I just came back from watching it. I went to see it with mistrust because the theme of social hierarchy in a fictive universe has been done so many times already. Yet, it pleased me, but once again, it might be me pushing the interpretation too much in a specific direction. So here’s what I saw in the movie :
You know when people say : “It takes a disaster to bring humanity united” this movie rejects the saying by showing that in a post-apocalyptic universe, there would still exist inequality between men born from one’s lust for power. The train is an incarnation of an uni-linear representation of social hierarchy with Mr. Wilford at the tip of the arrow. The movie also depicts an excessive cult of personality resulting in propaganda and a nearly divine idolization of Wilford. Whereas the machine is regarded as something sacred. I viewed the machine as an image of the system. There are people who cherish the system, those who maintain it, those who revolt against it. But all in all, the system is composed of different actors each having a role in the overall functioning of the system.
The lust of power is depicted in a quite realistic way because the low-class people crave the lifestyle of the rich. Notice how often steak is mentioned in the beginning as an ideal meal. Also, when Curtis and his fellows meet Paul. We can see Paul is not in for the insurrection while he has an assured position, he has climbed the ladder and is part of a further wagon. Climbing the social ladder is enough for men to forget about the fight for equality.
I’d also like to put a few words on the drawing artist, I directly identified him as the historian. I enjoyed it even more when Curtis told him don’t draw this when they discovered the true origins of their protein bar. Selective history at its finest.
I think it’s about time I review the notion of sacrifice in the path of revolution. The progression through the wagons was a a permanent test towards Curtis determination to advance. Everyone was psyched at the beginning of the movie about starting the insurrection, while Curtis always waited for the right moment with patience. The scene during which they have a melee combat against the authorities with axes and proceed to butchering each other conveyed a message in its silent minutes where you could only hear the sound of flesh being torn apart. Edgar was gazing at Curtis for a long moment. We could see Edgar wasn’t expecting this kind of horror and yet he realizes as he watches Curtis that there is no surprise in Curtis’ eyes, for the man knew very well what path he was taking.
This determination of Curtis is truly confirmed in the scene where he’s forced to choose between saving Edgar from danger and compromising his mission or going after the high-class woman. Where in most movies the hero will save his companion, Curtis on the other hand proceeds with his insurrection and leaves Edgar behind. Edgar eventually dies and it pays off since they hold a hostage. Curtis always admired Gilliam as the leader of the oppressed but when Gilliam died he was directly chosen as the leader of the movement. This choice is reflected in the sauna scene where we witness the tattooed fighter sacrificing himself in order to protect Curtis. Why did he do that, since he probably is a better fighter than Curtis ? It’s because Curtis has gained a great matter of importance as a new iconic figure for the poor.
During the movie, we get to witness different types of lifestyle and engagement similar to ones in real life. The junkies are constantly intrigued by simple matter, they are distant from the fight and appreciate life in its simplicity. Curtis, represents the engaged men, defending a cause, shutting away his emotional pain. And on the other side, the law, protecting the balance, maintaining the system. As Curtis progresses toward the front-wagon we see the wagon evolving with more and more futile elements to render life more luxurious. I questioned why did they put the party-goers and the junkies in wagons that are after the luxury wagon and high society. I can only come up with the director of the movie categorizing party as the least necessary activity where socialization doesn’t even exist and it’s a semantic void. As he traveled, Curtis arrives at the last door with only Nam and his daughter both tripping because of Kronol.
Remember when Gilliam warned Curtis about not listening to Wilford’s word once he meets him. Gilliam knew the price Curtis will have to pay to achieve his revolution and Curtis did indeed arrive at the end of the road like a lost lamb. At the beginning of the journey they kept asking for the two kids that got kidnapped in the beginning. And you can consider Curtis’ quest start losing all sens the moment he stopped looking for Timothy, for it mattered not anymore. And this is where I will now analyze the opposition between Wilford’s realism and Curtis’ humanity.
If Gilliam had not even been collaborating with Wilford, I’d still consider him like the tail-leader of the train for he knew of Wilford’s realism and tried to talk Curtis into preserving some humanity. What Wilford did when he created the train was preserve the last thing he could for mankind. The gift of life. The very same life that was so dear to many in the movie (to the point they would betray, kill others, eat others, to preserve it). In a frozen world, there would be no way to survive in a utopia where humanity was united and equal, there wouldn’t be order and mankind would be lead to its extinction. That is why Wilford abandoned his humanity, become a monster in order to be able to live. The head of the system, the father of the machine could only be a monster, for he knew guiding the people would require tyranny. When he proposes to Curtis to take his position, Curtis’ eyes already said yes. Curtis knew the answer to the dilemma between dying a human and living a monster. As he was about to adopt the machine and embrace the system, Yona leaps to him and show him Timothy, working the machine. The sight of Timothy brought back the reason of his path, resulting in him switching attitude with humanity taking over logic. This was finally the moment he was more than willing to loose an arm and become the hero he wanted to be. Although, Wilford’s system has its component for every situation. Thus we discover the role of the second boy as an emergency manual pilot for the machine. Wilford is not just evil for the heck of it, it’s a choice he made : to incarnate the hero of evil in order to preserve mankind. Yet, when Curtis’ final resolve is to die a human, he only lets out : “Beautiful”, as his last word describing humanity in a dying breath.
Now, about the ending scene. I somehow knew there would be one of the stoner alive to enjoy the view of the real outside world, for only a stoner can put a good ending to the movie by ignoring the reality of being at death’s doorstep. The music, lighting and the faces of the actor ; it had everything a good ending does in a movie. Yet, I will refuse to consider a good ending, since there is nothing left in the world. With the apocalypse, everything was lost, the warmth of a human heart also (contrasting of course with the metaphoric frozen world), the only thing they could cling to was their life. Plus, I can’t help but ironically consider the mere possibility of Yona and Tim repopulating the earth. If there was anything I’d consider beautiful in the ending, like Wilford have said, it’s the fact that they put an end to mankind to render the human essence eternal.
* End of spoilers *
All in all, the movie was worth the watch. The intense thoughts only came in the ending, especially during the dialogue between Wilford and Curtis. Although, one can only applaud the director’s choice to convey the film’s violence and deranging hesitation whether to continue or not through the constant languor. The whole train, as a matter of fact, is in fact no more than a paradigm constructed to express different opinions on the value of life, humanity and the will to power.