Turn It On Its Side: Hegelian Deconstruction in Snowpiercer
As humans that are weighed down by gravity, it’s difficult to move up. We can move forward, backwards, left, right - but never up or down. To climb the economic ladder takes an insurmountable amount of effort. However, what if it becomes as simple as moving forward? Such is the case with Bong Joon Ho’s post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer. The movie takes place in midst of a revolution in humanity’s last bastion, a perpetually moving train, after the entirety of Earth is covered in a chemical that freezes the planet to the core - extirpating all life from the surface.
The symbolism is not easily lost by the viewer. An essay very much in tune with Isiah Berlin’s theories in his Essays on Liberty, Snowpiercer is in some ways a meditation on negative liberty. The tail end of the train is cramped and filled with squalor. Rules are strictly enforced and regulated and there aren’t many options for self-determination. However, as Curtis (Chris Evans) dives head first into his revolution, battling his way through train cars representing ascending social ranks, greater degrees of freedom are assigned to the citizens of the Snowpiercer. What we get, in Curtis’ story, is a soft rumination on the turmoil one can cause as they recklessly climb their way into a class they didn’t immediately have access to. In a similar vein to Henry V’s abandonment of his oafish sidekick, Falstaff, Curtis is willing to abandon those who held him back in order to make it to the end of the train.
How can you improve your situation while still retaining the core of your being? Bong Joon Ho asks the audience. However, what’s even more horrifying is when Curtis reaches the end. Being at the top of the ladder can be just as miserable as the bottom. We desire to ascend, we yearn to be better than what we are, but what if we are already at our peak? Trapped on a train that is permanently going nowhere, there is a kind of fruitless banality to being at the upper echelons of society. This is evidently seen in the listless debauchery of the first-class citizens. There’s no point in being virtuous in a closed economic and ecological system. No evolution can happen; natural selection is artificial, not natural.
Where can you move forward if there is nothing to move forward to? Ed Harris’ antagonist, Mr. Wilford, is bored and seeks innovative ways to create chaos and fun in an aggressively ordered system - even feeding Curtis hints so that he may attempt to usurp his own position. For Joon Ho, inequality at both poles is dangerous. For the poorest are corrupted by their insatiable desire to find any semblance of order and the richest are damned by the lack of personal progress.
Nothing could change these circumstances. And, in a train that constantly encircled the same path the struggle between the poor and rich in this closed ecological system would remain forever cyclical. The only solution? Destroy everything. For Hegel and Marx, history was a revolving process of dialectical change. For man to advance, it has to contend with the most fundamental of obstacles and overcome it. Man is “at war with himself” at all times. Every stage of society contains within it the seeds for its own negation. This phase is unceremoniously destroyed and replaced by a new phase, able to better content with the negative seed that caused the destruction of the previous iteration of society. History cannot proceed through a smooth transition, it must be violently uprooted and challenged before real progress can be made. Perhaps that’s what Bong Joon Ho is trying to say with Snowpiercer. Perhaps that’s his suggestion for dealing with the malaise that we face in today’s political world.
Humans aren’t the only beings that move forward. So does history, whether we move forward with it or not.