At a key moment in Snowpiercer, Chris Evans slips on a fish. It’s important.
The plot of Snowpiercer is unabashedly allegorical: In the wake of a last-ditch strike against global warming, the population has diminished to the occupants of a single train in which the Haves enjoy atriums and fine dining up front while Have-Nots in the windowless rear cars eat protein blocks delivered by armed guard. And of the 20 minutes that Harvey Weinstein wanted Bong Joon-ho to cut in order to get a wide release for American audiences, the fish would probably have been on the chopping block. Coming in the middle of a vicious, bloody fight scene that takes a toll on their numbers, it’s a strikingly slapstick beat—if not comical, then certainly absurd—that isn’t necessary to put Evans’ Curtis in peril. (In a train where movement’s possible in only one direction, peril can be safely assumed pretty much from minute one.) And it’s not a moment that has much bearing on anything else. It’s just a bookend to the fish’s first appearance—an even more surreal moment, as one of the train-car thugs slices the fish open and passes it to his fellows, each of whom dip their weapons in its blood. It would, in theory, be easy enough to cut.
But the great strength of Snowpiercer is the ways in which details build meanings within the framework of the fable, often lending subtlety to a movie whose premise isn’t at all subtle. The film could have been merely a taut spectacle of violence as the downtrodden folk of the tail section battle their way forward—The Warriors at 200 miles per hour. Instead, the spectacle itself is the violence. The resistance fighters turn out to be far more prepared for the armed guards that descend on them than they are for a sauna. In the context of Snowpiercer’s class warfare and increasingly fantastic settings the closer they get to the engine, soldiers slicing a fish open is a symbol not just of impending battle, but a revelation of unimaginable waste that suggests the true resources of the front section without needing a word about greater numbers.
Fish, as it happens, become a sticking point for Curtis. Though he begins as a standard reluctant hero, his uneasy relationship with food forms the backbone of a more interesting characterization. Scarcity within the train turns every meal into a competition, and though his goal of making it to the engine is the rallying point he uses to organize the resistance in the tail section, it’s the protein blocks that end up being his tipping point. During their journey, he gapes at the aquarium around them, unable to believe the sushi restaurant attached to it. The sushi gets eyed as if it’s poisonous, and down the bar, he hands out punishment via a protein bar foisted on front-section toady Mason (Tilda Swinton). The unspoken uneasiness Curtis carries with him offers an undercurrent of dread beneath the usual mortal danger. It’s a reflection of a problem that eventually reveals their unwinnable war: The existing system can’t sustain a more equal situation. Children in the schoolroom car blurt factoids about the limitations of the train with the enthusiasm of those who know they’ll rule, and the schoolteacher (an outstanding Alison Pill) conducts the train’s propaganda anthem with terrifying fervor, and Curtis realizes the unanimity of what they’re up against. Then they hand out eggs, because this train moves in only one direction, and every symbol moves forward with them.
The specter of this new generation lingers as the resistance journeys ever farther toward the front to an ecosystem that can’t, and won’t, sustain them. The occasionally-wicked tonal shifts also follow (if a sketch artist taking a “snapshot” of the questing group doesn’t make you smile, just wait for Swinton to say something), but these, too, are grace notes in a world they know can’t hold them. It’s Curtis’ lot to realize this first. It’s the fish’s job to prove it to him.