Snowpiercer is shaping up to be the sleeper success of 2014. But no one has yet commented on one of the film's most unusual subtexts — its direct allusions to Gnosticism, the ancient Christian belief system that was damned by the Roman Church as heretical and virtually extinguished by the 5th century.
Despite its obscurity, Gnosticism still exerts a profound, if seldom acknowledged, influence on the 21st century popular imagination. Like the Matrix trilogy and The Truman Show before it, Snowpiercer is a Gnostic allegory par excellence.
A core tenet of Gnosticism is that our world, or the physical universe, is the creation of a false god, or demiurge, who pretends to be a benevolent creator but is in fact a malevolent impostor intent on keeping humans imprisoned in an artificial world of illusion and suffering. The only means of escape is gnosis (Greek for knowledge) —rising up from base materialism to reject the demiurge and break through into the higher world of the spirit.
Wilford, the creator of the eponymous Snowpiercer in Bong Joon-ho's visionary science fiction epic, has fabricated our world in microcosm. It's an enormous, interconnected ecosystem that — because of its function as an ark for the all that remains of humanity —truly is their only world (young Timmy calls it "the whole wide train"). Snowpiercer flips the Gnostic model of the cosmos sideways, however, and instead of moving vertically from the lower material world to the higher, more exalted spiritual realm, the tail-enders' quest takes them horizontally from the Dickensian hell of the caboose to the rarified heaven of the eternal engine.
Because the Gnostic earth is a prison, the demiurge is its insane, sadistic warden. Wilford (played by Ed Harris) openly admits his madness: "I believe it's easier for someone to survive on this train if they have some level of insanity," he tells Curtis. "We need to maintain a proper balance of anxiety and fear, chaos and horror." Fans of 1998's The Truman Show will note that this is not Ed Harris's first role as fictional demiurge. In Truman, Harris is the producer/creator of Truman's televised "reality"—another illusory world from which Truman ultimately escapes.
Ed Harris as the demiurge in The Truman Show. Note visual similarity to Snowpiercer's engine, above.
Aiding the Demiurge in his task to keep humanity enslaved are beings known to the Gnostics as archons, or demonic servants akin to prison guards. These are marvelously characterized in the blood-licking, tape-measure-wielding Claude, Tilda Swinton's masterfully weird Ayn Rand-lookalike Minister Mason, and the train's faceless, black-armored security forces.
The central demand Gnostic Christianity places on its followers is to escape from what gnostic science fiction writer Philip K. Dick called the "black iron prison" of physical existence into the higher, purer world of spirit. Many of the train's passengers go for the quick, convenient escape via kronole, the hallucinogenic drug made from toxic waste – which does eventually facilitate the final breakout, albeit in an unexpected way. Curtis and his band of tail-enders force their way through the successive gates ("storming the gates of heaven") seeking physical liberation, though until the end of the film we are not sure what form their freedom will take. Still, like the Gnostics of the second century, they are nonetheless compelled to escape their torment at any cost.
Looking at Snowpiercer through a Gnostic lens also illuminates one of the more bizarre scenes in the film, and likely one that producer Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut from the U.S. version. This is when the heavily-armored and masked guards slice a carp, ritualistically coating their hatchets with its blood. If you think of the fish as Christ and, by extension, his followers (i.e., Curtis and his disciples) another piece of the film's mythology falls into place.
The same goes for the moment when Curtis expresses his ambivalence about his messiah status (Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me) and his rejection of Wilford's offer to take his place (a direct nod to Jesus refusing Satan's similar offer in the Judean desert). In one of the rather heavy-handed examples of Christian symbolism, we see Curtis's hand pierced by a bullet—an iconic image of the crucifixion.
Even the tail section's cannibalism is best understood as a literalization of the Biblical Eucharist, the offering of one's own flesh as food for the salvation of others. In Curtis's climactic confessional, we learn the full story of the guiding mythology of the tail section. "Eat this," Gilliam says, offering his severed arm to Curtis and the starving mob intent on devouring the infant Edgar. Curtis could not cut off his own arm during what he describes as Gilliam's "miracle," but he ultimately does sacrifice his arm to extract Timmy from the engine's infernal machinery. The final sacrifice of not just his arm, but his life, destroys the Snowpiercer and enables the two survivors, Timmy and Yona (as Adam and Eve), to begin a new human race on the warming planet.
And this only scratches the surface of Snowpiercer's deeply embedded gnosis, which is mostly absent from the French comic on which the film is based. Is Snowpiercer a Gnostic Christian film? Absolutely and unambiguously. But it's not, as some might conclude, polemical religious propaganda. Like most compelling visionary works, it works on a number of levels and should not be viewed through a single ideological lens. As many critics have already pointed out, it is also laden with subtexts about class warfare and poverty.
Such thematic and allegorical complexity is increasingly rare, especially in an era of easily forgettable blockbusters-by-committee that sacrifice quirkiness to maximize global profits. But if the success of Snowpiercer is any indication, it fills a clear hunger for entertainment aimed at the intellect and the mythic imagination.
Michael M. Hughes lives in Baltimore with his wife and two daughters. He writes fiction and nonfiction, and his new novel Witch Lights is coming out in October. When he's not writing, Hughes performs as a mentalist (psychic entertainer) and speaks on Fortean and paranormal topics.