Cinema Peer Review: ‘Snowpiercer’

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Bong Joon-ho’s feverish fantasy of post-apocalyptic proletarian revolution onboard a futuristic train is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking film, but it definitely puts the ‘fiction’ in science fiction.

Snowpiercer starts 17 years before the plot gets in motion, when humans spray a (fictional) cooling agent called CW7 into the upper atmosphere of Earth to try and combat global warming. But the substance works better than anyone expected and causes Earth’s temperatures to dive low enough to make it impossible to live on Earth—unless you’re one of the few refugees that managed to make it to the planet-circling train built by enigmatic inventor Wilford (Ed Harris).

Spraying special tiny particles into the atmosphere is actually an approach some people have considered as a way to mitigate the greenhouse effect that traps solar radiation and warms the planet. Researchers actually got the idea from volcanic eruptions, when they noticed that the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillippines spewed around 20 million tons of sulfate particles into the air. The sulfate particles reflected enough sunlight to cause Earth’s average temperature to cool by .5 degree Celsius (.9 degree Fahrenheit) over 18 months.

Some scientists are interested in the idea of creating an artificial Pinatubo effect: in 2011, U.K. researchers began testing a system that sprayed water droplets almost a kilometer up above the surface, in preparation for a mechanism that could one day deliver sunlight-reflecting particles up to 20 kilometers into the sky. Not all scientists are enthusiastic about the idea of climate engineering, arguing that injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere could change weather patterns in a way that would be catastrophic for food crops across the globe. But there’s nothing yet to suggest that that kind of climate engineering would cause the Earth to go into a deep freeze.

One of the earliest disturbing revelations in the movie (of many) comes when the revolutionaries find out the protein blocks they’ve been eating are made of ground-up cockroaches. While roaches are renowned for their hardiness and radiation tolerance, they’re not indestructible; it’s not incredibly likely that they could survive outside if the temperatures are too harsh for humans. A pair of Japanese scientists found that certain younger stages of the roach Periplaneta japonica (the overwintering roach that’s recently made its way to New York City) can survive up to 12 hours of below-freezing temperatures (around 19 degrees F), but the kind of long-lasting deep freeze depicted in Snowpiercer would likely kill these bugs along with everything else.

But maybe the train has one car devoted to a cockroach farm.  Could people live on cockroaches alone? Perhaps; cockroaches do provide a mixture of fat, protein, fiber and minerals. It’s hard to get exact numbers on the nutritional value of a cockroach—although some pet feeder companies have done preliminary analyses that suggest the cockroach is quite high in protein while low in fat. One 2013 analysis suggests that many edible insects, including cockroaches, could provide a person with satisfactory amounts of energy, protein, and minerals. So yes, perhaps with some vitamin supplements, it may actually be possible to keep people alive with ground-up roaches.

It’s a good thing that the passengers of Snowpiercer are fed cockroaches that are processed into Jello-like bricks. Not only is eating whole cockroaches rather unappetizing, it can be dangerous, as Florida man Edward Archibold proved. After winning a cockroach-eating contest at a local reptile shop, Archibold died after choking on roach body parts.

Wilford’s train carrying the last remnants of humanity doesn’t have to worry about fuel, thanks to a perpetual motion engine. The film doesn’t go into too much detail about the workings of this mechanism, but any kind of perpetual motion defies reason. It’s impossible to create something that works indefinitely without additional energy inputs; it would upset the laws of thermodynamics. You cannot create new energy out of nothing, according to the first law, and some amount of  heat will always be lost from an engine, according to the second law. As a fantasy device, the mythic engine is brilliant; as realistic science fiction, it leaves us cold.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 snowflakes