A reemergent left was clearly amongst the most significant changes of the ‘10s, and these changes were not unaddressed by world cinema. Significantly, Bong Joon-ho’s first English language feature Snowpiercer (2013) marks an important occasion in the advocation for political change in the context of mainstream cinema. Bong’s film depicts the last living group of humans, all traveling aboard a train that traverses the earth in such a way as to avoid the effects of devastating climate change. The train is arranged according to class, the impoverished at the back mostly unaware of the increases in quality of life realized by those in subsequent train cars; this arrangement culminates in a leadership car at the front that houses Wilford (Ed Harris) the chief engineer and architect of the train. The events of the film depict a revolution undertaken by those in the rear car led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a longtime denizen of the back who turns out to be a quite capable revolutionary as he wreaks havoc on increasingly lavish train cars in search of the engine.
The developing awareness of the depth of the divide aboard the train is punctuated by two significant realizations: One, the facilitator for the developing revolution, the fact that the disgusting but ultra-efficient protein bars that feed the rear cars are made out of crushed and processed bugs; and, two, the culminating event where it is found that children—what with their small size and skinny limbs—are a major tool in the functioning of the train, but of course only by way of brutal and strangely hypnotic working conditions. But it is the presence of various other, less narrative-bending, crystallizations that stabilize the film’s critique. Take, for instance, this portion of a speech presented by Minister Mason, a chief flunky of the train’s ruling class (played with precision by Tilda Swinton): “Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine,” she begins, “All things flow from the sacred engine. All things in their place, all passengers in their section. All water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine. In its own particular preordained position. So it is.” This speech takes place during the torturing of a dissenter, and it is at this early stage when the film lays the grounds for its account of contemporary capital. What is encapsulated here is a governing logic in which the well-being of the engine is worth any degree of human misery, and its unyielding primacy is the root of any and all decisions made aboard the train. If “engine” is replaced with “market” a clearly presented account of neoliberal logic quickly takes form: it proposes contemporary capitalism as a system in which the wellbeing and maintenance of the market is the primary concern of all politics.
This mode of governance and thinking developed, of course, throughout the latter half of the 20th century and found its way into formal authority most prominently during the Thatcher-Reagan 80s. But it was not until the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc that neoliberalism calcified into dominant hegemony; after the events of 1989 all avenues for alternatives seemed to have finally been put down. In this brief speech Snowpiercer at once summarises the logics of neoliberalism and critiques them by presenting them as the rationale of a group of unbelievably cruel ruling elites. The film follows and elaborates on this denunciation most clearly in its conclusion, when the train is finally derailed and it is revealed that the outside might in fact be habitable and different ways of living subsequently available.
Snowpiercer is an outright political allegory, one that showcases the abuses of modern society and the interests of modern efficiency in very direct terms, but it does this in the context of a major, successful, and well budgeted action film. And in this regard it must be thought of both as a significant cinematic achievement as well as an advancement in the capacities of blockbuster filmmaking. This is not to say that Snowpiercer invented the political blockbuster, but that the site and structure of its critique lines up with forthcoming changes in political discourse subsequently realized by political leaders like Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Jeremy Corbyn, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This film proposes a critique of neoliberal politics that directly addresses the rhetorics of market-first policy associated with neoliberal governance, marking and spurring the movement of this brand of critique from the academy into the mainstream. The failures of market oriented, technocratic politics are, by 2019, the significant subject of political discourse in many parts of the world, and Snowpiercer—itself an international, co-financed, blockbuster—prefigured this turn.
To return to the film: The logics of prosperity as achieved through the sacrifices of those in the rear are said to account for the greater wellbeing of this society, but actually what these impoverished riders are supporting is the perpetuation of a lavish quality of life to which they have no access. When the train is finally derailed, however, and the last few survivors—really just two people—enter, finally, the snowy world from which the train had for so long supposedly protected them they find, in the final shot of the film, a polar bear. Life, it seems, exists outside the train, and it was of course the major interest of those in charge to keep this fact from those in the back (and perhaps also those farther forward as well). There is an alternative way of living, the film finally declares, perhaps many of them. These alternatives have been for so long kept at bay, however, that their appearance is more confusing than uplifting, and in this way this film preconfigures the political climate that the popularization of critiques of contemporary neoliberal capital have only just begun to bring into view.
Like a sudden light the newly illuminated world is often disorienting, frightening, even painful, and this film realizes this in this both troubling and uplifting final shot. This is careful economic critique in big cinema form, and it surely marks a significant achievement, particularly in light of the opening of new political debates that have shortly followed.