Snowpiercer: Plot Holes - Island of Sanity

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Snowpiercer: Plot Holes

The premise of this movie is that in response to global warming, scientists release a chemical into the atmosphere designed to reduce global temperatures. But they miscalculate badly, and the temperature all over the world plummets to sub-freezing, destroying pretty much all life. The only surviving humans are those on a train that is designed to be entirely self-contained. The actual plot is that some of the people on the train live in luxury while the rest live in primitive squalor, and those living in squalor rebel and try to take over the train.

This movie has a number of plot holes.

Let's grant that human beings, with our present technology, could indeed produce a chemical, and produce it in sufficient quantities, to alter the Earth's temperature this radically. Probably debatable, but doesn't seem inherently impossible. But once they started pumping this stuff into the air and the temperature started to fall so much faster than planned, wouldn't they have stopped pumping? I mean, I wouldn't suppose they could release enough of this chemical to destroy the Earth in a few minutes or a few hours, surely it would take months or years. Did nobody notice that something was going radically wrong and say, hey, we better stop and evaluate this before we continue?

But okay, I think one of the basic rules of science fiction is that you give the writer a lot of leeway on his basic premise. Maybe the nature of the chemical is that it caused a reaction in the atmosphere, and once it got started there was no way to stop it. Or something. Anyway, this idea isn't particularly more implausible than time travel or supposing that getting bitten by a radioactive spider would give you superpowers. So I'm inclined to give them this one.

So okay, some guy named Wilford has built a train that is completely self-contained: they produce their own food, collect water from snowdrifts, they have an aquarium car to produce fish, etc. At one point in the movie they said this was a luxury touring train, at another point they said that Wilford saw the disaster that was coming. So I'm not sure if we're supposed to understand that the train was built to be a luxury liner, like a cruise ship on rails, that proved fortuitously to be a means of survival, or if it was designed to be a refuge. Either way, after everyone else in the world freezes to death, the people on this train continue to survive and continue to travel around the world. The movie begins when the train has been travelling for 18 years.

Umm, wait. Why does the train keep moving after the disaster? Where are they going? There is never a mention of any destination -- they're not going somewhere to pick up supplies or look for more survivors or anything like that. They just keep travelling along their same route for no apparent reason. It's never mentioned what the train's source of power is. But whatever it is, it can't be infinite. Once the disaster struck, wouldn't it make sense to just bring the train to a stop and use the available power to keep the train warm so the people don't freeze and to provide electricity, etc? Why keep moving?

Who is maintaining the tracks? At one point they flashed a quick picture of the train's route, showing it going around every continent in the world. The route must cover tens of thousands of miles. It seems likely that somewhere along all those thousands of miles of track there would be a bridge that collapsed under the weight of the ice, or a section of track damaged by a rock fall, or some track that just wore out and buckled after 18 years. When we see the pictures of the train moving it appears to be going pretty fast, I'd guess at least 50 miles per hour. What happens if they hit a piece of damaged track or a collapsed bridge? If the train runs off the rails, there is no one to come and help. Everyone on board could be killed. In real life railroad tracks require constant maintenance. I can't imagine that you could just leave tracks untended for 18 years, under the most extreme weather conditions ever, and they're still safe to use.

How is it that no one else in the world has survived? As protections against cold go, I'd think a train would be pretty low on the list. A train has to be light enough for the engine to pull it, so there are limits on how much insulation it can have. An underground bunker would offer much better protection against cold. Are we really to understand that when this disaster hit, absolutely no one in the world besides the people who built this train managed to prepare some sort of shelter? There are plenty of places in the world where people already live with extreme cold, like Alaska and Siberia. It seems likely that people in such places would just have to do more of what they already do to survive. There are plenty of bomb shelters around the world that are deep underground, where they would be protected from harsh temperatures. Recall that if you just go down about four feet temperature is relatively constant, that's why you don't need to heat the city's water supply pipes in the winter, you just bury them a few feet. Even if we suppose that it is so cold outside that it penetrates beyond the current depth, so fine, you'd have to go down 10 feet, or 20. Plenty of bomb shelters are already that deep. Not enough to save the population of the entire world, of course, but plenty of politicians and rich people and other elites, not to mention survivalists, would have an escape. If these people can manage to keep a train with thin metal walls warm, surely any building with thick stone walls or good insulation would also be survivable.

MINOR SPOILER. At one point we're told that the people who run the train deliberately encourage violence so that the train does not become populated beyond it's support capacity, and that they've decided now that they have to reduce the population of the lower class by 74%. That must mean the train now has four times as many people as it can support. But they told us the train has been running for 18 years. So have they been drastically overpopulated for 18 years? If so, how have they survived? If they started out with a manageable population, how did they get to four times that in just 18 years? That would be an awesome rate of population growth. The U.S. and Europe today are barely keeping population constant. If we assume that half the people are women and that every one of those women is of child-bearing age, the average woman would have to have had 6 children in 18 years! Note that's the average, not the most productive. If we assume that some of the women are too young or too old to have children, the number of children per remaining woman would likely be double that. The women on this train must be banging out a baby every year or two for 18 years, while living under harsh, Spartan conditions. Well, maybe stuck on a train there's no other source of entertainment. There's only so much amusement to be had by staring out the window at a frozen wasteland.

© 2014 by Jay Johansen


Gordian Knott Jan 17, 2015

Great remark about the necessity to maintain track. It would be impossible to run the train without some type of support infrastructure in the outside world. Trains, unlike planes, by definition are not self-contained systems. An external track is an essential component of trains.

I'm guessing that the originator of this story (a French graphic artist) and the director were so gaga about the coolness of the concept that they forgot to work out the contradictions.

Chris Evans Aug 12, 2015

I don't think that most of these plot holes matter. The Matrix had them too and nobody cared, since the concept only serves as a metaphor about society. Of course no one would travel around through a wasteland for years by train. Just as machines wouldn't trap humans in a huge computer simulation to gain energy.

Repins Ninja Watson Sep 24, 2015

I think the train only works if its moving. If it stopped then all the power would go out but if its moving then it should be good plus the movement helps collect water without going out, if you stayed it one plus it be harder to collect resources. History has proven that time and time again. The idea of different classes is all about control. The front needs the back, small children to help clean the engine parts. I doubt the high classes would put up with it. The back needs the front for food and water. If they can make a train to do all it says in the movie im sure they could come up with a better train track system. Also it wasnt mention but our planet has gone through ice ages before. Usually right after a warm climate change. So with the chemical being sprayed in the air plus a normal ice age after the fact having air so cold you freeze to deathbjust by breathing is sorta plausable for a movie.

Dav Feb 10, 2016

There are more serious problems with this movie. Where do the chickens and steaks come from? There's no farm car. Why do they have the tail section at all? Most of them do no work and have no skills. What would make sense is if they are using the tail passengers as livestock, but they never said that. One scene I hated is when Curtis and the suited man exchanged automatic fire between two cars, with both standing behind ballistic glass. No one would waste bullets like that. It's like someone robbed their brains. Finally, Wilford turns out to be Willy Wonka and makes Curtis his heir. He probably should have vetted Curtis and made sure he didn't have an aversion to hurting children. There's one other thing I hated. Timmy emerges wearing a perfectly fitted tiny fur coat. Where do that come from?

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