Snowpiercer: The least blockblustery blockbuster of the year

http://www.awardsdaily.com/blog/snowpiercer-the-least-blockblustery-blockbuster-of-the-year/

snowpiercer

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.

36 Comment

  1. My only point here, my only intention, is to ask that we might not categorize Snowpiercer side-by-side with movies costing 8x more, movies with huge studio marketing machines behind them, movies that fit the more traditional concept of blockbuster. That’s not what Snowpiercer is.

    I just want to be careful not to mislabel this movie or mislead anyone about what to expect. Because then I worry that we’ve set up Snowpiercer to be regarded as a “failure” if it doesn’t earn $150 million.

    I was trying to make clear that Snowpiercer has already earned 3x times what it cost — with none of the extravagant Hollywood overhead tentacles leeching away its profits so it’s made to look like it didn’t break even. Bong Joon-ho don’t play that.

    This is not a review or even an essay on the artistic merit of Snowpiercer. That’s something else, something more serious, something I’ll post in a day or two, after I see it again.

    This is just to get a Snowpiercer headline on the main page as it prepares to expand to dozens of other cities in its second week.

    In no way was this post meant to be argumentative on stir up a conflict. I wrote it with the opposite goal in mind: to be supportive, upbeat, encouraging, optimistic — and above all, grateful that movies like this can be made.

  2. Cool article. I have not yet seen the movie but it does look different yet still very exciting. Whether or not it will be in theaters or on DVD I will certainly check it out.

  3. i want to see it just to see why Swinton has a shoe on her head.

  4. ‘i want to see it just to see why Swinton has a shoe on her head.’

    It’s genuinely the best thing about the movie.

    ‘Its per-screen average is great. $21,000 per screen. (Just a little less than Transformmers 4 is earning per screen).’

    In far, far fewer screens. With all the online buzz, I interpreted Snowpiercer’s opening as a bit of a disappointment.

    ‘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.’

    Harvey would have gunned much harder for this film if he’d got his way with it. Funny that he seems to have a lot more faith in Grace of Monaco than in Snowpiercer.

  5. It kills its major characters played by beloved actors, yes, but it isn’t Game of Thrones. Instead of leaving me in a state of awe and shock it bored me. Kill everyone, good guys and bad guys, easiest way out and oh such a massive dramatic punch.
    Less expensive movie with real actors and REAL fights, I think I’ll watch Raid 2 again.

  6. Top marks, Ryan!

  7. Good article, Ryan. You’ve convinced me to check it out.

  8. “In far far fewer screens.”

    Snowpiercer: 8 screens. I think I mentioned that.
    Transformers: “thousands and thousands of screens” (4234) I made that pretty clear too, right?

    “Funny” that Harvey has “more faith” in movies that he knows are an easy sell to gullible crowds?

    Is it “funny”? I think it’s rather easy to understand. How about you, Paddy? Are you trying to say that a mass appeal mess like Grace of Monaco is a better recommendation to our readers than Snowpiercer?

    If you were a film distributor, which of these 2 movies would you expect to be easier to push down the throats of the most moviegoers with your marketing money?

    This explanation of what to expect from Snowpiercer is intended to make clear that Snowpiercer is not The King’s Speech, and it’s not Transformers. But if you want to remind people that Snowpiercer is also not Grace of Monaco, you are most certainly correct. Thanks for the assist.

  9. Thanks, murtaza. You’re right, Snowpiercer is not Game of Thrones. Snowpiercer is not 40 hours long. You’re right. Thanks.

    Raid 2 is spectacular. You’re right again.

    Watch Raid 2 again? I will wait a few weeks before I need to see one man singlehandedly destroy 350 men who have no discernable personalities and no discernable function except to fall down in spectacular fashion after being hit once by the hero. But that’s just me. Raid 2 is an amazing ballet of anonymous men falling down when they’re tapped hard enough. Very true. I agree. It held my attention. It’s extraordinary to watch one guy wipe out an entire country full of tough guys with his very fast hands. Nobody will be bored watching that. But, for me, seeing it one time is all I need for a long time.

    (Raid 2 has “real fights”? Hmm… I wonder about that. But I don’t want to ruin your fun, so ok, sure, real fights. Just like the WWF is real wrestling.)
    :)

  10. Actually the fights in Raid 2 are real, the cast trained themselves for 6 months only to strike the opponent with minimum impact.

  11. “Actually the fights in Raid 2 are real, the cast trained themselves for 6 months only to strike the opponent with minimum impact.”

    I guess I don’t see how that’s very different from any other highly-choreographed fight in any film where people don’t really get hurt, they just fall down and don’t get up as if they’re really knocked out cold with one blow.

    I guess I also don’t see how the fighters in Raid 2 are “real actors” in your words, while nobody in Snowpiercer is a “real actor”?

    But I like Raid 2 a lot. It was thrilling to the point of being trippy. It’s absolutely among the best 10 movies I’ve seen all year. I don’t mean to pretend to slap Raid 2 around. The guys in Raid 2 already do a very fine job of pretending to be mad enough to slap each around without me pretending to be mad enough to fight about it too.

    Stunt men fighters are stunt men fighters are stunt men fighters. They all train for their onscreen fights.

  12. Thanks for posting this, I’m excited to see! I love a good summertime non-captain transformers america or whatever it’s called movie.

  13. ‘I guess I don’t see how that’s very different from any other highly-choreographed fight in any film where people don’t really get hurt, they just fall down and don’t get up as if they’re really knocked out cold with one blow.’

    For me, it’s the fact that so much of what Gareth Evans designed in the two The Raid films’ action scenes was unassisted by CGI that made them impressive. The stunts weren’t disguised as anything they’re not – they’re documented in long, clear shots that show how much less the fights in those films were faked than in most similar scenes in other movies. I’ll say that much in favour of those films. Otherwise, I abhorred them.

    ‘Snowpiercer: 8 screens. I think I mentioned that.
    Transformers: “thousands and thousands of screens” (4234) I made that pretty clear too, right?’

    Yeh, you did. And I mentioned it too. And what?

    ‘Is it “funny”? I think it’s rather easy to understand. How about you, Paddy? Are you trying to say that a mass appeal mess like Grace of Monaco is a better recommendation to our readers than Snowpiercer?’

    I’m questioning Harvey’s instincts just. I can see how Snowpiercer would be a tough sell to audiences, I’m just confused as to how he seems to think Grace of Monaco would be an easier sell. Surely he knew the critics were going to rip it apart. Having seen it, I would have known exactly that, no matter how broad the changes he intended to make. I’ve no idea why he gunned so hard for that film, and was so opposed to releasing an award-winning action film starring two recent Oscar winners and Captain America.

    Also, yes, I think Grace of Monaco is a better recommendation to anyone than Snowpiercer. Snowpiercer is ok. Grace of Monaco is a misunderstood work of excellence.

  14. - ‘Snowpiercer: 8 screens. I think I mentioned that.
    Transformers: “thousands and thousands of screens” (4234) I made that pretty clear too, right?’

    - Yeh, you did. And I mentioned it too. And what?

    And it sounded to me like you were trying to clarify something that you thought I was trying to gloss over. It sounded like you were challenging me on this point the same way the rest of your comment was a challenge. Sorry if I got confused about what part of your comment was a challenge and what part was agreement, but it was all mixed together so I was genuinely confused, Paddy. That’s all.

    alright, I’m glad asked you to explain about Grace of Monaco, because that’s interesting to know. I respect your opinion and my interest is sparked. Again, it was hard to tell by your comment, which seemed to me at first glance to be a dismissal of everything TWC tries to do.

    Don’t me make stop this car and hug you, mister, because you better know I will.

  15. Surely he knew the critics were going to rip it apart.

    I shouldn’t have to remind you that if we want to see how much audiences give a shit about critics then all we have to do is look at Transformers 4 earning half a billion dollars in its first 4 hours of release.

  16. I’ve no idea why he was so opposed to releasing an award-winning action film…

    “Winner of Best Art Director at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival 2013″ wouldn’t fit on the poster?

    “I’ve no idea why he was so opposed to releasing an award-winning action film…

    Here’s me, confused again. I thought Weinstein did release Snowpiercer. Does he not know it’s in theaters? Somebody just sneaked it past him?

    I thought the reason people are able to see Snowpiercer all across America today is because Weinstein released it. How many US theaters ever screened Memories of Murder without the help of Weinstein opposing its release the way he’s opposing Snowpiercer? (Answer: One Single Theater)

  17. Ryan, but I didn’t mean that, i never mentioned real actors or no real actors. You wrote Snowpiercer has real fights so i said i liked real fights in Raid 2 better. You’re right most of the fighters in Raid 2 aren’t actors but those fights weren’t just highly choreographed fights, the punches and kicks were all real.

    As for Snowpiercer, i don’t absolutely despise the film, I loved its visual style, innovative ideas, the entire plot kept me hooked and i was stunned to see Tilda Swinton in that role. It’s just that whenever one of its major character/actor (except for few) died, it didn’t feel all that realistic to me, it somehow felt predetermined, untimely and very deliberate. So in the end, I kind of felt cheated.

  18. I misunderstood your reply, murtaza.

    Sorry, I have a broken phone so it’s hard for me to be borrowing the phones of friends and trying to participate in discussions I’ve instigated when I’m away from the desk.

  19. ‘I thought Weinstein did release Snowpiercer. Does he not know it’s in theaters? Somebody just sneaked it past him?’

    He was opposed to releasing it in its current form in wide release. The only way Bong Joon Ho was able to release it in its unedited form was after several months of disagreement, significant support from online voices and on the condition that it opened first in limited release, with an expansion in the pipeline if initial figures were promising.

    ‘I shouldn’t have to remind you that if we want to see how much audiences give a shit about critics then all we have to do is look at Transformers 4 earning half a billion dollars in its first 4 hours of release.’

    That’s Transformers though. Grace of Monaco is a ‘prestige picture’. Not the sort of thing that can survive with a poor critical response.

    Gurl, I wasn’t challenging ya! But if u don’t stop that car, hug me and do a whole lot more to me right now, I might just start :P

  20. Paddy, I swear I tried to look for your review of Snowpiercer last night because I wanted to be sure how you felt about it before jumping to a wrong conclusion based on your comments. Would you link us to your page at screenonscreen? (This is in lieu of a hug. More of an online blowjob, if that’s alright with you.)

  21. Why yes I would! Any opportunity to whore myself out on a bigger platform!

    http://screenonscreen.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/review-snowpiercer.html

    And who wants my review of Grace of Monaco, for comparison? No-one does? stfu bitches you’re gettin it anyway #dollamakesmeholla

    http://screenonscreen.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/review-grace-of-monaco-olivier-dahan.html

  22. When I came out of the theater, I liked it. My partner hated it. After a day to think about it, I now love the film. There is so much depth to these characters and story. Much has been written about the number of deaths Game of Thrones style. I think it added a huge realistic sense of urgency to the film; no one is safe. Each character’s sense of self preservation for the people around them always comes at a price—usually the safety of those they try to protect. Good and bad, these characters and their predicaments are well conceived. Well, well, well done.

    BTW, my favorite shot is Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton going face to face.

  23. It didn’t seem like a blockbuster to me, it seemed decidedly Korean. Maybe people think it’s a blockbuster because it stars Captain America?

    On a rain soaked 4th of July my theater was as full as it ever gets with about 60 people in it, which is like half full.

  24. I saw this film a few months ago, and I LOVED it. I’m not sure if the version I saw, is the version that was released here in the States, but I found it intense, thought provoking, and wildly entertaining. Joon-ho recklessly pushed at the boundaries of effects driven films, and has given us the best post-apocalyptic film that I’ve seen since Cuaron’s “Children of Men”. I really hope that this catches on in the US. I have a feeling that it’ll become a cult/internet favorite, instead of a public hit, and I’m kinda ok with that.

  25. I hated the film. Probably more so than I did The Rover, haha. You talk about no CGI? Thank god they kept it to a minimum because the CGI that was there, i.e. The exterior shots of the train crashing through ice or even the shot of what was being ground up to make the protein blocks, were SyFy quality atrocious. The plot was highly improbable and it ended up being pointless. And don’t even get me started about logic. I see most people are defending the film by saying there were many cars we didn’t see that probably had more of their resources etc, but that is BS. Whole cows, other than a few soldiers beds, I never saw any living quarters, and the whole thing about the water car. Uh if the water is collected from the front of the train then the water car should’ve been like the second car. It could be melted and purified there and then sent on down to the rest of the cars. It wouldn’t be near the end of the train while the second car to the engine is some type of dance/rave room. Stupid.

  26. Also, other than the ravers near the front and the kids in the school car, we were never shown any other higher class citizens. Where were these people? If they knew a revolt was happening, they would obviously keep moving towards the front, but by the time the guys get up there, there’s only some drugged up partiers. Where were all those kids parents? And what was the population of this train? Seemed like there would be a lot more kids and of course kids of all varying ages. There seemed to be at least 100 soldiers/guards, so there should’ve been a lot more people. Seemed to also be at least 100 in the tail car. Which brings up the question why they even kept a lower class of people to begin with? In this case you would use them for labor and stuff the high class didn’t want to do, but other than taking a few kids, the protein block maker and a violinist, they didn’t force them to do anything. Where were the butchers and clothes washers etc? And when they did take people up from the back it’s not like they put them back there to live again, so now where were these people staying? Were they automatically high class now? Wilfred talked about keeping a balance in the ecosystem and that the revolt was planned so that they could kill some people and get numbers down again, but what is the point of that? They had already killed people mercilessly before to diminish numbers so why stage a revolt to make it appear more natural?? Makes no sense to me.

  27. Cirkusfolk, most of those questions are replied with just rewatching the film and paying attention.

  28. Well save me the time and u answer each one.

  29. Ryan, great article but when you write about a movie that people haven’t seen it’s pretty inconsiderate to throw in spoilers without a warning. It cheapens it for the rest of us.

  30. ah, you’re right, Don. I thought it was ok since I wasn’t specific, but I’ll adjust that. I’ll have to adjust your comment too, ok?

  31. SPOILERS AHEAD. Circus, here’re your answers.

    1) We’re shown the upper class wagons, you just don’t remember them.
    2) The fact that the drugged up partiers are the last wagon before arriving to the front, is another added point to the satire: hedonism ruling society.
    3) The kids’ parents? You’ve seen on the upper wagons, the garden, the spa, the sauna, and so on.
    4) The film (and its comic book source) take artistic liberties and doesn’t chew info up so you have it easier to swallow it. It takes its audience as adults that can actually reach own explanations based on logic. This is not a Hollywood film for the multiplex, it’s an intelligent commentary on society and human being. We don’t need to be distracted with realistic data, as the film NEVER, EVER tries to be realistic, but pure poetry. Plus, there are a lot of elipsis in the film, hinting we’re not checking out EVERY SINGLE WAGON but some, probably, are left out of our view (but not from the characters themselves). The fact you don’t see something, does not mean it is not existing.
    5) The low class is clearly a farm for workers, in this society. They need children for working in some parts of the machinery (it’s explained by Harris’ character). Elder, for entertainment, becoming waiters, botanists, or whatever… Of course, if anyone is giving the option of living in any other wagon than the last ones, they’ll happily comply with it. And they do.
    6) You don’t really need to be a genius to guess that the low class people not necessary anymore in the front, wouldn’t be allowed to go back to the last wagons, so they would likely be disposed, so the last wagon’s passengers would be blissfully ignorant of the upper wagons’ luxury and lifestyle.
    7) Your last question: THAT’S THE WAY OUR WORLD, THE REAL ONE, WORKS. I recommend you to search one name in the internet: Malthus. Google it up, reach your own conclusions, looking at history, specially in the last century.

  32. hinting we’re not checking out EVERY SINGLE WAGON but some, probably, are left out of our view (but not from the characters themselves). The fact you don’t see something, does not mean it is not existing.

    Absolutely right. In the graphic novel we’re told many times that Snowpiecer has 1001 cars.

    In the film Wilford tell Curtis that he’s the first man ever to walk from the tail end of the train to the front end. The train is a couple of miles long. We only see Curtis pass through about 10 cars. That’s 1/100th of the actual number of cars.

    The low class is clearly a farm for workers, in this society… Elder, for entertainment, becoming waiters, botanists, or whatever…

    like prostitutes. The upper class of every society throughout history has harvested prostitutes from the lower class. In the graphic novel this is quite (ahem) graphically depicted. There’s a lot of nudity in the graphic novel.

  33. I am *so glad* you liked the film and give heads up to it. I bought it on bluray just judging on trailer, reviews and creative team and cast. Surpassed expectations, I don’t see as a masterpiece (minor flaws here and there) but it’s an absolutely must-see and way, way better than most of this year’s offerings (Godzilla, X-Men: Days of the Future Past, specially, which are great looking, entertaining but demand their audiences to leave their brains back home… those screenplays are really, really dumb).

  34. Well I’ve been visiting the imdb message boards for this film and it seems most people hate it too. The few that do like it seem to only enjoy it for the “message” as they also like V for Vendetta and other anti class system films. It’s barely hanging on to a 7.0 rating, so I don’t think it’s gonna have the cult following you guys hope it will.

  35. Well, Cirkusfolk, in a world that WWF, Big Brother and McDonald’s reign supreme, a film that trust the intelligence of its audience, wouldn’t ever reach a higher note on an 100% open board as IMDB, would it? ;)

  36. Just saw it and LOVED it….i can easily see many more articles written about the meaning of this movie and what every single detail symbolizes in it…
    It is always great to see Olivia Spencer…and yes Tilda Swinton was just great….it would be great and fun if she got a supporting actress nod for this movie, Yeah that wont happen,

    And i was also positively surprised by Chris Evans’ performance, especially during his monologue toward the end….

    Overall a very well made movie….

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