MESSAGES IN ‘SNOWPIERCER’ AND ‘THE PURGE: ANARCHY’
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Back in the day, when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five gave us the following opening in their classic, “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes/it makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” they were voicing a prescient concern for the harsh realities of life in urban America, where it seemed the only crime was being born a certain color or below the poverty line. The problems of the ghetto weren’t new, but the musical medium being used to transmit these accounts was; rap was just beginning to move beyond its rocking-the-street-party mode and the story of “The Message” had the feel of prime-time reporting from the front lines.
Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head
That refrain popped up in my head while I was watching “Snowpiercer,” the new film from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host” and “Mother”), which adapts the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” from Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette about a future uprising that takes place aboard a train that carries the last human survivors, following a global-warming experiment gone wrong. The world that remains is a winter wasteland and the remnants of humanity are segregated into various sections of the train based on class – what amounts to the 1 percent ride in the front, close to the source of the train’s power, while the rest of the occupants are corralled in the rear, under threat of death if they attempt to move towards the front.
Curtis (a surly Chris Evans) leads a rag-tag largely multi-cultural revolutionary collective on a violent odyssey through to a climactic meeting with the Man, Wilford (Ed Harris), the fascistic train enthusiast in charge, who ultimately challenges Curtis with the existential question of what happens if and when you defeat the Man. When you’ve been pushed over the edge, fought and conquered the enemy, how can you not become the embodiment of the enemy?
Every uprising faces this dilemma. But rarely are we given examples of resolutions where the former downtrodden populace pauses before slipping on the guise of the oppressors. Jon-ho’s film, for all its glorious action set pieces and tropes, utilizes its cinematic tricks to present moments of reflection and realization – slow motion tableaus and full-on gazes into the haunted eyes of Curtis and others as awareness dawns on them. The burden becomes more than a mere plot device.
Unlike, say, in “The Purge: Anarchy.” The continuation of the emerging franchise focuses on a near future where a new order of founding fathers has decreed in order for humanity to right the ship, it must release its pent-up frustrations one night a year, with full force and fury, and zero consequences. All crime is legal, up to and including murder, for a 12-hour period, and the event takes in the fervor of a religious holiday.
But, what the new installment makes perfectly clear is “the purging” is nothing more than the same-old, age-old class con game. The 1 percent buys the opportunity to kill for pleasure and the society gets to expunge the poor swiftly and without their naked base instincts being revealed so plainly. Writer-director James DeMonaco (who also penned the screenplays for “The Negotiator” and the remake of “Assault on Precinct 13” before crafting this franchise) has an obvious affinity for class warfare dynamics within mainstream forms and he ladles in action and horror elements to tease and tempt the appetites of audiences that might otherwise shy away from the tough meat.
Yet, he and Joon-ho leave us with festering questions: Are these films enough to push us to think about the state of the world we live in? Have the underlying messages been received?