Basic story. Well, it all starts on a train. It is all a train, actually. The benign, all-seeing dictator/conductor (Ed Harris) in his perfect Truman Show voice and character tells us late in the film (paraphrasing): "the train is the world and thus is everything". And, to tell the story, we (the audience) start at the back of the train where the poor people are. Why is the world on a train? Well, things didn't work out to well for human attempts at trying to deal with the environment. Whatever though because it is only important that the earth is "destroyed" and that we have to be on the train, ok. So, humanity is on a train and then things get pretty Hobbesian, later Malthusian and still later De la Boetian. Let me explain.
The train and film (aka world/humanity) is essentially a free-for-all dystopian hell show on a rail kept in order by gun-wielding, mechanic, somewhat sadistic simpletons with badges. This is the Hobbesian part.
The train is Malthusian because the powers that be (Harris) has determined that the train runs on a very strict balance that if within acceptable boundaries (i.e., there are not too many people on the train), then all is good (i.e., there is enough food, etc.). If the number gets to high, however, then there needs to be a little purge. Differing from Malthus though we are not talking about a war to help reduce the population. Rather, we are talking a rebellion and, more importantly, the counter-rebellion accompanying it that kills off the right number of people (there are some pretty graphic scenes of mass murder at some point).
The train is De la Boetian because it is not just anxiety, fear, chaos and horror (from Harris) that keeps everything running smoothly - dare i say, keep the trains running on time (sorry but could not help myself) but there also needs to be a little hope and distraction. This is provided by a surprisingly successful rebellion that moves its way to the front of the train. Of course, not all members of the rebellion made it to the front but the main character (Captain America) makes it. Now, you will of course say, "that was not Captain America on the train but the actor that played Captain America (see I cannot even remember his name)". To this, I will immediately come back with "that guy was so convincing as Captain America that he is going to have to be in an awful lot of movies before I forget that he played him. Another one just came out a few months ago, didn't it? It's not like he's Hugh Jackman who has played noblemen from prior historical period, crazed time-traveling scientists trying to cheat death and overly-zealous magicians." Give him and me some time.
Where was I? So, Captain America, like Neo in the Matrix, is a leader but he is a reluctant one that comes to occupy the role. He is not completely worthy however because he has a tainted past. But, people (turncoats, fans and ordinary folk) believe in him and in Neo-like fashion when it was needed, he steps up. While on the Matrix comparison, there is a certain symmetry between the benign dictator and the damaged, aging rebel leader who has literally given up everything for the revolution - body and soul. In the Matrix, the Architect (the state - played by the old, white male) and the Oracle (the rebel - played by the slightly less old, black female) seem to have a history with one another - creating a balance of sorts. In Snowpiercer, the government and challenger leaders also have a secret relationship, one solidified with late night conversations to talk about humanity (i.e., their respective cars and what lies in between). In this context as with the larger politico-eco-system that is the train/world, there is also balance.
The discussion of balance and place seemed intriguing to me, perhaps because I have spent too much time thinking about India and untouchability. For example, whenever Harris talked about everyone staying to their stations (or cars as it were), I just kept hearing the caste system which prides itself on a similar logic. Step outside your station/car and there is a sanction. The parallels were strong and this largely helps establish the illegitimacy of the train's governance and, I would maintain, the illegitimacy of any government that tries to rely upon such logic.
While battling all the way to the front and preparing to unseat the dictator, the film takes an interesting turn where the dictator offers the reigns of power to Captain America. Rather than become the state and continue the madness that Harris' governance promotes, however - a different form of rebel victory actually, Captain America decides to smack Harris, save the black child that was enslaved by Harris to service the train (stolen earlier in the film from his mother skirt - literally), destroy the train (inevitably seen more as a prison than world/humanity/technical marvel) and go outside. Now outside is kind of portrayed as the outside was portrayed in the old film Logan's Run or the "Forbidden Zone" in Planet of the Apes: it's uninhabitable, barren and the opposite of civilization (no steak, no sushi, no steam baths, no discos - served throughout the front part of the train). Nevertheless, Captain America determines that it is better to start anew in this wilderness and for humanity to take its chance out in the wild. Humanity in this context is the rainbow coalition that survives - an asian woman and the little black male (one of the rare few to survive in the history of America science fiction films). I contemplated giving the movie a peace sign for that. It's not quite clear that the brother was going to make it in the new world though.