The first time I remember going to “the Engine,” I was probably six or seven years old and I was taking my little sister with me. We were flying across the country alone, unaccompanied minors in the late 1970s. I remember feeling in charge; I’d been on planes since I was 10 days old. I also knew that I didn’t really have a choice, my sister needed me to be determined, steady. As we were flying forward, horror: the tickets were gone. Yes, the floppy red carbon-copy kind in logo-ed sleeve. I knew what they looked like and where they were meant to be: in the pouch around my neck. They weren’t there. In a nanosecond the journey was at risk, my authority was lost, and panic set in. Do I tell the stewardess (still called that then) and alert my sister to my failings and the jeopardy I put her in, or stay stoic? Soldier on. I found it in myself to stay strong, plow ahead to the journey’s end—which turned out to be a lonely security office at Dulles Airport. Eventually, we were liberated by our grandparents, who were apoplectic by that point. In fact, the airline authorities had been in control the whole time; they had confiscated our tickets upon boarding for “safe keeping,” they had squired us away to the lonely office because they didn’t trust our ability find our family. Lesson learned; given the chance, authority figures will always assume they can do better for you than you can for yourself. Which may, in fact, have been true. But I was destroyed because I knew I could do it on my own.
Watching Chris Evans lead his band of loyal followers forward through director Bong Joon-ho’s metal metaphor—I suppose Tilda Swinton is the “stewardess” here—I was reminded of my own boyhood quest for independence. Bong knows there is something primal about the need to be both protected and liberated, and is brilliant enough to translate it into a mesmerizing cinematic adventure. I regularly find myself, as all ambitious people do, struggling to get to the Engine, that structure or being or concept that is in control of my ability to succeed. And with equal regularity, I find that I actually need the Engine as much as it needs me to need it.
Snowpiercer screens on Sunday, November 30, at 6:30 p.m., followed by a discussion with actress Tilda Swinton.