“You are a Shoe.” Ecological, Social, and Psychological Systems Allegory in Snowpiercer

Michelann Quimby, PhD
23 min readJul 11, 2021

Author’s note: this is an unpublished paper from 2016 that has some relevance to the role of dystopian fiction in the current era.

“Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat! You are a shoe!” -Mason

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” -Hamlet

The 2014 movie Snowpiercer serves as both a warning and an endorsement of two types of systems thinking; one emphasizes man’s ability to control his environment (a cybernetic systems perspective), and the other warns us to respect the bounds of human rationality and the adaptive power of open, chaotic, natural systems (an open systems perspective). This theme is explored on three levels: ecological, sociological, and psychological.

Snowpiercer (Bong) provides a disturbing, richly allegorical vision of a dystopian future in which man and nature have reached a seemingly catastrophic impasse. While popular entertainment has long been fascinated with post-apocalyptic landscapes and societies, Snowpiercer turns certain aspects of the dystopian trope on its head. Compared to eco-dystopian worlds as in the film, WALL·E (Stanton), where man’s consumption and waste has devastated the earth for centuries, or socio-dystopian worlds like in the television show Battlestar Galactica (n.a.), where man has been driven from his home planets by a revenge-driven race of his own creation, Snowpiercer eventually reveals Nature as protagonist and Man as antagonist. Man’s futile attempts at control and mastery are puny when compared to Nature’s power of self-preservation and correction; a theme that is both espoused and contradicted by systems literature.

Systems Thinking: Chaos and Control
Systems thinking is a multidisciplinary framework that encourages theorists and practitioners to look at phenomena through a lens that includes environment, interdependence, and feedback. “A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” (Meadows 11). General Systems Theory, one of the main theories from which systems thinking emerged, was conceived of as a necessary paradigm shift from the reductionist approach to science of the modern era to a more complex, inclusive view of phenomena. Bertalanffy, the father of General Systems Theory (GST) observed that similar patterns occurred in different scientific disciplines, but intra-disciplinary communication was rare (30). His goal, then, in creating GST, was to identify organizing principles which apply to all systems, regardless of discipline (32). He differentiated between GST and Cybernetics, a related framework within systems thinking, on the following criteria:

Open systems, with which GST is primarily concerned, interact with their environment, while

Cybernetic theory is generally concerned with closed systems, and the feedback and information they produce.

Open systems can potentially increase organizational levels, while

Cybernetic systems self-regulate to maintain stability. (149–150)

Because systems thinking is multidisciplinary, both of these principles have been applied to areas such as environment, economics, organizations, society, and psychology. Bertalanffy) first conceived of GST from his perspective as a biologist, while cybernetics emerged through the creation of increasingly complex technology. Both frameworks have helped to further science in many disciplines, but both have also caused problems when applied too broadly to areas for which they were not designed. Berman points out that systems thinking offers a much clearer conceptualization of man’s place and responsibilities within ecology, a more sophisticated view of causality in social and historical change, and a more inclusive view of the role of family in mental illness. However, Berman also expresses concern that when misapplied or over-applied, these same advances can have disastrous effects.

Berman suggests three ways in which systems thinking can be misused: first, that systems thinking has a tendency to ignore the context in which it emerges (which may lend it to an elitist interpretation) (38); second, that cybernetic thinking, in particular, may be firmly rooted in mechanistic thinking (39–40); and third, that humans have a psychological tendency to grasp at ideas that make sense of and reduce the ambiguity of existence (46). Essentially, regardless of theoretical framework, the human mind can only encompass so much, a theme that is repeated throughout Snowpiercer. The film is perhaps a parable for bounded rationality; the inability of the human mind to grasp, and therefore totally control, open systems (Meadows 106).

Snowpiercer Characters and Plot
The film follows the efforts of Curtis, a desperate, angry man who attempts to lead a rebellion against Wilford, the creator and conductor of a perpetually running train that holds the scant remains of the human race. Set in 2031, in the 17th year of life on the train, the movie opens with news footage of humanity’s disastrous attempt to cure global warming by releasing a chemical into the atmosphere. The result: a life-extinguishing ice age that ravages the planet within days. The remainder of life on earth is ensconced on Snowpiercer, a mechanical Noah’s Ark, which had been created as a luxury train by a mysterious figure named Wilford. Wilford functions as engineer, dictator, and Messiah on the perpetually running, indestructible train that traverses the frozen continents once every year. Curtis hopes to take over the train and free the inhabitants from the tyranny of Wilford and his cronies.

The majority of the train’s population lives in impoverished conditions in the tail cars. This group includes Curtis with his motley crew of rebels, and Gilliam, an elderly man who encourages and helps Curtis. Wilford is represented in the bulk of the film by his proxy, a bizarre woman named Mason (played to perfection by Tilda Swinton) who acts as announcer, administrator, high priest, and general. Aiding Curtis is Namgoon, an engineer who can control the mechanical doors that separate the train cars, and his teenage daughter Yona, a clairvoyant “train baby” who can predict what lies behind the doors to come. As Curtis leads the rebels from the squalid tail through increasingly surreal and luxurious sections, there are many startling revelations, climaxing with the meeting of Curtis and Wilford and the destruction of the train.

Man and Nature in Dystopian Worlds
In mainstream dystopian entertainment, man is often redeemed in some way. In WALL·E (Stanton), humanity returns to the Earth humbled; reimagined as shepherds of nature, rather than destroyers. In the television series Battlestar Galactica, humanity and its vengeful child-species, the cylons, almost extinguish each other, but finally settle on an idyllic planet in peace, eventually populating our own earth with their descendants. In these tales, Man’s ability to survive in the face of his own greed and violence is transformed through hardship and suffering into redemption. In Snowpiercer, humanity’s will to survive is subordinate to Nature’s inestimable power.

In the 1970s, dystopian films like Silent Running and Soylent Green portrayed nature as an idealized, fantastical place entrusted to humans and endangered by their avarice (Hughes). In these films, man must seek to preserve and control the earth for his own survival:

The environmental lament of Soylent Green is essentially this: if we don’t stop consuming the world, we will no longer be able to live comfortably. Living comfortably requires the control and mastery of nature, which must be consumed at a restrained, regulated pace. If not, we will be forced to start consuming ourselves. (Hughes 29)

This statement both applies to and deviates from themes in Snowpiercer. In the film’s penultimate act, Curtis confesses to Namgoon that in the early days of the train, a lack of food in the tail cars led to anarchy and cannibalism, particularly of children. Order was only restored when Gilliam sacrificed one of his limbs to save a child from Curtis. The organized sacrifice of limbs then replaced violent cannibalism in the tail until the front began to provide the inhabitants with brown, gelatinous protein bars (later revealed to consist of processed cockroaches). So the prediction of Soylent Green, that in the absence of natural resources we will consume ourselves, is echoed in Snowpiercer.

However, there is a critical difference in the narrative of Snowpiercer. Man has not gradually wasted the earth’s resources; he has laid waste to them through his hubris. By predicting hundreds of years of environmental damage could be corrected in one fell swoop, the collective leaders of earth took an action (the release of a chemical into the atmosphere) that Nature corrected with a fatal checkmate — an instant, life-extinguishing ice age. Again, this is bounded rationality; the leaders of Earth could not imagine and therefore foresee, the outcome of such an action.

Hyperrealities in Science Fiction. By the 1990s, the natural world in science fiction had been subsumed by cyber and technological realities (Hughes). Films like eXistenZ and Gattaca were concerned with man’s ability to access his “natural” (non-artificial) state; ecological nature as it was idealized in the 1970s had conspicuously disappeared. This observation is also reflected in Baudrillard’s essay, Simulacra and Science Fiction where he claims that the rapidly changing technology and space exploration of the end of the 20th century has left nowhere for science fiction authors to explore, leading to a science fiction of “hyperreality” rather than fantasy: “Perhaps the SF [science fiction] of this era of cybernetics and hyperreality will only be able to attempt to “artificially resurrect the “historical” worlds of the past…” (Baudrillard 310) The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski) also fits into this category, as it largely takes place in an Artificial Intelligence controlled virtual reality from which humans are struggling to free themselves.

Baudrillard seems to predict the retro visual styling of Gattaca and Snowpiercer, and perhaps also the emergence of the steampunk genre, which imagines a past and future where steam, rather than petroleum is the dominant energy source — a very literal resurrection or re-imagining of the past. The hoi polloi of Snowpiercer dress in styles reminiscent of the pre-cultural revolution 1960s and have anachronistic speech affectations. Baudrillard also suggests that, as a utopian future seems less and less possible, science fiction may be moving towards “a desperate rehallucinating of the past” (310). The recently rebooted Star Trek films bear this out rather specifically; they take place in the same future era as the original television series, but in an alternate timeline (Abrams; Abrams). Although, one could argue, that in the vein of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, all stories are one. Are reimaginings of the past a new phenomenon? Campbell said, “Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths.” Perhaps the rehashing of the past is as simple as the prototypical fairy tale, Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away…

Campbell might say that the preponderance of dystopian movies in this decade indicates something in the collective unconscious that strives for expression. Snowpiercer begins in a re-imagined present day, and only extends seventeen years into the future, much in keeping with Baudrillard’s predictions. However, Snowpiercer deviates from the subjugation of Nature and instead portrays her as a dominant predator and humanity as prey.

Systems and Ecology. It is revealed at the end of the movie that Nature is far more resilient than our one species; animal life (and by association a thriving ecosystem) has survived the cold; humanity has not (or not by much). In Snowpiercer, Nature is not a passive entity that we can preserve or destroy; she is a far more powerful and innovative system than we can possibly perceive. Other films in the genre imagine humanity having the power to scorch the earth for millennia or longer; in Snowpiercer, Nature rids itself of the blight of humanity in a scant seventeen years.

In 1970, systems theorist Gregory Bateson, tried to convince the US government that if it did not begin to address the effect of technology (pollution, population explosion) on the ecosystem, that we would be our own undoing, stating, “…the imbalance has gone so far that we cannot trust Nature not to overcorrect.” (500). Bateson conceived of Nature as force beyond human control; instead, he recommended that we control the birth rate to avoid incurring her wrath.

Batson claimed we needed to fundamentally change our perception of ourselves as individual entities capable of controlling our destinies and environment, and instead recognize that in the absence of such change, Nature will take drastic measures (in his era, smog, acid rain and the like) to control us. This perspective is echoed in Snowpiercer by Nature’s overcorrection: a life-extinguishing ice age. However, history has demonstrated that there are social and psychological ramifications of controlling birth rates, which is explored in Snowpiercer.

Systems Theory and Social Engineering
In the film, the few survivors of man’s disastrous attempt to control global warming, around one thousand souls, are given tickets to board Snowpiercer. The train traverses the continents once every year, and is supposedly impervious to outside conditions. The social system inside the train is strictly controlled by Wilford and his henchmen; poor in the tail, rich in the front. The lore of the train is spread through force (swift, violent punishment for those who deviate), and repetitive, dogmatic propaganda. In an early scene, Wilford’s personal assistant, Claude, has taken two small children from their parents in the tail section. The father of one child throws his shoe at Claude, and is punished by being forced to put his arm out the window until it has frozen solid, and then is shattered with a mallet. During the precisely timed amputation, Mason, Wilford’s Minister, gives the following speech:

“Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat! You are a shoe! I belong on the head, you belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.”

Mason’s speech introduces the viewer to the lore, dogma, and social design of the train. For the passengers, the train is the universe. According to Wilford, the environment outside the train is as hostile to human life as the space beyond our Earth’s atmosphere. When Curtis asks Tim, one of the children taken soon thereafter by Claude, what he wants, he replies, “In the whole wide train?” To the children, Snowpiercer is the universe; they have never known another. In a later scene in a surreal, colorful classroom, children of the privileged sing a call and response song with their psychotically chirpy teacher, “What happens if the train stops? We all freeze and die!”

The lore of the train, that each individual’s survival is dependent on playing a prescribed role, is constantly reinforced. Mason continues:

“In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket. First class, economy, and freeloaders like you.”

She reminds the tail-dwellers that they have no social standing on the train, and must follow all of Wilford’s edicts if they wish to survive.

“Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine. All things flow from the sacred engine. All things in their place. All passengers in their section. All water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine. In its own particular, preordained, position. So it is. Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place! Keep your place! Be a shoe!”

Her quasi-religious language attributes life on the train to the “sacred engine” — which is said to never stop or break. Mason often repeats the phrase, “So it is!” as a sort of “amen” to emphasize the non-negotiable truth of Wilford’s liturgy. She also proclaims “Wilford is divine!” at a later point in the movie since, as the savior of the human race and keeper of the engine, he plays the role of God and Messiah of the train. In the final act of the film, Wilford reveals to Curtis that he has, since the train’s departure, worked with Gilliam to engineer bloody rebellions in order to control the population. In one scene, before a gory battle between Wilford’s henchmen and the rebels, Mason reads a note from Wilford and announces, “Precisely seventy-four percent of you shall die.” Wilford has foreseen the need for both population growth and population reduction in his closed system, and has engineered its society accordingly.

Wilford and Taylorism. Wilford may be a caricature of Frederick Taylor, the father of Scientific Management. Many aspects of the train’s culture reflect Taylorism: knowledge and planning is done by an elite few, and all activities are precisely measured to maintain control (Morgan 23). Wilford and his proxies can calculate the exact the number of seconds it takes to freeze a man’s arm at a specific altitude, or the percentage of human deaths that will result from a bloody skirmish in a tunnel. Taylor was criticized for institutionalizing dehumanizing organizational practices in the pursuit of efficiency, a trait Wilford shares. On one level, Wilford is the ultimate cybernetic thinker: he is able to maintain a complex, closed system for seventeen years. He creates an oppressive environment in the tail of the train that is naturally prone towards rebellion, but carefully engineers the insurrection by sending Curtis anonymous, cryptic messages, and by conspiring with Gilliam. Wilford attempts to account for the unpredictability of human behavior by creating a system that produces predictable chaos. This emphasizes the potentially amoral aspects of a cybernetic perspective when applied to a human, rather than mechanical system that Berman warns of.

Psychologically, Wilford, like Taylor, is a clearly disturbed person. In the classroom scene, the children are shown footage from Wilford’s childhood, where child-Wilford expresses a desire to build a train and live on it forever. His obsession with precision and control parallels that of Taylor, who measured and attempted to control every aspect of his life, from the time it took to speak certain phrases, to the number of steps it took to move from one place to another (Morgan 221). Taylorism’s treatment of workers as interchangeable mechanical parts, are further illustrated in the film when Wilford reveals that as parts of his engine have worn out, he has replaced them with children from the tail section. Children, a renewable resource to Wilford, perform the actions of the missing parts because they are small enough to fit inside the engine. He explains the need for the tail section to keep a high birth rate while also needing to encourage periodic rebellions to kill off most of the adults. As Bertalanffy describes Cybernetics as concerned with closed systems, Berman points out that cybernetics can be viewed as an extension of mechanistic thinking, rather than a radical departure, as it is concerned with controlling processes and predicting outcomes (40). So while Wilford may have more imagination than Taylor, he ultimately believes that he is in complete control of all the parts of his system, mechanical and human, which was also Taylor’s goal. Wilford tells Curtis:

“Curtis, dear boy, the fact is we are all stuck inside this blasted train. We are all prisoners in this hunk of metal. And this train is a closed ecosystem. We must always strive for balance. The air, water, food supply, the population must always be kept in balance. For optimum balance, however, there have been times when more radical solutions were required, when the population needed to be reduced rather drastically.”

(Shot of henchman from the front counting the tail dwellers and then gleefully shooting them one by one. Shot of Wilford, calmly eating his steak.)

“We don’t have time for true natural selection. We would all be hideously overcrowded and starve waiting for that. The next best solution is to have individual units kill off other individual units. From time to time, we’ve had to stir the pot, so to speak.”

Berman argues that privileging the preservation of the system over the individual parts can be potentially as oppressive as the objectification of the mechanistic paradigm. Wilford’s blasé language illustrates this point. “Stir the pot” is his benign way of taking credit for repeated, bloody civil wars. As he calmly eats his medium-rare steak, one of his agents executes all but eighteen of the tail-dwellers. His only moral obligation is to the preservation of his system, of which the inhabitants hold no interest to him beyond their function.

Population Control. On the train, the population is controlled through planned insurrections and massacres. Population control is a major theme in Bateson’s work. In his 1970 address, he says, “… the very first requirement for ecological stability is a balance between the rates of birth and death…we have tampered with the death rate, especially by controlling the major epidemic diseases and the death of infants.” (500) Bateson does not offer suggestions for how humanity should counteract our scientific ability to keep people from dying of disease or in infancy, a rather large omission.

Historically, state-controlled attempts at reducing or increasing the birth rate have resulted in gross human rights violations. Bateson predicts that the United States will undergo a period of “Federalism” which will ostensibly result in a readjustment of social priorities, based on current evidence of unsustainable growth (501). This seems a rather benign way to refer to federally-mandated population control, which has resulted in human rights issues such as the criminalization of abortion and unavailability of birth control in Hungary (Perlez) and female infanticide and rape in China (Tatlow).

Bateson has been criticized for emerging from a social context where systems thinking and planning are the purviews of the intellectual elite (Berman). Berman states,

…systemic thinking is potentially coercive in nature. In Bateson’s tree example, man has his place, and tree has its place, and axe has its place. The job of each part is to play its assigned role. Freedom on this schema is largely the freedom to fall in step, to make the system work. (38–39)

This idea is echoed rather eerily by Mason’s admonition to the tail-dwellers to “Be a shoe! Keep your place!” and Wilford’s statement, “Curtis, everyone has their preordained position, and everyone is in their place.” Where is the line between balancing a system for the greater good and coercively controlling human reproduction and destiny? The 1932 science fiction classic, Brave New World (Huxley), imagines a future when human capability is genetically engineered through a caste system of scientifically produced babies. This theme is echoed in the recent Superman remake, Man of Steel (Snyder), where babies on Kal-El’s home planet are bred for a specific purpose rather than born of human passion and love, and in Gattaca (Nicol), where “flawed” (non-genetically engineered) humans are relegated to menial lives with no hope for change. Clearly, the idea of the elite coercively controlling population and social station through scientific means has been in the Zeitgeist for some time.

On the train, rather than mandating or controlling birth rates, Wilford and his allies rely on massacres to balance the system, justifying them as for the greater good. Wilford also has no compunction about conscripting small children as engine replacement parts. The film highlights the fallacy of a controllable social system, as Curtis’ rebellion unexpectedly reaches the front of the train, but Wilford still chooses to massacre all but a few of the tail dwellers, starting the accelerated birth-death cycle over again. The lore of the train claims that all inhabitants benefit from accepting their station, but the front dwellers lead lives of luxury and decadence, having access to fresh produce, meats, entertainment, and drugs. The tail dwellers live in filth and poverty; they have no status or power and live on protein bars made from bugs. This leads us to the exploration of the psychological character of the train-dwellers.

Psychological Systems in Snowpiercer
The most interesting repudiation of a controlled social system in the movie is demonstrated by the characters themselves through their access to emotions such as love, compassion, and remorse. This can be examined through the concepts of eros (the creative life force) and thanatos (the urge for destruction and death) (Carr & Lapp). Both forces are innate human drives, and both are necessary for psychological growth.

The tail-dwellers show the most humanity; they have friendships with one another; they love their children and protect them fiercely. Curtis suffers greatly for participating in the anarchic, cannibalistic genesis of the tail-section, and idealizes the elders who sacrificed limbs for the greater good. In the tail, children run and play, and the adults have a sense of humor and purpose. In spite of the horrific circumstances, the characters evince rich emotional lives and value themselves and each other. When Curtis chooses to sacrifice his second in command in order to capture Mason, who promises to ensure his victory over Wilford he suffers greatly. At the end of the movie, he sacrifices his arm to help one of the children from the tail escape the engine. Curtis and the tail-dwellers exemplify eros.

In contrast, the front dwellers have glassy eyes and empty souls; they evince no emotions other than curiosity or rage. When Wilford’s assistant, Claude, is hit by the shoe, she calmly tastes the blood that is running down her face, but shows no emotion — no shock, anger, or fear. On the train, those that benefit most from their status seem utterly devoid of feeling or life. Wilford himself is smug and self-congratulatory, he shows no interest in the hardships or pain of the train-dwellers and is concerned only with maintaining his perfect system.

Human life has no value for the privileged, and violence is relished as perhaps the only available stimulus. Wilford tells Curtis,

“The engine lasts forever, but not so all of its parts. That piece of equipment went extinct recently. We needed a replacement. Thank goodness the tail section manufactures a steady supply of kids so we can keep going manually.”

To Wilford, children are a natural resource to be exploited, just as in the chaos of the early days of the train, children became food for the tail-dwellers. Morally, there is no difference between the anarchic chaos of cannibalism and the organized sacrifice of children to the engine. The difference lies in the psychological processes of the killers: Curtis suffers deeply for his sins, Wilford not at all; he seems to relish his role as arbiter of life and death. The elders of the tail sacrificed their limbs to restore order and sanity, but Wilford has no such plans; he does no penance because the survival of the engine is his only moral calling. His perfect system contains no life, only function. The other inhabitants of the front seem to relish destruction and violence, throwing themselves into bloody confrontations and mass executions with apparent glee. Both the train massacre scene and a later scene when a group of drugged ravers attacks the remaining rebels portray the front-dwellers as free of any emotion except the desire for stimulation: violence. This is thanatos unbound.

Psychosis and the Identified Patient. Systems thinking brought new ways of interpreting mental illness. Bateson discusses the role of the social system, often the family, in schizophrenia. He observed that the entire family was engaged in creating a psychotic system, of which the diagnosed member, the Identified Patient, was the conscious focus. Each member of the system distorts reality in order to maintain stability, which opposes the more mechanistic view that the patient is the sole source of psychosis.

“…the schizophrenic family is an organization with great ongoing stability whose dynamics and inner workings are such that each member is continually undergoing the experience of negation of self.” (Bateson 243)

Each member of the system participates in psychosis; there is only the appearance that it constellates around the Identified Patient.

If the train can be conceptualized as a family system, Curtis is the Identified Patient. When Curtis confronts him with his crimes, Wilford says, “Everyone is in their place, except you, Curtis.” Wilford, the patriarch, creates the environment that foments the madness of the train’s inhabitants. But as Berman points out, the concept of the Identified Patient does not allow for individual differences in physiology, intelligence, or other factors. Feminist critiques of Family Systems Theory have objected to the potential for victim blaming; for casting an abused child as complicit in abuse by a parent or other authority figure (Murray).

While Curtis, Wilford, and Gilliam play their prescribed roles in the life of the train, two characters deviate from the norm: Namgoon and Mason. Mason lives with the privileged but regularly interacts with the tail dwellers and the workers in between. She is particularly dogmatic about Wilford’s divinity until she is taken prisoner by Curtis. She then begs for her life, telling Curtis (with a crazed smile) that he must kill Wilford because she wants to live. While Mason appears an agent of Wilford, she, unlike Wilford and the other front-dwellers, is exposed to the entire span of the train in the course of enforcing its violent laws. She is the most dogmatic of the front dwellers, yet she is crazed rather than flat. She seems to, on some level, understand the unviability of the train system, so clings all the harder to her worship of Wilford. Her madness is a sign of her fractured psyche; she knows that the train is not eternal and Wilford is not divine, and cannot totally hide the cognitive dissonance this creates. She is an active participant in the systemic psychosis, but she is not entirely unconscious.

Namgoon lives with his daughter in the prison section of the train. He helped design the train and is enlisted by the rebels to hotwire the doors in order to get to the front. He is paid in Kronole, the illicit drug of the train. He eventually reveals to Curtis that Yona’s mother was an Eskimo, and taught him how to survive in the cold. She and several others escaped, but it was too soon, and they froze to death in view of the train — their frozen forms are used as a yearly cautionary tale for the children. Namgoon, instead of plotting to overthrow the train’s hierarchy, has been watching for signs of ecological change. He has noticed that the snowline has been gradually decreasing, and has seen signs of animal life. He explains this to Curtis, who, at first, cannot conceive of life beyond the train. But Namgoon is able to introduce a pathogen into the family system and into Curtis: the dream of life beyond the train.

From a developmental perspective, Namgoon is at an entirely different level of consciousness than the train’s other inhabitants. As Curtis realizes the full extent of Wilford’s madness, and the extend of his own victimization, he chooses to sacrifice both his arm and his life in order to break Wilford’s control of the train, and the train’s control of its inhabitants. Curtis helps Namgoon blow open the door of the train using the cached Kronole, which is an explosive. An avalanche derails the train, and only Yona and Tim, who Curtis saved from the engine at the cost of his arm, survive the crash. The avalanche signals the end of the closed, psychotic family system; its distorted reality has been destroyed and subsumed in the infinitely larger open system of the planet.

Only Namgoon sees the reality beyond the engineered social system of the train. He does not play his preordained part; he embodies both eros and thanatos. He wants life beyond the train for himself and his daughter but is willing to destroy the closed system in which he and the other train-dwellers live in order to attempt it. Carr & Lapp suggest that thanatos is necessary for transformation; that “breaking the rules” of the system exposes one to danger and possible psychic or physical death, “Transformation is the cause and the effect of partial identity dissolution required for identity development…”(Carr & Lapp 47). So perhaps Namgoon’s willingness to risk his life and the life of the others on the train is a necessary component of breaking out of the oppressive psychological system of the train.

Viewing Snowpiercer through a systems lens highlights several concepts discussed in this paper. To return to Berman’s reservations about the systems perspective, the film demonstrates three ways in which a systems view, particularly a closed view, may be dangerous or distorting. Systems thinking may, as other paradigms before it, ignore the context from which it emerged and contain embedded elitism. The train has a strictly controlled social system that rationalizes extreme luxury for some and extreme poverty for others. Cybernetic thinking may be an extension of mechanistic thinking, ignoring data from outside the system. Wilford, in spite of the continual breakdown of his engine, believes his closed system is “eternal” and completely within his control. Only Namgoon recognizes that the environment is not static and that the train is not, in fact, a closed system. This is fully realized when the train is destroyed by an avalanche. Finally, regardless of paradigm, humans have a psychological tendency to grasp at ideas that make sense of and reduce ambiguity. In Snowpiercer, the human race chose a simple answer to a complex problem (global warming) and failed to foresee both the immediate and long-term outcome — the freezing and thawing of the earth.

Snowpiercer is a modern fable about the fallacy of human control, and the ultimate limits of bounded rationality. Through vivid imagery, characters, and masterful storytelling, it exposes the human tendency toward conceptualizing ourselves as masters of nature, rather than inhabitants. Systems perspectives allow us to broaden our view of creation and avoid atomistic thinking. But the systems perspective is not an antidote for the compulsion to reduce ambiguity and increase control. Snowpiercer reminds us that nature is vast, unpredictable, and ultimately unknowable by the human mind and that any human-created closed system has a finite lifespan. In the last scene of the film, we see Yona and Tim emerge into the snow and walk away from the wrecked remains of the train. A polar bear walks on a peak above them. Does the human race survive? That is not the point. Nature has removed humanity from the equation either permanently or for millennia. In Snowpiercer, there is no redemptionary moment for humanity. Nature is the real protagonist, and she has prevailed.

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Michelann Quimby, PhD

I write about ethics, org psych, body liberation, trauma-informed practice, sociology, cyberpsychology, human development, systems theory, and nerd stuff.