Sunday, January 25, 2015

Monstrous Trees and Ecology: Targeting Human Threats in the Horror Film

Monstrous Trees and Ecology: Targeting Human Threats in the Horror Film

Explorations of how trees transform into “monsters” seeking revenge against the human world that exploits them highlight the power of plant horror. In films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), trees have fought back against humans, becoming “monstrous nature.” In The Wizard of Oz, trees become animated when their apples are stolen (and a wicked witch intervenes), hurling them violently back at Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her friends. And in the second Lord of the Rings film, trees called Ents seek vengeance against Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his army when Ent leader Treebeard (John Rhys-Davies) discovers that Saruman has decimated a section of Fangorn Forest to build his iron forges. Although these scenes are brief, they each draw on ecological approaches to the revenge plot.

As a demonstration of the power of environmental tree horror, four feature films with tree horror at their center underscore contemporary ecological problems: Severed (2005), The Ruins (2008), Splinter (2008), and The Happening (2008). In these films, trees might fight back against their human oppressors in the fantastic context of horror and science fiction. But the messages they convey also connect explicitly with current environmental disasters. By drawing on contemporary environmental issues, all of these films act as warnings against the possible repercussions of environmental degradation in the Anthropocene Age.

In Severed, genetic testing in a logging camp meant to accelerate tree growth and increase timber output also proves deadly to humans when splinters from GMO logs transform humans into zombies who feed on other loggers. Although the “outbreak” seems isolated, its presence in the film serves as a warning against both genetic modification and over-logging of forests, environmental disasters condemned in recent news articles. The film broaches, for example, the May 2014 “March Against Monsanto” and the May 2014 Greenpeace protests against illegal logging in the Amazon. With its focus on plant revenge against trespassers, The Ruins also cautions against infiltrating rainforests, this time by offering a revenge plot in which forest vines trap and kill American tourists trespassing on sacred Mayan land.  In Splinter, “splinters” like those in Severed parasitically invade human carriers and turn them into monsters, a monstrous result that underpins the possible consequences of climate change—the emergence and evolution of deadly parasites. 

The Happening takes such cautionary tales even further, explicitly connecting the behavior of trees to humanity’s contribution to the disappearance of bees through Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition explored in documentaries such as The Vanishing of the Bees (2009). Philadelphia science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) underlines this connection early in the film during a class discussion prompted by a quote from Einstein scrawled on the blackboard: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” The film takes this premise further, asking what if a monstrous nature fought back? In The Happening, the answer comes almost immediately after the bee: as if reacting to our annihilation of the natural world, something from the trees in Central Park causes men and women to kill themselves.

These juxtaposed scenes suggest humans have become a threat and must be defeated. As a high school principal (Alan Ruck) explains,
Alright, there appears to be an event happening. Central Park was just hit by what seems to be a terrorist attack. They're not clear on the scale yet. It's some kind of airborne chemical toxin that's been released in and around the park. They said to watch for warning signs. The first stage is confused speech. The second stage is physical disorientation, loss of direction. The third stage … is fatal.
According to an unnamed nursery owner (Frank Collison), “plants have the ability to target specific threats. Tobacco plants when attacked by heliothis caterpillars will send out a chemical attracting wasps to kill just those caterpillars. We don't know how plants obtain these abilities, they just evolve very rapidly.” When Alma Moore (Zooey Deschanel) asks, “Which species is doing it, if you think it's true,” the nursery owner designates trees as the source of the human purge, explaining, “plants have the ability to communicate with other species of plants. Trees can communicate with bushes, and bushes with grass, and everything in between.” In The Happening, trees and the plants with which they communicate transform into monstrous nature to attack the human species seemingly bent on their destruction.  

Severed, The Ruins, Splinter, and The Happening demonstrate the power of plant horror. In these films, the monstrous acts of trees serve as a powerful critique of humanity’s contemporary environmental abuses. They also provide a space in which to explore the complexities of a monstrous nature humans both create and embody. According to a February 2015 National Geographic article, we have entered the Anthropocene, an epic “defined by our own massive impact on the planet” (Kolbert). Severed, The Ruins, Splinter, and The Happening highlight this environmental horror. The real monster is us.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Louisiana Story and Separation Between Humans and the Natural World

Louisiana Story and Separation Between Humans and the Natural World

The support for oil drilling and its benefits illustrated in Louisiana Story should come as no surprise because the Standard Oil Company financed the film. Despite clear evidence that oil drilling cannot leave the water and land around it untouched, the film and its reviewers assert the opposite, demonstrating through the experience of oil drillers and a Cajun boy that human and nonhuman nature can maintain separate existences and thrive. Instead of emphasizing the interdependent relationship between humans and the natural world, Louisiana Story suggests that to maintain the innocence of nature in the bayou, and of its more natural Cajun inhabitants, a humanity more aligned with culture and technology must leave wild nature behind, entering it only briefly and with caution to avoid an indelible affect. Two myths are perpetuated by the film, then: the myth that oil drilling can leave a natural setting untouched, and the myth that humans are somehow separate from nature rather than interconnected with it. 

Louisiana Story perpetuates these two myths through both its aesthetic and its narrative. Close-ups of a pristine bayou open Louisiana Story. Flowers, an alligator, and a heron on an evergreen tree emphasize the film’s naturalistic setting. A lone boy poles through weeping cypress trees in a small boat. We see the bayou from his point of view, including water below him. A narrator describes the scene, even mentioning werewolves to set the mythic tone of this innocent scene. The boy wears salt on his waist and something inside his shirt to protect him from all that bubbles, we are told and smiles at a raccoon in a tree, connecting him to both natural and supernatural elements. A snake, gators, and grasses blowing in the wind continue the scene.

When the boy shoots at an animal, and the pristine scene is disrupted, the conflicting element in the film is introduced: modernism in the shape of oil drilling in the bayou.  Other explosions take the gunshot’s place, then, as wheeled machinery drive up into the bayou. The machine looks like a tractor, a cultivator cutting a path through the grass. The boy floats away, demonstrating the separation between culture and nature the film perpetuates. The boy and his Cajun family represent an innocence that is untouched by civilization. When the boy heads home to his Cajun family, a family structure more in touch with the natural world is introduced. Their cabin sits beside the bayou and can only be accessed by boat. Inside the cabin, the boy’s father talks about “gators” in a Cajun accent to a lean cut younger man, reinforcing his connection to nature. The boy’s mother does offer coffee, a connection with culture, but the boy’s entrance by boat at his parent’s dock again highlights how isolated this family is from society. The blasting that continues, however, contrasts and conflicts with this innocent, more “natural” scene, highlighting the intervention on display. Modern culture has entered the pristine wilderness of the bayou and infiltrated the innocent Cajun family that is still tied to the natural world. To seal this connection, the oil drillers offer lease agreements to the boy’s father: “Can that thing really tell where oil is?” the older man asks, and signs his name to a contract. 

Evidence in the film, however, suggests that nature and culture can and must remain separated. The oilmen, representing culture, leave the rustic cabin in their speedboat. Later the boy and his raccoon, representing nature, watch the oilmen from their rowboat as the drillers prepare to build their rig and platform. The boy fishes while Cajuns hunt along a pristine shore, further connecting them to the natural world. We get a view of homes on the shore from a houseboat, and a shore view of the motorboat and its wake. The boy and raccoon continue watching, and the wake of the motorboat throws him out of his boat, so he is literally connected with the natural world. But the boy seems fascinated with the elements of culture brought by the oilmen and watches a man survey the area and a tall rig rolling up the bayou to the spot the surveyor has indicated. The boy and his raccoon watch this modern scene from the safety of nature—the waters and fecund grasses of the bayou. They remain innocent, smiling as they observe without relinquishing their connection with the natural world.

The rig contrasts with the natural scene around it, maintaining its separation from the natural world. The technology of the rig and the oil drilling it represents become a beautiful and powerful opposition to the peaceful bayou. Steam surrounds the rig, and we hear the pumping sounds of the drill. Although the boy talks to a couple of oilmen and asks what they are doing, he does not board the rig when invited. Instead, he paddles away, reinforcing his separation, and watching from his boat as the long drill comes out of the well, so worn down, the drillers must replace it.  A sunset over the bayou further separates the mechanization of oil drilling from the natural scene, which the boy and his boat both envelop and represent.

The separation between culture and nature continues even after the boy boards the rig for a closer look. The film shows the whole process of preparing the drill before the boy goes on board to see for himself. The rig is loud as chains swing around pipes to tighten and loosen connections. We cannot hear the boy and oilman’s conversation but see them smile, suggesting a connection between them and, consequently, a connection between culture and nature beyond the economic vision of ecology supported by the film’s narrative. 

After this long segment demonstrating the process of oil drilling, however, the scene shifts back to the boy and his raccoon in the bayou and, in a long sequence, highlights a battle between elements of nature. The boy leaves his raccoon and examines eggs left by an alligator. When the gator comes back on shore, the boy and we see the ‘gator eggs hatch. The boy holds a baby gator until the mother gator roars, and the boy runs away. The raccoon is now loose and swims up on a log, but the gator is close behind. The boy searches for his pet and passes representatives of wild nature: a spider in a web, a rabbit, a skunk, singing birds, and a deer. When he sees the broken line on the boat and realizes the coon has escaped, he fears the gator has killed the coon. In a parallel to the boy’s fears, the gator devours a water bird, so the boy sets a gator trap to avenge his friend’s death. His attempts fail alone, however, but his father has been searching for him and helps him out of the water, telling him, “We’ll get him.”  Together they kill the alligator, it seems. Although we do not see the actual slaughter, we assume it occurs because father and son visit the oilrig and bring the gator’s skin to show the drillers on board, holding it up for them to admire from their rowboat.

This resolution of the battle between human and nonhuman nature is paralleled on the rig with a battle between humans and elements of culture when one of the oilmen, Tom, tests oil levels. Any connection between culture and nature ends once the oilmen test the oil and find it good. The lease money from the father’s contract buys groceries and a new pot for mom, and a new rifle for the boy, but the family members continue to speak Cajun without translation. Despite the relative prosperity the lease money brings to the family, the last two scenes from the film perpetuate the separation between nature and culture and suggest that human intervention—even oil drilling—can leave the natural world pure and untouched. In the first of these scenes, the boy sees his raccoon in the tree, complete with the rope collar around its neck, so boy and ‘coon are reunited and, consequently, the boy is reconnected with the natural world. In the second and last of these two scenes, the derrick leaves slowly, and oil is pumped through a pipeline under the bayou and hidden from the natural world.  The boy and his pet watch the process and wave goodbye to the rig, its oilmen and the culture they represent. Only a lone Christmas tree-like pole remains, and it is now more tree than derrick, a tangible claim in the film that human exploitation of nature’s resources can leave its pure innocence untouched.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Critique of the Oil Frontier and the Spectacle Behind it in Comes a Horseman

Critique of the Oil Frontier and the Spectacle Behind it in
Comes a Horseman

Oil Drilling films from Cimarron (1931 and 1960) to There Will be Blood (2007) illustrate well the ongoing conflict between eco-disaster on display and spectacle, a conflict between an explicit and implicit environmental message and the “sensuous elaboration” that, as Susan Sontag argues, filmic representations provide (212) . Whether the films respond to environmental history from the 19th Century, the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, or today, that conflict remains. We assert, however, that reading these images in relation to environmental history can make the sometimes disastrous workings behind spectacular oil events transparent. 

The less well-known Comes a Horseman (1978) serves as an apt illustration, since it reveals the environmental disasters behind resource exploitation while grappling with questions regarding ranching and oil frontiers. The film pits ranch owners Ella Connors (Jane Fonda) and Frank “Buck” Athearn (James Caan) against Jacob “J. W.” Ewing (Jason Robards) and his oil-developing friend, Neil Atkinson (George Grizzard). The film is set in post-World War II Montana but illustrates the conflict between oil and cattle ranching immediately. Atkinson is negotiating with Ewing to drill on his land and claims from the film’s beginning that “oil and cattle are not incompatible.” 

Ewing, however, still sees his ranch as a heartland and looks toward a painting of buffalo racing across a prairie to reinforce his point. Ewing wishes to own the ranch land in the valley, but it is unclear at this point whether he supports oil drilling instead of ranching. Ewing’s henchmen kill off one new rancher and injure another, Frank, thinking they will scare him into selling Ewing his land. Frank pairs up with Ella when she takes him back to her ranch and nurses him. Together Frank and Ella defeat Ewing and Atkinson, saving their land from both Ewing and oil production.

The first conflict they encounter concerns whether Ella can earn enough money from her cattle to save her ranch once her husband is dead. With only Dodger (Richard Farnsworth) to help her round up her cattle, she seems doomed to failure, but Frank talks her into becoming partners for the season, so they work together to round up both of their ranches’ cattle.

The second conflict begins when a geologist comes to the ranch to test for oil. He checks with Ella about getting a seismic record and completing the tests, but Ella refuses. Here Frank again partners with Ella, making clear that he too rejects oil drilling because it “means they’re going to tear the earth apart.” He has “seen places where they’ve drilled for oil” and knows the score. 

Ewing, on the other hand, is under the thumb of a banker, Virgil Hoverton (Macon McCalman), and must agree to allow them to test for oil on his land. We hear blasts from an oil test, and, as if to reinforce the impact of blasting on the environment, Dodger is thrown from his horse and breaks his ribs. The conflict between Ewing and Ella accelerates because Ewing also wants Ella and may lose his ranch if no oil is found there. 

Before leaving, the geologist leaves a report that says seismic shooting brings up no good test area on his ranch. Good drilling is only available on Ella’s ranch, so they must drill diagonally from Ewing’s land to Ella’s, in order to strike oil. They need Ella’s permission in order to continue. Virgil tries to take Ewing’s ranch, but Ewing kills Atkinson, the oilman, in a plane crash and kills Virgil at Ella’s house. The battle then is between Ewing and Frank, with Ella as the prize. Ultimately Frank and Ella survive. Ella has lost her house but has kept her land. 

Comes a Horseman critiques oil drilling in several ways. It illustrates how oil exacerbates greed, when Virgil attempts to undermine even the cattle baron, Ewing. It also explains how oil drilling tears up the land because Frank has witnessed the effects of drilling and rejects them. Finally it critiques oil testing and drilling in a more general and dramatic way because it is associated with Dodger’s fall from his horse. More importantly, the film avoids the reliance on spectacle and the spectacular evident in most oil frontier western films. The seismic tests and blasting are heard only at a distance, and the violent confrontations are resolved. In this context, the notion of spectacle obscures or even erases ecological readings, but primarily the film highlights the disastrous environmental consequences of oil drilling rather than their spectacular effects.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Protecting the Ozone in The Day of the Animals: Nature’s Revenge

Protecting the Ozone in The Day of the Animals: Nature’s Revenge

Although released decades before what some consider the first cli-fi film, The Day After Tomorrow (2004), The Day of the Animals (1977) blatantly addresses the Greenhouse Effect, anthropomorphizing the animals that seek vengeance against humanity for its mistreatment of nature. The film’s opening title cards explicitly states it’s focus on humanity’s contribution to Earth’s damaged ozone layer and suggests that The Day of the Animals serves as a warning regarding the possible negative consequences of our environmental exploitation:

In June 1974, Drs. F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California startled the scientific world with their finding that fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans are seriously damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer. Thus, potentially dangerous amounts of ultra-violet rays are reaching the surface of our planet, adversely affecting all living things. This motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen in the near future IF we continue to do nothing to stop this damage to Nature’s protective shield for life on this planet.

In The Day of the Animals, humans are constructed as villains when dropped off for a hike in the mountains. In response to a chemical imbalance caused by the depletion of the ozone layer, animals from condors and vultures to bears, mountain lions and wolves attack the hikers as their known enemies. In The Day of the Animals, then, animals have become more like humans, able to determine the cause for their possible demise—a human-caused hole in the ozone layer. 

The film illustrates humanity’s culpability by constructing at least some of the hikers as monstrous. Advertising executive Paul Jenson (Leslie Nielson) embodies all the negative qualities that have led to the animal attacks. In one scene, he even exclaims, “If there's a God left up there to believe in. My father who art in heaven you've a made a jackass out of me for years. Neville's God, that's the God I believe in! You see what you want you take. You take it! And I am going to do just that!” 

Uncredited hiker Sam (Walt Gorney), on the other hand, explains why nature is assaulting them when he declares, “God sent a plague down on us because we're just a bunch of no good fellers.” Ultimately the only defense against these animal executioners is military intervention, but the film makes a case for changing our destructive behaviors to preserve nature and ourselves.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Yagtze Drift (2014) and Audience

Readings of John Rash's documentary Yangtze Drift (2014) depend on the audience viewing this non-narrative documentary. An audience familiar with the history and context of the river and the Three Gorges Dam will view the film differently than will an audience unfamiliar with that context or observing it only from the outside.

For us, this beautiful documentary short broaches issues explored in Up the Yangtze (2007), which showcases lives transformed by the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in history. Yangtze Drift provides a seemingly objective view of the river environment and its people, but it also left us with multiple questions:
·      What does the audience think about the environmental consequences to the Yangtze now that the dam is complete?
·      Is this river now placid because of this result?
·      How would an outside audience understand the changes created by the dam?
·      Do local audiences who watch it accept these changes as natural? How does the rhetoric differ for this audinence?
·      Do they accept the new eco-system created by the dam as something that remains unquestioned?
·      What changes have occurred off screen?

From an outsider perspective, waving weeds open and close Yangtze Drift and serve as both an introduction to the drifting river and a frame for this direct cinema poem.

After an overhead shot of the river, we hear singing before the film fades to black and changes scenes to another overhead shot on shore of buildings, trees, and ruined skyscrapers.

The shot pans past this part of the city to a highway near the shore. Shots of cars seem to roll into images boats and the river. From above the Yangtze looks silent and flat, but as the camera moves closer, we see ripples. As if peering through tourists’ lenses, we see flowing shore grasses and a smaller boat passing by.

A man rows and sings. Other rippled surfaces reflect the water—an old woman’s face, shadows of waves on a wall where the river seems to have flooded up to a door.

Other scenes show people looking out windows at the river. One takes pictures. A boat floats by.

When rain begins, ripples in geometric shapes form in wash basins and large noodle pots. Shot in low angle, the flow of water seems to transform a street into a stream. The rain continues in the widening river, forming works of abstract art on the water.

Tourists on board a tour boat photograph the river and shore under umbrellas. Here the river is surrounded by cliffs. A small motorboat goes by the larger tour boat, revealing the lack of diegetic sound on board. We hear murmurings of voices, but the small boat’s loud engine stands out.

Back on shore at another spot on the river, people exercise on a beach. A fisherman drips his line in the water off some rocks.

Across the river, a city appears, and the camera shifts again to another overhead shot of skyscrapers lit for night. The pan of this city moves down to young people on steps beside the river listening to a band play “Let it Be” from the Beatles. A woman with a dog wades in the water. Vendors sell barbecue on sticks. Couples look out at lit skyscrapers. Cell phones are everywhere.

This pan transforms into part of what looks like a tourism film of the evolution of a mega city. On various screens, images of birds on the river appear. A poster advertises the Tribe of the Three Gorges, but includes pictures of women with machine guns, as well. A rapidly moving tour bus goes past, and then we are on board among the diverse tourists of various races and nationalities. The river is wide and deep. A tour guide points out various sites, including a dam under construction. Is it the Three Gorges Dam? The explanation of the huge mountains on both sides is in English.

But then it seems we are back to our opening setting. We hear thunder and watch the singing man row his boat. Shadows of water ripples replicate the river on the walls he passes. A note on a boat claims this is the number one water town in China. Pedestrians cross over a bridge. Crowds walk by the camera. Boats float on the water and birds float over grasses blowing in the breeze. The screen grows darker and the film ends.

When the title comes up, however, it shows a drawing of the bridge and the filmmaker’s name end the film, leaving us wondering if both the river environment and the human constructions around it are artificial. This view of the river is making a statement, but that statement differs according to the audience viewing it.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Noah (2014) and the Limits of Human Ecology

Whether you read Genesis for the story of the great flood or watch John Huston’s 1966 The Bible, Kevin Costner’s 1995 Waterworld  or Tom Shaydac’s 2007 Evan Almighty the idea of an earth cleansing flood is fodder for awesome and fearful spectacular visions. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Noah (2014) reboots the Genesis story, but in this rewriting of the Biblical Genesis story, Noah (Russell Crowe) gains the trust of God and his “Watchers” by contesting the environmental disasters caused by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendent of Cain. According to the film’s opening, Cain and his offspring “build a great industrial civilization” that “devoured the world.” Instead of exploiting the earth’s resources, Noah teaches his family to live sustainably, protecting nature as a steward rather than a figurative rapist. As a descendent of Seth, he “defend[s] and protect[s] what is left of creation,” according to the opening narration. Despite its emphasis on environmental degradation, Noah also continues the human focus found in films such as the 1970 No Blade of Grass.

As part of this human focus, Noah serves as a super-masculine action hero protecting his family and the Earth at any cost. In this reboot of the Biblical story, Noah decisively revises God’s plan to rebuild all life, including humans, by eliminating wives and children from the Ark. In this version, Noah believes that because “everything that was beautiful, everything that was good we shattered, mankind must end.” After the flood ends, Noah tells his family, when his adopted infertile daughter Ila (Emma Watson) and the last of his sons Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) die, so will humanity. In Noah’s mind, humans will only repeat their mistakes and destroy creation if given the chance.

Instead, Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) has miraculously restored Ila’s fertility. When she gives birth to twins girls, Noah cannot kill his granddaughters, so human ecology prevails. In Noah as in the Bible, however, it is a higher power that intervenes to cleanse the world and provide the space for a new beginning after the great flood. As the narrator explains, Noah and his family must “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth.” Most of humanity is destroyed, but the remaining extended family serves as a curious genesis for the rise of human populations around the world.

The focus on humanity in Noah parallels Congressman (and, perhaps, future House Energy Committee chair) John Shimkus’s recent reaction to climate change. For example, in November 2010, Shimkus insisted we “shouldn’t be concerned about the planet being destroyed because God promised Noah it wouldn’t happen again after the great flood” (MailOnline). This assertion reinforces his March 2009 address at an Energy and Environment hearing where he quoted Chapter 8, Verse 22 of Genesis and claimed, “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.” Darren Aronofsky’s Noah takes the idea that earth will endure further by connecting earth’s replenishment only to human fertility. Ultimately, despite the film’s nod to Anthropocenic climate change, Noah leaves audiences wondering, with such a higher power protecting us, why bother cleaning up our own environmental mess?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013) and the Cli-Fi Hero

The blatantly eco-horror cli-fi film Snowpiercer (2013) emphasizes both its climate change catalyst and its human focus through its steampunk sensibility. Although it begins with patriarchal heroes battling for control of the snow-piercing train that houses the last surviving humans, the rebellion ends not in capturing control but in initiating a new beginning without white male saviors. The parting shot of Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Timmy watching a polar bear suggest the possibility of surviving humans becoming part of a larger biotic community rather than pioneers.

The film’s opening shows us the consequences of climate change and the negative repercussions of treating the warming atmosphere with an experimental chemical CW7 to cool the Earth. Instead of combatting climate change, the experiment froze the planet and killed all life, according to the opening narration. Only a few humans survive on a massive climate-controlled train and are relegated into carriages by class. Unsurprisingly, the third class masses like Tanya (Octavia Butler) and her children envy the first class passengers in the comfort of the opulent front. As’s Andrew O’Hehir explains, “In the filthy, overcrowded rear cars where Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the cryptic, prophetic elder statesman called Gilliam (John Hurt) are confined, anger is building toward another uprising.” Set 17 years after the freeze, Snowpiercer shows us the results of such exploitation: a rebellion led by young revolutionary Curtis (Chris Evans) with sometimes devious goals.

The bulk of Snowpiercer examines this rebellion while also revealing the intricacies of the train as biosphere with every new carriage Curtis and his crew penetrate. The ultimate goal is disrupting the hierarchy by seizing the means of production—the engine that runs the train and its climate. In one car they free a drug-addicted security specialist Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). When Curtis offers him a month of the hallucinogen Kronole for every carriage door he opens, Minsoo agrees to join them. 

With Minsoo’s help, the rebels fight their way through a car where a sole worker cooks their insect protein blocks, a vegetable and flower garden carriage, an aquarium car where seafood is raised for the upper classes, and even an elite elementary school. The rebel group dwindles with each battle but, according to A. O. Scott, the sometimes slapstick violence “produc[es] a volatile blend of humor and horror that pays tribute to the source material while coloring its themes with the director’s distinctively perverse and humane sensibility.”

Ultimately Curtis reaches the engine at the front of the train, but the rebellion ends not in capturing control but in initiating a new beginning like that depicted in Noah (2014). As O’Hehir declares, “This may be the most ambitious and capacious dystopian critique since “The Matrix” 15 years ago, and it’s one that seeks to offer a hopeful and even transcendent vision.” The last scenes of Snowpiercer support this claim when Yona and Timmy climb outside the train and live to see a polar bear on a hill. In Noah, according the Noah’s vision, “water cleanses.” In Snowpiercer, that cleansing water is frozen.