“I believe it is easier for people to survive on this train if they have some level of insanity. As Gilliam well understood, you need to maintain a proper balance of anxiety and fear and chaos and horror in order to keep life going. And if we don’t have that, we need to invent it. In that sense, the Great Curtis Revolution you invented was truly a masterpiece.”
1999’s The Matrix was, once upon a time, ground-breaking not only in terms of cinema but because of its seismic impact on “conspiracy culture.” If writers in alternative media were struggling to communicate their views on New World Order oppression and the illusory nature of reality, Matrix was like the handy CliffsNotes version that told it all in bright shiny pictures.
But let’s face it: 2 billion imitations and parodies later, the movie has lost its “groove.” To an extent it’s played out, its politics and message rendered “quaint”…corny even. David Icke seemed like a genius seizing upon its iconography and philosophy back in the day, but those days are long over. Enter the 2013 South Korean movie Snowpiercer—which, I suggest, is a more relevant iconic movie for our current era.
(Please note that for the purposes of this post, some spoilers for the film will be included.)
It is the opinion of this writer that director Bong Joon-ho created the rightful successor to the much-vaunted classic Wachowskis trilogy with this film. And reading of the struggles Bong had with American distributor Harvey Weinstein to get the film released in the States, one gets a clearer sense of just how subversive Snowpiercer really was.
For, based on a French graphic novel of the same name, the film is simply too radical to have ever gotten a big-budget U.S. studio to fund, its essential message one of revolution, anarchy and the complete destruction of broken and oppressive systems on all levels (government, big business, technology, philosophy, religion).
And yet despite its “foreign” origins, Snowpiercer manages a coup by enlisting the United States’s own icon du jour—”Captain America” himself, Chris Evans. If Evans’ Curtis Everett (the character’s name resembling very much that of the actor himself) is “the New Neo,” he is a Neo very very much post-9/11…more properly, post-2012. (Or: post-2016?)
Perhaps the greatest “blasphemy” of all in Snowpiercer is that “we don’t need another hero”…that the savior figure himself needs to be torn down in favor for a more roll-up-your sleeves DIY approach.
The Curtis “Neo” is, of course, a Christ analogy—made extra-explicit in a scene lingering on the stigmata-type injury on his hand—but he also represents the United States itself, the national entity that for the longest time seemed like the answer to global problems. He is literally Captain America…literally, in the film, nourished on the cannibalistic devouring of his/its own young.
As Curtis tearfully admits:
“You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know babies taste the best.”
Especially in a current cinema so obsessed with Marvel Comics blockbusters, Curtis is a thumb in the eye of the Hollywood system; Evans’s grungy, emaciated, bearded appearance and dark crewcut a stark contrast to the bleached-blond steroidal superhero he portrays in The Avengers.
A quick overview of the thespian’s own interviews over the years gives one an impression that while, as a “Marvel actor” (he also portrayed “Fantastic Four” firebrand The Human Torch), he is very much “in” the System, he also is very willing to subvert/exit said System.
As such, his role in Snowpiercer seems like a very knowing reversal of the Aryan-looking heroic spandex-and-body armor ideal he has been pigeonholed into. To make the parallels with Captain America even more explicit, Curtis’s relationship with mentor Gilliam almost mirrors, line-for-line, that of Steve Rogers and Dr. Abraham Erskine, who turned him into a “Super Soldier” in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Only “Hero of the People” Gilliam, played by 1984‘s John Hurt, is ultimately a fake and a phony, doing his part to keep Curtis and the rest of the oppressed “Proles” on the train Snowpiercer within the Matrix—trapped indefinitely within an ouroboros of enslavement within a highly artificial physical and social structure.
It is as if Morpheus was best friends with Mr. Smith, leading Neo down a rabbit hole of further self-delusion.
For the hero, there may be no bigger danger than exactly this type of mentor/”wise-man.” An over-the-top, electricity-wielding super-villain is at least “clearly marked” as such—easy to identify. But a kindly father-figure full of flatteries is deeply seductive. Especially when such flattery insinuates that YOU might be the “Messiah.”
Similarly, the German Dr. Erskine from First Avenger is one of the Nazi scientists shipped over by the United States during/after World War II. Captain America’s origins are inextricably entwined with that of Aryan ideals of the Übermensch—Steve Rogers’s own freakishly skinny original body an eerie, unacknowleged parallel to that of Jews in concentration camps.
The Nazi allegory in First Avenger is then further concretized by images of the thin Rogers being experimented on in large, intimidating machines. Contrast this phantasmagorical technology with the “Engine” Curtis finds himself within at the end of Snowpiercer.
Curtis/Rogers is given the “reins” to be a “superhero” via fantastic tech of questionable moral origins…but these reins lead not to the liberation of humanity, but its slavery.
If Curtis/Rogers is the alleged “messiah”—as was Jesus/Neo—then it is a messiah who realizes in the end that God and the Devil—played in this movie by Ed “Truman Show” Harris as Wilford—were in on everything from the start.
Not only does Christ get tempted, as Wilford offers the role of the next Engineer to Curtis—but he realizes just how horrifically duped he has been, and just how devastatingly inadequate and prefabricated the role of Neo/Messiah really is.
Even the “Red Pills”/rolled-up messages smuggled in “protein bars” Curtis receives throughout the movie, which he thinks is from some mysterious “Higher Power” out to help him, turn out to be from the Wilford/Gilliam partnership/conspiracy.
If the train that the last remnants of humanity are trapped on in Snowpiercer is the Matrix…true liberation cannot be achieved through any act within said train.
For said train, created by Gilliam (“God”) and Wilford (“The Devil”), is, ultimately, Maya. Illusion.
Furthermore, the artificial construct of Neo/Messiah—a smokescreen invented by Gilliam/Morpheus Wilford/Mr. Smith—is also illusion. And up until the very end of the movie, the only character who has a clear grasp of this sad fact is Namgoong Minsu—the security expert turned drug addict.
Red Pill, Blue Pill—in the end they are just pills—sides of the same coin. But Namgoong’s drug-du-jour, the green Kronol, does something the other two don’t.
Snowpiercer tells us that it’s time to get off the train, take the Green Pill, and adopt The Third Way.