Let’s take a look at the circumstances and weigh the criteria to see why Snowpiercer isn’t a typical typical summer blockbuster — and doesn’t even want to be.
First of all, we know the term blockbuster was coined specifically for movies that audiences flock to see en masse, with lines around the block, millions and millions of people packing thousands and thousands of theaters. Snowpiercer is not that.
Snowpiercer has done very very well overseas, accumulating a sweet $80 million over the past few months before it even opened in the US. TWC is giving it a careful platform release — it only opened on 8 screens in 5 cities last weekend, nationwide. Its per-screen average is great. $21,000 per screen. (Just a little less than Transformmers 4 is earning per screen). But we don’t yet know if Snowpiercer going to catch on in Middle America where its competing with much louder, much more effects-laden summer tent-poles.
Which brings us to the visual effects. There barely are any. Aside from about 7 minutes of exterior establishing shots, showing the train and frozen terrain from a distance, Snowpiercer is almost exclusively an CGI-free handmade escape thriller, with real physical sets, real humans, real hand-to-hand fight scenes. Not many blockbusters these days get by on no more than 6 or 7 minutes of CGI.
Which brings us to the budget. You can’t even get a modern-day blockuster to give you hand-job for less than a $150 million budget. Snowpiercer cost only $39 million. That’s less than American Hustle cost. (and we got no hand-job from American Hustle either).
What does Snowpiercer have that most blockbusters don’t? Three-dimensional characters who get to engage in dialogs with one another for quiet reflective conversations, speaking sentences longer than 5-word exclamations. Snowpiercer has ideas in its head and takes time to communicate real emotions so that we actually care when characters are in jeopardy.
That’s another thing that Snowpiercer does than hardly any other blockbuster dares: its unpredictable way of dealing with major characters played by beloved actors. Fate betrays the usual rules, and nobody’s ultimate destiny is what we are led to expect..
That brings us, finally, to the most audacious non-blockbuster thing Snowpiercer does: It’s rated R. For grownups.
Rather than saddle Snowpiercer with blockbuster expectations, I see Bong Joon-ho’s thrilling film as a traditional hardcore near-future apocalyptic sci-fi, in the classic sense. A hardy band of human beings stranded in a hostile retro-futuristic environment, trying to make their escape to regain some semblance of a normal life. The old-fashioned way: with blood, sweat and tears; pickaxes, hatchets and fists.
Modest budget, ingenious low-tech effects, lack of mass-hysteria appeal. R rating. Characters who have thoughts and feelings so that the audience can be inspired to have thoughts and feelings. Add to that a frugal low-key marketing campaign, and the art-house-style platform release, and we can see that Harvey Weinstein fully understands that he’s not Michael Bay — and he doesn’t want to be.
TWC bought distribution rights to a sophisticated thought-provoking sci-fi action movie with a diverse international cast and deep sociological themes directed by a guy whose movies are as likely to premiere at Cannes as they are at a multiplex.
We all hope Snowpiercer will continue to draw attention and I hope intelligent noviegoers spread the word that this movie is something special, something we rarely see during the summer months, or ever.
I wonder if there are enough intelligent in the whole USA for Snowpiercer to earn genuine blockbuster status. Luckily, it doens’t need to. Produced by Park Chan-wook’s Moho Films and filmed at Barrandov Studios in Czech Republic and Korda Studios in Hungary, Snowpiercer is not beholden to fishy Hollywood studio accounting so it’s already earned an enormous return on its investment.
That’s the playing field where Snowpiercer needs to succeed, and by every measure — critical, financial, aesthetically substantial — it’s already triumphed.