By: Eunice Tan En Hui Paa
In post-apocalyptic texts, Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2004), leaders reconstructing society from the ashes of extinction-level crises are depicted to manage power through the institution of ‘sacred truths’, which form the legitimizing basis of these new collectives.
In Snowpiercer (2020), Earth’s remaining inhabitants circumnavigate an uninhabitable, frozen planet on a perpetually moving train owned by Wilford Industries seven years after an extinction-level ecological crisis. Promoted as the figurative ‘Noah’ and simultaneous ‘Saviour’ on humanity’s own ark, Wilford and his emissaries obtain total political and social control over the Snowpiercer and its inhabitants. Similarly in The Village (2004), the villagers of Covington are isolated within their hamlet, fuelled by a fear of humanoid monsters in the woods, creatures depicted to be responsible for the extinction of humanity ages prior. Such narratives are reinforced by the tales and mandates from a select group of Elders – who become the absolute sources of power in this society. However, despite these mythological narratives which are depicted to enclose and control members of society, characters under these structures in both texts attempt to break free from these ‘sacred truths’ – in Snowpiercer (2020), Layton leads the entire train into Revolution after revealing Wilford himself is a myth; in The Village (2004) Lucius Hunt and Ivy Elizabeth Walker attempt to go beyond the “boundaries” to face “Those We Do Not Speak Of”, in defiance of the Elders’ orders.
This prompts multiple questions on the part of the audience – Why expose these ‘sacred truths’ to be superficial? Why show that essential ‘truths’ to some can be “silly little lies” ? I analyse these developments by first establishing the functions of ‘sacred truths’ in organizing power and society in both diegetics. Subsequently, I examine the attempts of characters in Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2003) to escape their epistemic realities and their ensuing significance. I follow up by attempting to account for the similarities and differences between these portrayals in both films by drawing relations to the neo apocalyptic genre.
The Role of ‘Sacred Truths’ in Arranging Society
Across both texts, ‘sacred truths’ are employed by select leaders to arrange power and construct societies. In both the Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2003) diegetics, heads of society are depicted to employ the use of mythological narratives which service specific functions in the pursuit of organizing society. In Snowpiercer (2020), the most fundamental ‘sacred truth’ of the society onboard the locomotive is the promotion of Wilford’s status as a “God”, “The” omnipotent and benevolent provider, synonymous with the ‘Eternal Engine’ of the train. He is initiated as the head of the Snowpiercr’s “theocracy” (Weninger, 2021, p. 107) on various levels, in an almost cultish way – children are taught to chant his praises and daily announcements by Hospitality remind passengers that Wilford’s Engine protects them all from the frozen hell beyond. This narrative of Snowpiercer’s management as divinely appointed and legitimate is furthered by Melanie Cavill, who acts as Wilford’s “right hand”. It is subsequently witnessed that these mythical narratives serves a political function (Cohen, 1969, p. 348) – by virtue of these ‘sacred truths’ – passengers see the authority of Melanie and her emissaries (ie. the Brakemen, Hospitality) as justified and wholly legitimate, no matter how brutal their rule. This is most evident in the manner Snowpiercer’s management corrals the revolutionary tendencies of the Tail – subjugating their spirits by feeding them rations of waste, permitting autocannibalism, torture and removing limbs as punishment. As a result, Snowpiercer is initially depicted to function in an almost mechanistic, pristine manner under the full control of the management, due to the contrived deification of Wilford and his crew.
Conversely in The Village (2004), the Elders of Covington indoctrinate inhabitants through presenting a mortal opposition between themselves and humanoid “creatures” in the woods who are painted as bloodthirsty, violent and savage. This narrative is sociologically maintained, much like that of “God” Wilford in Snowpiercer (2020) – albeit through a culture of fear and vigilance. Watchtowers at crucial points in the village are constantly manned, the “creatures” are referred to as “Those We Do Not Speak Of”, and characters constantly refer to a “boundary” between the village and the woods as taboo to cross. Throughout the text, the Elders endeavour to perpetually remind villagers of the alleged slaughter of humanity by the creatures years before and the danger of the outside world. It is in this manner, when ‘sacred truths’ are constantly linked back to events of the past, such as the slaughter of mankind, as “beyond fact, beyond reason… beyond memory in time” (Cohen, 1969, p.344, 350; Malinowski, 1948), the villagers are left with no opening to recognise the narratives offered by the Elders as false, cementing the epistemic authenticity of these ideas. As a result, the lives of Covington’s people are willingly centered around the defense of their homes and families. The Elders become a symbol of safety and absolute trust – resulting in the effective quarantine of the inhabitants of the hamlet, furthering their paternal hold on power and order through the use of these ‘sacred truths’.
Breaking Free from ‘Sacred Truths’ : Same, same but Different in Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2004)
It is hence fascinating to examine that despite the seeming success of mythological narratives in controlling the population – characters in Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2004) alike, attempt to free themselves from these epistemic realities, in a bid to defy these ‘sacred truths’. As these narratives are socially constructed through multiple functions, the unravelling of ‘sacred myths’ means that social deconstruction must occur on multiple levels (Cohen, 1989,p. 352). Interestingly enough, this occurs to differing degrees in both texts – in Snowpiercer (2020), the unravelling of the myths crafted by Wilford and Melanie Cavill is depicted to be enrapturing and encompassing, brought about by a train-wide revolution and systemic change. It is eventually revealed that Wilford himself is not present on the train and has been presumed deceased. The ensuing inquiry into this leads to the raiding of the ‘Front’ of the Snowpiercer, once deemed a hallowed space forbidden for entry, and is revealed as a typical living quarters for the Engineers and Melanie Cavill. The loss of a “God” and the lies of his ‘Prophet’ Melanie hence leads to a resulting revolution supported by various Classes, including that of the Brakemen – led by Andre Layton and the Tail, in a complete toppling of the ‘sacred truth’ that underpins the Snowpiercer.
Although the dissolution of mythological narratives is also depicted in The Village (2003), this occurs on a more isolated and superficial scale. It is only Lucius Hunt who intends to challenge the Elders’ orders by attempting to venture beyond the woods and “make peace” with the humanoid creatures. Though undoubtedly a show of defiance against the ‘sacred truths’ of Covington, it is portrayed that Lucius’ efforts are futile as he does not fulfill his goals, instead becoming injured to the brink of death. On the other hand, it can be contested that Ivy Elizabeth Walker’s journey into the woods, and killing of one of the “creatures” (unbeknownst to her, Noah in disguise) to retrieve medicine for her beloved Lucius is a similar, but more implicit demonstration of insubordination. One can argue that a closeted frustration with the lack of resource and backwards nature of her village (cultivated precisely by the isolationism promoted by the Elders) leads her to venture beyond “the boundary”. However, the superficiality of such an argument remains – Ivy, as daughter of the Chief Elder Edward Walker, is informed before her voyage of the false reality of the creatures that apparently beset the woods. By virtue of this knowledge, Ivy becomes complicit in the furtherance of the mythological narrative presented in this diegetic, making the image of her escape and return – unscathed – as fundamentally insignificant in the ‘social deconstruction’ of the ‘sacred truths’ presented in The Village (2003).
The Significance of the Neo-apocalyptic Genre in these Depictions of Society
One cannot help but question why writers and directors of such films portray these ‘sacred truths’ in such a manner that exposes them to be superficial. I put forward that the neo-apocalyptic genre in which Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2004) belongs to could be a reason for this. Emerging in the late 20th to early 21st century, the neo-apocalyptic genre is characterized by a departure from the religious vindication offered by previous apocalyptic films towards a more secular vulnerability and pessimism (Renner, 2012,p. 204; Rosen, 2008). This transition from a more ‘Promethean’ perspective to a ‘Augustinian’ one aligns with a more dystopian view of society (Bendle, 2005) – in this case, the collectives in Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2004) are shown to be fundamentally distorted, built on the “lies” of ‘sacred truths’.
Additionally, the differences in how and to what extent ‘sacred truths’ are toppled in Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2003) provides differing perspectives on the commentary of power in post-apocalyptic societies. In Snowpiercer (2020), a Marxist interpretation of power is most commonly identified due to Layton’s Revolution and the abolishing of a Class-hierarchal Snowpiercer in favour of a classless system. Despite the continuation of disorder and chaos post-Revolution, the unravelling of ‘sacred truths’ in Snowpiercer on such an encompassing scale can be analysed to possess a more humanistic and optimistic perspective. However in The Village (2004), a more pessimistic and insidious view of power prevails. At the end of the film, it is implied that despite her escapade into the woods, Ivy Elizabeth Walker is inducted as a leader in the next generation of Elders, by virtue of her “test” and most obviously, her birthright as Chief Elder Edward Walker’s daughter. It is hence assumed that she stands in good stead to take on the mantle (rather literally) of “Those We Do Not Speak Of”, alongside her spouse, which one presumes would be Lucius himself. Though it is left to the imagination, the likely assimilation of Ivy and Lucius into the furtherance of the ‘sacred truths’ as they become Elders themselves is a reflection of a more anti-humanist stance, contrasted to Snowpiercer (2020).
Despite the inherent differences between the two texts in terms of genre and plot – I observe that a resounding similarity between Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2004) is that these mythological narratives are ultimately penetrable and frail. In addition, I see that the agency of the people as a force to potentially rival instituted ‘sacred truths’ is apparent. As much as it was Snowpiercer’s (2020) Layton’s choice to unravel Melanie Cavill’s lies and topple the oppressive regime of the train, it is arguably Ivy Elizabeth Walker’s choice in The Village (2004) whether or not to reveal the knowledge she holds to the other inhabitants of Covington. Although the frailty of mythological narratives in The Village (2004) is less apparent, it is evident that there is potential for the truth to ‘come to’. I find that underneath the neo-apocalyptic narrative that typically gleans dystopian and an essentially pessimistic outlook, there can be a humanistic undertone reaped from this depiction of ‘sacred truths’ and power. Eventually, both Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2004) suggest that the power of ‘sacred truths’ is ironically subject to the agency of the common people it is presented to subjugate – making it permeable and fragile.
Bendle, M.F. (2005). The Apocalyptic Imagination and Popular Culture. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 11(1), pp. 1-1, doi: 10.3138/jrpc.11.1.001
Cohen, P. S. (1969). Theories of Myth. Man, 4(3), pp. 337–353. https://doi.org/10.2307/2798111
Collier, P. C. (2008). “Our Silly Lies”: Ideological Fictions in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” Journal of Narrative Theory, 38(2), pp. 269–292. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41304887
Renner, K. (2012). The Appeal of the Apocalypse. LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory. 23(3). 10.1080/10436928.2012.703599.
Weninger, S. (2021). The Sacred Engine: Myth and Fiction in Snowpiercer. Journal of Narrative Theory 51(1), pp. 104-125. doi:10.1353/jnt.2021.0004.
Image of Snowpiercer (2020) promotional shot: https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/tnts-snowpiercer-tv-news-roundup-1234798138/
Image of The Village (2004) promotional shot: https://unbreakablemovie.fandom.com/wiki/The_Village_(film)
Image of Melanie Cavill, Layton and the Brakemen: https://www.techradar.com/news/snowpiercer-season-3
Image of the Elders: https://unbreakablemovie.fandom.com/wiki/The_Elders
Image of Layton: https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/snowpiercer-season-2-episode-10-review-into-the-white/
Image of Lucius Hunt and Ivy Elizabeth Walker: https://www.silverpetticoatreview.com/2013/10/01/defending-m-night-shyamalans-the-village/