The practices of the Hollywood studios frequently perplex me. Very often, they will all stay clear of a potential big release, like “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, because they don’t want their film to go up against the big competition. If the big release flops, or underperforms, they then have to compete against a number of other films which also left the previous weekend due to perceived competition. One week, one big film, the next, four. The Weinstein brothers, who left their company Miramax to start The Weinstein Company, frequently buy independently made films at film festivals. Many companies compete for the biggest titles at film festivals and the Weinsten’s will frequently buy a popular film simply to keep it out of the hands of a competitor. They reportedly have hundreds of films on their shelves, starring big stars or up-and-comers (who are probably now big stars) that have never been released because they couldn’t figure out how to market them.
"Snowpiercer”, the new film from director Bong Joon-ho (or the Westernized version: Joon-ho Bong, “The Host”, “Mother”) and co-written by Bong and Kelly Masterson (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”), is a film receiving almost orgasmicly good reviews and word-of-mouth on the festival circuit. The Weinstein Company (TWC) snapped it up. When a film is receiving word-of-mouth like this - “Entertainment Weekly” has mentioned the film many times, urging people to see it - you would expect the company releasing it to capitalize on that. TWC decided to release it the same weekend as “Transformers”. Okay. Maybe someone is finally listening and decided to give a big, multi-screen release some competition. Errr, no. They released the film, a science fiction film featuring some mind-blowing special effects and production design, to one theater in Los Angeles, an independent theater with small-ish screens. Not the ideal environment to see what could be the next sci-fi epic. The next week, they added one screen at the worst theater in Santa Monica. My husband and I went to the first show and the projector was broken. I mentioned that I doubted it would still be playing the following weekend. It wasn’t. TWC was not making it easy to see this film. On the other hand, I had the choice of fifty screens in a ten-mile radius to choose from if I wanted to see “Transformers”. But the weekend after that,”Snowpiercer” was available On Demand. We rented it and watched it. Again, not the ideal way to watch such a film, but I was eager to see it.
I recently saw a story about TWC’s decision to release the film so quickly to VOD. The company stated they made $2.6 million from the theatrical release and $11 million from the first weekend of VOD. TWC made more money from the VOD because their percentage of VOD sales is higher than theater ticket sales. Still, it seems a slight to a film that people clearly like. Give a film the respect it deserves by showing it in theaters, in the way it was meant to be seen, on a big screen.
A brief prologue establishes how the world fell into a new Ice Age. Picking up seventeen years later, we meet a rag-tag group of people living in the last car of a huge, very complex train circling the Earth, carrying the last human survivors who are forced to live in cars based on their place in society. The last car contains the underprivileged, the poor, the sick, forced to eat ‘protein blocks’ provided to them by the people who run the train, the privileged ruling class who occupy the luxury cars at the front of the train. Curtis (Chris Evans, who made this film between “The Avengers” and “Captain America 2”), is fed-up with the status quo. He has lived on the train as long as he lived on Earth as a normal member of society, and he has seen a number of failed rebellions on the train, but he thinks they have a chance this time. His buddy, Edgar (Jamie Bell) is reluctant but agrees to go ahead with the plan. Their elder, Gilliam (John Hurt), also feels the timing is right, so they come up with a plan. Grey (Luke Pasqualino, BBC America’s “The Musketeers”, “Skins”), a very physical warrior, is able to overcome soldiers using his training. Tanya’s (Octavia Spencer) son is taken by the people at the front of the train, prompting her to join the fight. They begin their plan which involves breaking Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), the designer of the security system for the train, out of prison, which is the next car ahead. When they have him, the plan is to work through the cars, making their way to the engine designed by the visionary Wilford, years before the Ice Age. Wilford (Ed Harris) guards the engine and once the rebellion controls the engine, they control their own lives. But Wilford’s second-in-command Mason (Tilda Swinton, in another unusual, mannered, very good performance) tries to quell the rebellion in its early stages.
Bong was inspired to make this film when he found an out-of-print French graphic novel, prompting him to write the screenplay and direct the film. And it is the type of film that only a serious cinephile could create. Bong-Ho has created a unique, scary, challenging world and populated it with a distinct cast of characters, each of them different from the last, serving a purpose in both this society and the story. It is a fascinating look at a post-apocalyptic world.
The biggest change between the graphic novel and the actual film? Bong has cut down the number of cars in the train to twenty-six. This seems more manageable, but also less daunting. Curtis and his band have to make their way from the last car to the first, overcoming many obstacles along the way. In every other car, they experience a new challenge which serves to cause them to slow down and the resulting battle thins out the herd. Each car has a unique design and purpose for this micro-society, creating new challenges for the rebellion. It makes sense that Bong would reduce the number of cars, but we wouldn’t expect to see every car anyway, and he doesn’t even show every every one of the cars he does have, so I don’t ultimately understand why he decided to do this.
As the film begins, you realize Bong’s vision of this world is absolute. Every detail of the physical and mental has been created to reflect how and why they live like this. As they progress through the train, you see different environments and each of these reflects a different need for some part of the society. As the train is very much a class-based system, the last car houses the lower class. Here, the most people live in the poorest conditions, eating ‘protein blocks’, working hard, living in filthy conditions, bundled up against the cold. As they get closer to the front of the train, the upper classes have cars to cater to their every need, including a green house car to grow vegetables, an aquarium for their yearly sushi feast, a sauna car to provide relaxation and a nightclub car complete with dancing, alcohol and drug use.
In addition to the unique design of each car, the rebellion experiences new obstacles and challenges along the way. Each of these is highly stylized and you realize Bong also has a distinct vision for each of these battles. Early on, the rebellion meets a plethora of guards, cheered on by Mason (Swinton) at the other end of the car. Curtis and his followers think they have the upper hand until Mason gleefully orders the guards to put on their night-vision goggles. Namgoong looks out the large windows, squinting into the sunlight before he realizes they are about to enter a very long tunnel which will cut off their light. As darkness engulfs the car, the tunnel wiping away the light, the battle begins.
“Snowpiercer” is about as unique a vision as you can get in a movie these days. It is so absolute and finite, you can’t help but get sucked into it. But this also represents my one minor complaint about the film. Because each train car represents a new obstacle, a new challenge, the narrative becomes a little too much like a film based on a video game. Can the hero overcome this obstacle to get to level 10? What new challenge will wait at level 11? But this is easy to overlook in a film filled with such unique ideas and designs.
Chris Evans plays Curtis, the leader of the rebellion and it is a remarkably good performance. You know there is something, some moment, driving him to lead this rebellion when so many before them have tried and failed. This has been eating at him for seventeen years and he literally can’t take it anymore. So he watches, observes and formulates a plan with the help of Edgar (Bell) and Gilliam (Hurt). As word of their plan circulates, they attract more and more people who want to participate. When he reveals the reason he led the rebellion, you really feel his pain, years of regret building up.
Jamie Bell plays Edgar, Curtis’ friend and co-leader of the rebellion. He isn’t as old as Curtis, and doesn’t have the same history and he is more reluctantly willing to help. Octavia Specer’s Tanya becomes involved after her son is taken away. She wants him back and this provides her with the reason to participate. It is an unusual, but good performance for Spencer, who was attracted to the physicality of the role. John Hurt brings a welcome gravitas as Gilliam, the old man who is the rebellion’s wise sage. Hobbling around on one leg, Gilliam uses his age and wisdom to help steer the rebellion’s plan and ideas. The final piece of the puzzle comes with Namgoong. Once he is released from prison, Kang-ho Song imbues Namgoong with a lot of character. He is a smart guy, but he is also addicted to drugs and the rebellion uses this addiction to goad him on, forcing him to comply with their requests. He brings his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko) who seems to have clairvoyant capabilities and also appears to be addicted to drugs. Just before they open each door, she ominously predicts what will happen in the next car. This is the type of cast, odd and disparate, that these days could only come from an independently made film.
Bong also creates the outer world with as much detail. As the train barrels along its tracks, the characters frequently look outside and we see different parts of the world and how they are affected by the Ice Age. Large ships are overturned and crusted with ice and snow. Buildings rise out of the ice, skeletons of their former glory. Because the train is speeding through a landscape covered in snow and ice, it will also encounter natural obstacles. When these occur, Bong shows us these in a way that doesn’t give us a chance to breathe or prepare for it. They simply happen, making our hearts beat a little faster from the adrenaline.
“Snowpiercer” is a frightening look at a possible future, a dystopian future, created by a filmmaker with such a unique, uncompromising vision you can’t help but go along for the ride.