in a post-apocalyptic world, after a failed geoengineering plan to stop climate change causes the world to freeze over, where all the earths surviving inhabitants are living in a perpetual motion train that circumnavigates the world. The train has 3 very different classes of people; first class, economy, and the freeloaders, who reside in the grimy, dirty and poor tail section. Snowpiercer is a story of an uprising, where the tail section passengers fight their way to the engine room, in an attempt to end the discrimination and hardship that has plagued them for 18 years, led by the brave but unwilling leader Curtis. Joon-ho portrays Curtis character development through the use of internal and external conflict, both spawning from the train. To depict the themes of humanity, Marxism, corruption, and the social class system, the setting of the train is used as an allegory to the corrupt world we live in today, and the potential fate of humanity. The third narrative feature is the music/soundtrack/sound effects to enhance the emotions felt in certain scenes and to ramp up the intensity and surrealistic nature of the film.
Through the use of the internal and external conflict within and surrounding Curtis throughout the film, the viewer’s perceptions are changed continuously and we begin to realize how deep and complicated the main character is. In the beginning of the film and during it, everybody in the tail section looks to Curtis to lead them. We get a sense that Curtis is not as confident and calm as he seems to be. In one conversation with Gilliam, his mentor, Gilliam states:“He thinks the world of you,” (referring to Curtis’s second in command, Edgar.) “He shouldn’t worship me the way he does. I’m not who he thinks I am.” Edgar looks up to Curtis, but later on in the film, we realize the root of Curtis’s feeling of inferiority and guilt is caused by his painful past. During a time when there was no food for the lower class occupants, people resorted to cannibalism. Curtis had killed Edgars mother, and was going to eat Edgar (who was a baby at that time), but Gilliam intervened and cut off his own arm for Curtis to eat instead. Curtis had to live with the guilt of his actions for the rest of his life and Edgar is a constant reminder that he is only alive because of Gilliam’s sacrifice, not Curtis. Another example of the internal conflict that afflicts Curtis is when he says “You can’t be a leader with two arms.” He doesn’t feel worthy enough to lead people who have sacrificed their limbs, which are obviously very important to them, while he hasn’t. Curtis sees it as a sign of weakness and he sees it as deplorable because of the fact that he still has all his limbs. Though it is an extreme example, it still highlights the shame people feel from acts that they wish they had did, or they wish they never did. The external conflict that Curtis must face up to is the life he, and all the people surrounding him live in the tail section of the train. Confined to cramped and dirty living conditions, facing guard brutality, and left to eat protein blocks that are made of cockroaches, Curtis and his friends had had enough of the cruel social system that the train was made up of. From the revolution that Curtis leads, he has to face death from all angles, and the fight to get to the front of the train getting continuously harder and harder as he goes through each carriage of the train. The audience can relate to the internal/external conflict that Curtis is dealing with, because no one is free from problems, and pain. If we have no external conflict, we can be confident that there is going to be internal conflict that uproots us from the inside. Shame is a epidemic in our society today, and riddles the lives of billions. The shame that Curtis feels is very close to the hearts of all of us.
The setting in Snowpiercer is another narrative feature that shows the social class system in which the inhabitants on the train are confined to and how order is kept and lost, and how this relates to wider society. The setting of the train is a representation of life, or at least how some people view the world: First class, if for those who can afford it. They live more than comfortably, abusing their power and indulging in gluttony and avarice. They believe that everyone has their pre-ordained position in the different carriages of the train. The freeloaders deserve the bare minimum, they are lucky to even get a spot in the train, and “food” given to them. There a graphic and stark contrasts to the lives the different classes of people live in the train, shown through the setting. The lower class is grimy, represented in drab dark colours. The upper class carriages are rich in colour and texture. For example there is a spa car, a sushi bar, a dance club, and a green house. There are such gross displays richness that it is disgusting. How can a small percentage of people have such a large percentage of the wealth, and more often than not they seem to abuse their power. This does relate to wider society, because the richest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion. The order in Snowpiercer is maintained by dictatorial and corrupted inertia, rather than democratic progress. This also relates to Marxism. Marxism says that people are organized into groups and classes based on their relationship to how things are made. For example, Wilford is the leader of the train, because he created the train. He is top of the ranking. All the tail section inhabitants are the lowest of the low because they have no relationship at all with how things are made; they do not contribute in any way. This social commentary hits the audience hard. We feel the tail sections plight, we associate with them. The everyday person watching this will still relate to the struggle, even though Snowpiercer is from such a different world completely. The setting of the train, in the midst of a cold and uninhabitable world, is an allegory to Marxism and the theory of social classes.
The last narrative technique I will be examining is the use of the soundtrack/ sound effects to reinforce the feelings and experiences as well as the intensity and the tone of the certain scenes in Snowpiercer. An example of the effectiveness of the soundtrack and what it works to portray is in the fight scene with the Tail section inhabitants against the fishmonger/armed men. By muting the other noises of the fight happening around Curtis, and zooming in on the sound of the swishing of Curtis’s axe, we hone in to Curtis’s actions and how he feels when he is fighting. Focused, detached, almost like a machine. This could be saying how when you are surrounded by pain, death, and violence, the only way to cope is to become detached, or else you will not survive. In another scene,(at 25:40) the tail section occupants only have one chance, a few short minutes, to actually pull off the uprising. It’s now or never. The doors of the train are on an automated timer, they open and close at certain times of the day, and if you want to ever get through them unauthorised, you need to get past the guards, and physically keep the doors pried open. The audience understand how important this scene is in the film, by the use of the soundtrack. The deep slamming drums, and the high pitched minor wail of an oboe all work to create a sense of urgency, and intensity, and reinforces the themes of revolutions and uprisings, and how people react to injustices that happen to them. The soundtrack works to develop major themes in the narrative, and to maintain the suspension of disbelief throughout the film. If the audience can accept the reality that they are presented, then the film will be successful in its aim. Though Snowpiercer has extremities (cannibalism, eating cockroaches in protein blocks, and the fact that the train could even circumnavigate the entire world without running out of gas or staying on the rails), the suspension of disbelief is maintained through many narrative techniques, including the soundtrack.
In summary, Snowpiercer is a thrilling, fiery, chilling, and surreal film, packed full of explosive narrative techniques that add to the story, and give a disturbing view of the world we live in today, and how it works. Through the use of internal/external conflict, we see the development that Curtis has to go through, and where his hidden shame comes from. The setting of the train give us insight into Marxism, social class, and wealth inequality that the world is full of and adds a different dimension and depth to the film. The last technique, the soundtrack, works to add intensity and distinction to the film, working in particular scenes to toy with the audiences emotions and make us feel sensations ranging from barely contained terror to silent empathy from the harrowing but necessary crusade the tail section member go on.