The Surprise of Snowpiercer

I’m a huge fan of the film Snowpiercer. It’s an exciting, action-packed story and a powerful modern fable. That’s also why I thought it would make a terrible TV show.

Snowpiercer is a parable about inequality. Following an environmental cataclysm, humanity has been reduced to the inhabitants of a single massive train, constantly rolling around the world. The inhabitants are strictly divided by class, with the wealthiest few living in spacious carriages at the front, the poorest crowded together in the rear, and a range of other ranks between. Pushed to the limit, a group of the train’s poorest inhabitants set out on a revolutionary journey to overthrow the hierarchy by fighting their way to the front of the train. As messages go, it’s not subtle.

As a film, it works because, in the short space of a couple of hours, you’re carried along by the pace of the story. You don’t pay attention to the things about life on this train that don’t make real-life sense, like how they’re managing to feed everyone. The film’s train works as a symbol, not a coherent reality, and you can brush over that for a two-hour parable. Not, I thought, for a long-form television story.

It turns out that I was wrong. The makers of the TV show have found a way to expand upon the setting of Snowpiercer, by showing us the other side of the fight for control of the train. Instead of portraying the train as a functioning self-contained system, we’re shown that it’s constantly on the brink of collapse, the people in charge struggling to hold things together. It’s like the middle third of Seveneves, where experts are desperately trying to save what’s left of humanity using the dwindling resources of a broken orbital armada. Viewers look at Snowpiercer‘s train-bound society, say “that couldn’t work”, and the characters look back at us and say “we know!”

This changes the nature of the story. The morality of the film was clear and simple – oppression bad, rebellion good. In the show, it’s more complicated. The people holding down the poorer class are doing so because they think it’s necessary to save humanity. I’m not sure that’s a good message to make relatable right now, when we’re seeing real-life authoritarians throwing around justifications for cruel and brutal behaviour. It’s certainly an argument though, and it will be interesting to see where the show takes a more nuanced and complex, but still tense and intriguing, version of its story.

Snowpiercer and Ghost in the Shell – Metaphor in Action

I love science fiction movies. The joy I take from their combination of interesting ideas and cool spectacle mean that I’ll enjoy some pretty shallow stuff. But in the past week I’ve belatedly watched two films that combine sci-fi awesomeness with real depth and incredible style. That makes me incredibly happy.

Snowpiercer

Before we go any further I have a confession to make – I’m a little bit in love with Snowpiercer‘s star Chris Evans. I know, I know – I’m married, straight and live thousands of miles from Hollywood. But dammit, I cannot get enough of that guy. He was a cool Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four, a wonderfully obnoxious Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and even made Captain America into my favourite big screen superhero. I’m British, proudly European and intensely suspicious of patriotism, yet he made me cheer for the guy wearing the stars and stripes. He is the king of comic book movie adaptations. His presence alone was enough to make me watch this one.

Evans does put in another good performance, as do the many talented actors in the cast. But that’s not what made me love this film. What did that was the incredible sense of style.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the surviving humans live on a giant train, Snowpiercer is incredibly visually striking. The interiors of carriages are distinct and fascinating, the costumes evocative, and it’s full of stylishly shot moments that enhance rather than distract from the plot.

The plot itself is a story of class struggle, in which Evans’s character Curtis leads a revolt against the oppressive upper class living in luxury at the front of the train. There’s meaning behind the action. This isn’t a simple Marxist polemic encouraging us through metaphor to strike off the shackles of oppression. As the story progresses it examines the cost and value of such a revolution, and asks whether it can ever succeed. Yes, it’s all obviously symbolic, but that’s no bad thing. Films should mean something.

Ghost in the Shell

I’ve only dabbled in watching anime, but I’d still heard enough about Ghost in the Shell to know that it would be worth my time. A near future detective thriller, it’s about a cyborg cop trying to hunt down the criminals hacking people’s brains.

Like SnowpiercerGhost in the Shell alternates scenes of incredible action with stretches of stillness and contemplation. It doesn’t just give the viewer time to catch their breath, it forces them to stop and contemplate what’s going on, as the animators present us with stunning visuals of rain-soaked streets, showing that there’s a wider city and society beyond the immediate action, and that the lives of other people in that city matter too.

Given its cast of cyborgs, robots and hacked brains, Ghost in the Shell inevitably raises questions about what it is to be human, and where the boundaries of humanity lie. Can a robot really be a person? If we could hack brains, would that reduce us all to machines? It doesn’t hammer the point home too often, but even its action brings the question forward, as characters we think of as people go through things no human body could.

Finding Our Own Meanings

Made eighteen years apart, these films have only come together in my mind because of the accident of watching them in the same week. But they both show such style, depth and excitement that they reminded me of how good sci-fi films can be, and that for all the shallow blockbusters, sometimes there are deep ones too.