"I believe children are our future," sang Whitney Houston in her 1985 hit version of "Greatest Love of All." In Bong Joon-ho's post-apocalyptic 2013 movie Snowpiercer, this sentiment rings true in how children are commodified to keep the train running and the semblance of hope the next generation offers even when all has gone to hell. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the world this story illustrates is experiencing a new Ice Age after an attempt to fix climate change has the opposite effect. The revolutionary solution via an artificial cooling system is a cataclysmic disaster, which led to the extinction of all life — well, not quite all life, as those who made it onto enigmatic magnate Wilford's (Ed Harris) train survived this deadly shift in temperature.
Unfortunately, this is not a utopia for every resident on board, and as with most aspects of travel and housing, not every person is seen as equal. Instead, the notion of "preordained" positions is used to separate the passengers into the haves and have-nots. Adding to the horror of the scenario, children are deemed expendable and vital to keeping this system ticking.
Spoilers ahead for Snowpiercer.
Rather than start the story at the beginning of this new version of living, it has been 17 years since the world froze over. Various rebellions within the tight confines of the Snowpiercer locomotive have taken place, including the Frozen Seven rebellion that saw passengers try to make a break for freedom before the climate froze them in place. Other such acts of defiance are in response to the treatment of the citizens in the tail section, which has seen the passengers sink to desperate measures before rising up.
At the back of the train, the inhabitants represent the least privileged, whereas the elite hasn't compromised on decadent living at the front of the vehicle: they can still enjoy sushi, steam rooms, and a lavish nightclub. A classroom and daily lessons with a chipper teacher are also on offer for those train babies born into wealth, while the kids in the back are lucky if they make it to adulthood. Over this period of living in this cramped environment, several revolutions have led to multiple deaths. The danger posed to children has prompted rebellions against the ruthless class system that has been imposed with impunity. In this current iteration, Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) had already been planning on taking control of the engine before two kids are taken for the undisclosed reason, but this only makes the desire to overthrow the system more urgent.
The disregard and pure indifference shown toward the tail section kids is made explicit in the manner in which they are measured as objects rather than people. The rear passengers exist to keep the privileged in the comfort they are accustomed to. When Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewan Bremner) object to their kids being removed, the power imbalance is disclosed in a frightening fashion; Tanya is beaten and Andrew loses his arm as the guards weaponize the freezing climate in a brutal and efficient manner. The desire to get to the front of the train is increased as they realize without action they will not get their kids back. He who "controls the engine, controls the world," but it turns out the literal version of how the engine works is far more troubling than this.
As soon as Timmy and Andy's compact size is seen as desirable, it is clear they are not being transported to the front of the train for a magical adventure or to even enroll in the school system. If you hadn't already guessed by that point, the final climax reveals they have become part of the mechanism of the engine, which mirrors how children were utilized during the Industrial Revolution to fix machinery — here, they are performing a similar function. Their humanity has been stripped; instead, they are viewed as a necessity to keep the train running.
"Thank goodness the tail section manufactures a steady supply of kids so we can keep going manually," Wilford states, lacking any emotion while Curtis looks on horrified. The transportation magnate takes this approach to all matters ensuring the ecosystem remains intact, which he views from a philosophical position that only the privileged can enjoy. He doesn't care about the lives lost in order to keep this balance because he sits at the top of this chain. Reducing people to statistics is one way to keep humanity going but it also takes away the very essence of who we are. If you are willing to sacrifice kids rather than search for an alternate option then it doesn't say much about the world you're trying to maintain. The engine might last forever but using children as machinery is no way to run society.
Train babies are those children that were born after the world had frozen, and kids like the seized Timmy and Andy have never known an existence beyond their time in the tail section. Curtis has spent an equal amount of his life on the train and out in society, but he would rather forget about the time before the train because it is too painful. He would also rather erase the conditions they endured at the start of this endless journey, and who can blame him after he tells this story: "You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best…" No one wants to brag about cannibal culinary variety, except maybe Hannibal Lecter.
Before children helped keep the train running, they also kept those in the back alive as the pre-ordained positions decided by Wilford also took away everything they had brought with them. As for how implausible any of this seems, the reaction to COVID-19 — including the test availability — should strike fear into anyone's heart who thought this only happened in science-fiction movies. We are seeing panic and privilege at play from those who can and cannot get tested to those still having to work in a public setting.
But there is some semblance of hope in Snowpiercer that is heartening (particularly in these uncertain times), which emphasizes how the kids will save us all. Yona (Go Ah-sung) is the teenage daughter of security specialist Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song). She is clairvoyant, which is a skill that comes in handy throughout the film. Not only that, but she also possesses the fearlessness and tenacity her mother did (who led the Frozen Seven revolution).
After her father and Curtis have used their bodies to shield Yona and Timmy from the fireball, the fur-clad duo make their way out into the snow as the only survivors. A polar bear roams nearby, but instead of being a predator to fear, this is signal that life has found a way — to borrow from another franchise.
In May the long-awaited TV version will be premiering, but watching Snowpiercer in the current climate underscores certain terrifying aspects regarding the environment and our response to a pandemic, neither of which feels all that comforting at the moment. Nevertheless, even though the situation brings out the worst in people, it also highlights the resilience and strength of those who haven't been corrupted by power. Yona and Timmy break free of the closed ecosystem to discover there is life beyond the segregated world they were born into. It turns out the children are indeed our future, and they will lead the way.