By Mary Thornton
The first in a series about how The End of Civilization is handled in different generations of science fiction. CONTAINS SPOILERS
I decided to watch the movie Snowpiercer as part of my NaNoWriMo attempt, which has since expired in a blaze of last-minute furious typing and me swearing not to even look at the story again until I'm full of enough goodwill and post-Christmas eggnog to get through the editing process. I expected to enjoy a thrilling science fiction saga of humanity's triumph in survival at the end of a global apocalypse, but instead found myself drawn into questions of what the end of the world really means and how the genre of sci-fi is uniquely equipped to handle them.
There is a lot I could talk about in this movie, but what got me thinking the most was the vision of a bleak and desolate world inhabited by the main characters and, in the end, the remaining survivors.
Oh yes, final spoiler warning.
Rather than leaving us with a triumphant moment where the sacrifices and bloodshed along the way is redeemed by a successful rebellion, the final shot lingers on two children who miraculously survive the wreckage of humanity's railroad arc. The only sense of hope we have is when the teenage girl sees a polar bear among the snowy peaks, suggesting that life was able to find a way even in the bitterest cold.
I found it fascinating that the chosen ending for what could have been a fairly straightforward, if innovative, science fiction action film implied not only the destruction of almost the entire human race after alluding to the cannibalistic nature of their survival in an enclosed space (and yes, that does end up being literal), but also the isolating effect that freedom from that system imposes on those who are the weakest. A child and a teenager who until recently was imprisoned for drug addiction aren't the ones you would expect to survive in the catastrophic conditions laid out for them, but director Bong Joon-ho believes the ending to be optimistic, saying "...extinction is a repeated word throughout the film. But outside the train, life is actually returning. It's nature that's eternal, and not the train or the engine, as you see with the polar bear at the end."
As far as apocalyptic predictions go, the relative permanence of machinery, class-ism, and steel is rife with possibilities. While I felt the futuristic elements of the movie were used to great effect both in making this world and justifying the action of the characters, I've noticed many reviewers are loathe to use the term "science fiction" at all when it comes to this and other similarly "cerebral" films. Denying the use of science fiction genre tropes does nothing but take away important vocabulary with talking about why movies like this work.
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