If you watched Snowpiercer and were left with questions, you might have turned to any number of reviews available that often had the same complaint: The movie is a fantastic spectacle, but there are lots of narrative issues that keep the film from making literal sense.
That's what I want to address here. Not every narrative follows the same logic as a newspaper article, where A leads to B leads to C. There are at least two other ways of looking at Snowpiercer a little less literally, first as an homage, second as a myth (where I'm riffing on a previous io9 article). Watching the film through these lenses might help make the film make more sense than wondering why they're doing what they do in the first place.
As an Homage
One way of looking at the film is how it seems to be a bit of an homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), a film about an anti-tsarist revolt on a Russian battleship. Many of the early shots in Snowpiercer recall Eisenstein's shots of the sailors sleeping in the cramped hull of the ship. Eisenstein experimented with odd angles in his experiments with montage, and we get similar angles in the tail section. Eisenstein's film is also broken up into five sections that have parallels in Snowpiercer:
1.) Men and Worms, where the sailors find their food is infested with worms.
- Echoed in the protein bars being literally made of insects.
2.) Drama on the Deck, where the sailors who refuse the wormy food are found guilty of insubordination.
- The tail-enders fuss about the protein bars, and act up when the two children are taken. Mason also finds them guilty of insubordination.
3.) The Dead Man Called, when the sailors successfully mutiny, but their leader is killed in battle.
- There are a few leaders who bite it in Snowpiercer, including Edgar and Gilliam.
4.) The Odessa Steps, where the Tsar's Cossacks mow down an unarmed crowd and the sailors attack the Cossacks.
The Odessa Steps scene is one of Eisenstein's famous examples of cinematic montage, and you can watch it below. Any of the characters in the scene wouldn't be out of place on Wilford's train.
- The closest parallel here is with the night vision militia, who just kill indiscriminately while the tail-fighters try to take them out.
5.) One Against All, when the sailors decide to take their battleship off to face the Tsar's fleet. But instead of blowing the Potemkin out of the water, the fleet refuse to fire on them.
- The direct analogy doesn't quite work here, but you do end up with fewer and fewer tail-enders fighting their way through the All, until that scene at the end when Nam is the one holding off the rest of the All on the bridge. Plus Wilford wants to join with Curtis rather than blow him off the train.
So that's one way of looking at the film.
As a Myth
Another way of looking at the film as as a myth. A while back, novelist Michael Hughes posted an article looking at the film as a sci-fi version of an 2nd century Christian heresy, Gnosticism. I largely agree with his assessment, but think Hughes makes the parallels a little too pat. There does seem to be a good bit of Gnostic influence on the structure of the story, and I'm more interested in the specifics within the film, but I don't know if it quite works as an allegory of what he lays out. Perhaps the film works better as another version of that story, a new myth taking on some of the same ideas.
(Disclaimer: I'm not invested in this and am not out to proselytize anything here. I'm just pointing out some narrative parallels that seem to be structuring the story. So no need to let everyone know how they're going to hell or how little interest an atheist has in some old heretical tradition. The point here is the story, not anyone's pet worldview. Only some of what appears below is from Hughes' piece — the larger outlines; a lot of the more specific stuff is mine. )
Before jumping in to this section, don't forget that director Bong Joon-ho is adapting the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. So the complications of the story have their roots in the source material, and aren't necessarily just the director trying to be clever for the sake of it. Arguably, Bong Joon-ho has simplified the story some.
Gnosticism isn't an easy or necessarily consistent philosophy, and that's probably not even the right word for it (it was once seen as a slander). Prof. Elaine Pagels has said Gnosticism is to Christianity as grad school is to elementary school, or something like that. But the basics are meant to be:
A.) The god of this world — the demiurge — is a mad god who created a faulty world that traps humanity.
- That's Wilford. He even talks about how it helps to be insane to survive on the train. His created world is the train trapping humanity from the real world beyond his creation. Hughes notes this.
B.) That crap world is a kind of torture.
- The tail section.
C.) The only way out of that crap world is to gain knowledge of the world (as opposed to faith), and to use that knowledge to break out of the crap world into the higher, real world (gnosis is Greek for "knowledge").
- The messages and experience of previous revolts adds to the tail section's knowledge of what's beyond their section. Each section of the train is another "world" that's just a little better than the previous, and they keep getting just enough info (knowledge) to keep going to the next section/world.
- The torches seem pretty Olympian and echo Prometheus stealing fire, and that fire-theft signifies enlightenment in the Promethean myth (i.e. knowledge)
- This is where I have a difference with Hughes' take on the film: The trainers know that a better world exists. They have windows, and some of them lived in the outside world before it went cold. With Gnosticism, people aren't supposed to be aware of the better worlds beyond the one they know — that's part of the knowledge they come to gain. (Spoiler: Think Deckard from Blade Runner and how he comes to realize he may be a replicant himself — that's the new world he comes to gain knowledge of.)
D.) A remote highest entity (higher than the mad demiurge, the all in all, called Pleroma). This highest entity has emanations called Aeons that are aspects of the Pleroma from which they emanate.
- The engine is the divine thing, like Tilda Swinton keeps saying, and every car is an emanation from the highest divinity. The tail section is the most removed, and therefore the most decrepit.
E.) The demiurge has subordinates called Archons who rule the material world and interfere with those trying to escape it. Hughes notes Mason, but there are more.
- In every section of the train we see an Archon-type figure; Mason, Franco the Elder (shooter in a suit), Franco the Younger (bearded guy in a suit), Wilford's assistant Claude, Teacher, the military, the giant swinging the hammer in front of the protein bar section, the masked militia with the night-vision goggles.
- Archons can also take on the roles of angels and demons in traditional biblical texts. Some of the last Archon-type figures Curtis and Nam have to get by are the ravers, and they're wearing angel wings for crying out loud.
- Bong Joon-ho might consider Harvey Weinstein to be a Hollywood Archon.
F.) In some versions of Gnosticism, Jesus is an emanation or embodiment of the Pleroma who becomes human in order to bring gnosis to earth (at least to those who are able to receive it — but they can't just be told; it's a process that they have to go through). In other versions Jesus is a false messiah that might be wise, but is also just aping the teachings of John the Baptist, or Mani, or Seth.
- Have a look at Gilliam, who literally sheds his body for others to consume in an effort to save them all. Others then follow his self-sacrificial lead. His false arm is a crook, like a shepherd's crook. It's a little heavy-handed once you start looking for the signs. Again, Hughes notes Gilliam's Christ-like qualities, but keep reading, because that's about to get all twisted.
G.) A couple symbols associated with gnosticism are the crossed circle and the ouroboros (the snake eating its tail).
- The crossed circle is all over in the engine room. It's in that contraption at the front of the engine section; it morphs into different variations of a crossed circle; and when Curtis sticks his arm in the gears and part of that section of the engine pushes out, yet another crossed circle is visible on the end of that pushed-out section.
- Remember how we learn that Wilford and Gilliam were working together — that's the head and the tail working together. Through them, the train itself becomes a kind of ouroboros, as the tail and the head were always connected.
- Which, by the way, reveals that Gilliam isn't a Jesus figure, but he's a deceiver and another Archon, like Mason or Franco or Claude. This is somewhat in keeping with those traditions that hold Jesus wasn't the way out of the prison world, but was a way to keep putting yourself back into it. Gilliam's duplicity makes more sense of the night vision militia slicing up the fish, at least symbolically.
So what's the point? Why does Wilford put the tail-enders through that hell every few years? If it's seen more as myth than straight-forward story, that question doesn't seem as important as what Curtis and the rest learn by going through the process of staging a revolt. Asking for the literal point is kind of like asking why Cronos eats his children, or why Odin has to give up an eye in order to gain wisdom (insight); the point isn't the literal meaning of the text, it's the symbolic valence of the action.
By staging these occasional coups, Wilford and Gilliam give everyone in the train experiences that they can learn from if they're reflective enough. The only issue is that Wilford is insane and doesn't see a problem with the tragic sacrifice of humanity in order to generate those experiences.
In other words, Wilford is just re-creating what would happen in the real world, but in a compressed and decrepit way — just like his train is a compressed, decrepit version of the real world. The only way around him and his cycles of revolt is to break out of his world.
Snowpiercer obviously isn't the first film to take on this kind of subject matter. There was Blade Runner, Dark City, The Matrix, and The Truman Show (which Hughes noted), among others. One of the nice things Snowpiercer accomplishes, though, is finding a way to show that the next world/car could just be another world to break out of, not one to settle for. That's what Neo gets wrong: He takes Morpheus at his word and assumes the 'desert of the real' is the actual real world, even though Morpheus just showed him that what Neo thought was real wasn't actually the case and he shouldn't trust his senses.
By the way: Nam is pretty much Curtis' Morpheus. Nam is the guide from one world to the next, and thanks to the kronole, Nam even exists between two states of consciousness, just like the name Morpheus — god of dreams — suggests. And the same stuff that's meant to blow open the doors of perception also blows open the doors of the train out to the other world.
So those are two other ways of looking at Snowpiercer that may help it make more than literal sense.