Sunday, December 11, 2016

Blow Up the Train: A Christological Reading of 'Snowpiercer'

If you haven't seen the movie Snowpiercer, stop reading and go watch it. It's a brilliant movie, one of my top favorites. If you don't care what I say, have already seen it, or are merely intrigued, proceed. This post will be full of spoilers and plot twists, so you're warned!!


The movie Snowpiercer is a bloody action movie. It starts off, seemingly, as a crude Marxist movie. Humanity tried to curb global warming, but accidentally froze the Earth. The only survivors were those who boarded a luxury train which circled the globe along an endless track. Those who had tickets found themselves given a new class identity according to the value of their seat. Those who didn't have a ticket and took to the cargo hold became the poor and destitute. The Train is straightforwardly hierarchical: the rich live at the front and the poor live at the back. The movie begins in the midst of a conspiracy of the poor to take the front and usher in an age of equality.

The rebellion begins and it proceeds at a bloody cost. Gilliam (John Hurt) is the mastermind and Curtiss (Chris Evans) is the heroic proletariat leading the battle. However, as the movie progresses, it gets complicated. The Train possesses an ecosystem where animals are controlled and eat at certain times and amounts to maintain an ever repopulating source. This same logic ends up being applied to the Humans. As Curtiss reaches the front of the Train, he meets Wilford (Ed Harris), the near messianic founder and builder of the Train. Wilford explains how he had been working with Gilliam, the revolution was an intentional population cleanse. Wilford explains how the Human ecosystem also has to be maintained.

Desperation and hopelessness can only exist for so long, and it is dialectically involved with the wealthier members of the train who are indoctrinated to see themselves within the continuum. This is most disturbingly portrayed in a scene where they come across a Kindergarten where these lessons are taught catechetically, in children's songs, and in coloring. These children understand the world as a complicated balance and their place within it as a blessing (thankful they do not exist at the back) and gratitude (Wilford allowed for this form of life). Curtiss learns all of this and is horrified and yet, he bows before the mighty Train. Wilford had intended Curtiss as his replacement, as he, growing in age, knows that the symbolic head has to be replaced.

Yet while violence is near consistent in the movie, it is almost irrationally present. Soldiers and assassins go to great length to control the stages of rebellion, even killing completely uninvolved middle-class people at times. It's not because they're guitless that it is shocking, rather it seems completely unnecessary and the ruthlessness is jarring. The Kindergarten teacher opens fire upon the rebels, killing some of her children in the process. The Train's harmony is sustained through a brutal display of violence, that is constantly cloaked in rationality. Metrics are taken over how many must be killed per the Rebellion's success, even claiming Gilliam. Yet the measurements are completely contrived at the will of Wilford. This is made most manifest in the use of a child to replace a part that had broken years before. This constant sacrifice is immortalized in the strange religious gesture that Wilford's representatives perform: a gesture imitating what the child must do as the replacement part.

Simultaneously, Namgoong, a hacker, assists Curtis with the proviso that he brings his daughter and he is provided with a drug, Kronole. However, as the movie unfolds, Namgoong, who passed as a barely cogent drug addict, reveals the drug is highly flammable and seeks to use it as a bomb to destroy the Train. He reveals to his daughter his theory as the movie progresses: the snow is melting. The Train thus becomes a redundant and brutal system of controls, perpetuated, as long as outside conditions remain. The combination of Namgoong's ingenuity and Curtiss' rejection of Wilford at the sight of the Child end with the two of them dying, along with Wilford, and the rest of the train, only leaving Namgoong's daughter and the Child left. The final scene sees a polar bear stare at them, a sign that contradicts the ideology that all life outside of the Train had died in the catastrophe.

Christologically, this movie is revolutionary. It breaks the boundaries of a simple class dynamic, in that many revolutions against economic oppression function along the same chains of logic. Workers getting the levers of the means of production force people along perceived challenges. Like modern Western societies, the middle-class of the train is the firmest believers and the most moral, living simple day to day lives. The front of the Train, before Wilford, is populated by debauched parties filled with drug-addict youths. The whole Train is a carefully balanced system, where the messianic-technician Wilford holds it all together. Yet the extreme violence, personified in the replaceable part Child, is the key to the Train. The system possesses a hidden-open violence within the strange, quasi-religious, gesture and slogan. Its precise and technological rationalism is fundamentally irrational and based upon fear and ignorance.

This movie can function as a damning critique of much religion in the West. It condemns the inward-looking focus that helps acclimatize the constituent members to the inherent violence of the Train, the World-System we belong within. This damns neo-Paganism and corporate Buddhism that seek to find peace and meaning through meditation. This also damns most Establishment Christianity. It's for this reason that most Main-Line denominations are near carbon copies of the same self-help, feel-good, Deistic bullshit that one finds in Zen booklets and Wicca. These expressions represent the same open-masked violence of the Wilford cult of the Train. In essence, this is the worship of the global paradigm that we all live beneath, namely global capitalism. This is a salve for the conscience, a means to find meaning in an artificially brutal dominion.

Rather, Namgoong represents the violence of the Christ-Event: he categorically rejects the World. When God took flesh in the World, He came unto those who were trapped in darkness. He claimed to bring fire to the World, to bring a sword of division and judgement upon the god of this age. The presence of the Polar Bear represents, in this reading, the presence of a majestic and terrifying Other, an image of the Real that the Train tried to displace. This is not God per se, but the presence of God manifest, like before Moses in the Burning Bush.

Watching this movie ought to teach us about the radical break between God's invasion of His own creation in the wake of a fallen reign of Sin, Death, and the Devil. The Train represents a Babel, a making a deal with Death and inscribing Sin into the fabric of a social reality. Christ rejects it and it is violently apparent in the literal derailing of this vision through judgement. This is an actual war where real lives are at stake. This is the seriousness of the Spiritual War for liberation in the Scripture. Yet it is a joke. The symbol of decadence and debauchery, the drug Kronole, becomes the very weapon that destroys the Train. Per Kierkegaard, Christ is heralded king who emerges from the caravan as an ugly dwarf. It's a divine joke, an obscene gesture that overtakes the plots and schemes of the Devil. Per Paul, the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. The cross is the explosive flammability of the drug, and it becomes the very weapon of liberation. It's no surprise the early Christians depicted a victorious Christ wielding the cross as a weapon. Per Chrysostom, Christ tramples death by death.

Theologies that reject the reality of Spiritual War, whether "orthodox" (they're not) or liberal, are blasphemies. Any theology that attempts to depict the current state of creation as somehow harmonious and beset by external enemies (whether muslims or gays, whether bigots or fundamentalists) is duped. This includes a lot of medieval theology that propped up false visions in order to justify regime violence. Yet they could only claim so much in small feudal territories. Now, global capitalism has put a premium on all heads. Yet even so called "leftist" liberal theologians are at peace with such a vision. The Train is their god just as it is for RadOx reinstantiations of the blasphemous tradition of a Roman theology of order.

God is at war, even as the ultimate death-blow has already been dealt. May we take up our own crosses, acknowledging the same.

1 comment:

  1. Was on my watchlist, but I watched it today because of this. Incredible movie. Fantastic