This week, I watched two wildly different films. One was the closing night film at the First Annual Destiny City Film Festival. The other was a thriller/allegory with lots of violence and action. One was a carefully-crafted, low-key story about a man who goes searching for his grandfather and the other was a high-intensity rollercoaster ride about class warfare on a train circumnavigating a frozen, lifeless Earth.
On the surface, these two movies have absolutely nothing in common, but when I started to dig deeper and thought about it, the more I realized that they are telling a story that is fundamentally the same. For all their differences, Copenhagen and Snowpiercer use the same storytelling tools.
[This is your only warning: Here be spoilers, matey.]
Mark Raso’s Copenhagen starts with a man on a mission to return to the homeland of his father and track down his grandfather. He is looking for insights into a man he never knew and ultimately, looking for answers about himself. What William finds, however, is a forbidden love and is faced with responsibility for the first time in his life. It’s classic indie fare — long sequences of riding bikes through the cobblestone streets of Denmark’s capital, Europop, muted colors, an unlikeable protagonist who grows into a mature man and a barrel of twentysomething angst simmering just below the surface.
Our second movie is, um, a little different. Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a South Korean scifi action film that opens with a dispirited group of refugees from a now-frozen planet riding in the back of a train that circles the world once a year and never stops. It is Titanic on a locomotive, with the rich people in the front and the poor people in the back, but without all the mushy love and romance. Early on, our protagonist shuns the role of the leader even as he prepares to lead a revolution to take over the train and free his people from a life of servitude and mashed-up cockroach food.
This film has all the tropes of apocalyptic science fiction —authoritarianism masquerading as capitalism, a closed world (the train could just as easily have been a spaceship), lots of blood, futuristic drugs, muted colors, bad dialogue, a man who refuses a position of leadership who grows into a mature man and a boxcar of 21st century end-of-the-world angst boiling over.
And yet, at the heart of each film is a coming of age story. In Copenhagen, William can’t grow up until a younger woman shows him a new way of looking at the world. At the climax of this story, William must face a moral choice that will define him. In Snowpiercer, Curtis can’t grow into a wise and just leader until he atones for his part in a slaughter in the desperate early days of the global apocalypse. In the end, Curtis must choose between the role of ruler or martyr.
There are so many ways to tell a story. That’s what I love most about being a writer. There are infinite possibilities. With a few changes in setting and tone, I can go from William standing on the Danish coast where the Baltic Sea and the North Sea meet to a speeding luxury train carrying the last members of humanity. With a few flicks of a pen, I can transform hedonistic, nihilistic William into Captain American killing people with an axe.
Despite their differences, I really enjoyed both films (although, I’ll admit that I had trouble taking Snowpiercer very seriously). From each, I gained a new perspective on a well-worn tale. That’s the versatility of a story.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA. Comment below or follow him on Twitter. Thanks for reading!