In portraying environmental issues, film has proven its unique power to influence public sentiment. A standout example is The China Syndrome, a 1979 anti-nuclear thriller released mere days before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor plant accident made front-page news. The 2012 feature film The Promised Land brought to audiences images, ideas and emotions about the fracking controversy.
So this reviewer welcomed the news that a feature movie about the world transformed by climate change was arriving in U.S. theaters. Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho and released internationally last year, is based on a 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige.
The medium of film, with its broad reach and appeal, seemed an ideal medium to explore how humanity can address an environmental calamity whose effects are becoming clearer every day.
Technology to the rescue
Snowpiercer starts out strong, with an intriguing premise. A brief screen crawl explains that in July 2014, 79 countries jointly dispersed the chemical CW7 in the upper atmosphere in a desperate attempt to mitigate global warming (Set aside the risible idea of 79 countries managing to agree on a unified action – even the wrong one). The film then jumps immediately 18 years forward into the climate apocalypse.
What to make of a film, set in the aftermath of climate-change catastrophe, that engages so little consideration of its causes?
By Snowpiercer’s superficial logic, you might believe that complete destruction of the ecosphere was merely a fluke of bad planning, rather than the inescapable outcome of human overshoot of resources, poisoning of the atmosphere through unrestrained use of fossil fuels and unsustainable levels of consumption. It would have been worthwhile for the film’s director to explore the topic more thoroughly, if only because proposals for the climate experimentation that led to disaster in that society are already underway in our own.
As science journalist Dianne Dumanoski explains in her valuable climate change primer The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth, scientists, often under government mandate, have been studying weather modification schemes as varied as artificial volcanoes, launching deflecting mirrors in space and locking up carbon dioxide through fertilization of the world’s oceans. After a hiatus of decades, consideration of such plans –and others even more extreme –is stepping up. Dumanoski writes:
As the reality of accelerating climate change becomes inescapable, some scientists and engineers have remained confident that there must be a quicker and easier solution to global warming than giving up fossil fuels. This line of thinking has given rise to proposals for geoengineering – deliberate planetary-scale manipulation of the Earth’s metabolism…Technology may allow us to avoid for a while longer the hard systemic questions about how to live productively within the imperatives of a finite Earth, but this avoidance leaves those who will finally confront this challenge with ever worsening options.
Snakes on a train
The Snowpiercer storyline progresses as an odyssey (with extreme body count) as the downtrodden Snowpiercer inhabitants in the rear train sections foment a takeover of the train in search of the good food and clean water enjoyed by the elite in the forward cars. Their chief opposition is Mason (Tilda Swinton), a zealous Wilford functionary with a terrifying lisp and a pea-sized moral conscience.
She dispenses punishment on behalf of the corporation, while intoning bromides about the militarized order in which everyone must have, and keep, his preordained “place.” Her humanistic disconnect is so absurdly extreme it’s almost funny, and if the director had maintained this satiric edge, the viewer could at least catch a few laughs, or maybe even reflect on parallel attitudes in our contemporary reality.
But cringe-inducing violence dominates as the 99 percenters hack and gouge their way to the front rail cars. The film’s pace is so breathless that it never pauses to consider, even in flashback, what actually produced the train passengers’ desperate situation.
The sad and hermetically sealed Snowpiercer inhabitants live out the results of a fateful combination of human apathy and scientific hubris. Does Snowpiercer offer any cautionary lessons for us, facing a looming environmental upheaval?
No such luck.
Prison-break vibe but no context
Director Bong Joon-ho evidently has mastered the ingredients necessary for an international blockbuster: dazzling visuals and special effects, non-stop action and brutal violence. But in this film he has failed to include a necessary element — a brain.
Without providing context and grappling with the issues it represents, Snowpiercer, despite its compelling setting, is little more than an elaborate prison-break movie on wheels, with the usual Big House clichés intact. And in settling for less, the director has missed a golden opportunity to frame our generation’s most pressing challenge and bring it to a wider audience in a popular entertainment format.
I’m still waiting for that kind of movie, one that informs, inspiring us to reflect and then urging us on to appropriate action. But for this reviewer, Snowpiercer is a train to nowhere.
The original graphic novel version of Snowpiercer (Le Transperceneige), created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, is available in English translation from Titan Comics.
The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth, by Dianne Dumanoski. Comprehensive yet accessibly written, this concise volume covers all aspects of the climate change. The chapter on weather modification describes the history and science of geoengineering.
This piece originally ran at WilliardWorks.
— Gerri Williams, Transition Voice