I've been reading a lot of articles lately about the "summer blockbuster", specifically how the notion of a one big summer movie has changed over the years. Most critics seem to agree that the first summer blockbuster of the modern era was "Jaws", which was both a critical and commercial success. In recent years, the term seemed to apply not to quality or even to results but to a certain kind of film that looked good on paper: expensive, special-effects laden films designed to make huge amounts of money.
But those big movies are no longer guarantees of success, at least at the domestic office. "The Edge of Tomorrow" is an extremely well-made, highly entertaining big action movie that, while still being somewhat predictable, is happily neither a sequel nor based on an existing property. Every single person I know who saw it liked it. But by all accounts, it underperformed at the domestic box office.Whether that was due to Tom Cruise backlash, big movie fatigue (thank you, Michael Bay), or the proliferation of other entertainment outlets, I have no idea. But if even these nominal sure-things struggle to find an audience, what hope do smaller films have to make an impression?
I was thinking about this after watching Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer," which actually was a blockbuster in the director's native Korea. "Snowpiercer" is a post-apocalyptic action movie with an unusual premise (based on a French graphic novel), a bonafide movie star at its center (Captain America's Chris Evans) and spectacular direction. Worldwide, it's made about 80 million dollar, but in the US only about 3 million.
Some of that may be due to the film's perceived foreignness. Although most of the film is in English, it is mainly a Korean production and features two Korean actors speaking Korean. In addition, the film is deliberately weird, with a tone that shifts wildly from dark drama to surreal comedy to horror and back again. I can't really say "Snowpiercer" is a great movie. It's definitely not for everyone. But it's a movie that tries to do something different, that takes risks, and mostly pulls them off. So why aren't more people talking about it?
To give a rough outline of the set-up, sometime in the future, scientists try to halt global warming by releasing some kind of chemical into the atmosphere and accidentally provoke a new ice-age. Most of the earth's population is killed off. The only survivors live aboard a train powered by a perpetual-motion engine, the brainchild of a wealthy genius named Wilford, that circles the globe in a continuous loop.
20 years or so after the initial catastrophe, the train has developed a strict caste system, with the have-nots in the back of the train, living on top of one another, surviving on bland protein blocks, while the haves presumably live in better conditions towards the front of the train and its "sacred engine". The poor are kept in check by armed guards and their only glimpse of a better life comes in the form of Minister Mason (the ever-interesting Tilda Swinton, who plays the minister like a born-again PR flak crossed with Cruella de Vil).
When the children of the tail inhabitants begin disappearing, Curtis (Evans), encouraged by his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt) decides to stage a rebellion. Curtis knows there have been rebellions before, all of which have failed. But he has a new plan: free Namgoong Minsu, an imprisoned drug-addled engineer who helped build the train to help him fight his way to the front and take-over the sacred engine.
The bulk of the film follows Curtis' literal battle from the back of the train towards the front. Each car he and his followers manage to break into is filmed like separate set-piece with its own tone, visual style and obstacle to conquer. Highlights include the almost-silent axe battle with the train's guards and a history lesson in the school car given by Allison Pill as a demented Disney princess schoolmarm. Most of these encounters are extremely violent. Like I said, the film isn't for everyone. But it is some of the best-directed close-combat action sequences I've ever seen.
If the movie was just about the violence, it probably wouldn't have stayed with me this long. But Bong is going for something a little more, making a thinly-veiled statement about the current state of our fractured society. It's not subtle, but it is effective. As Curtis' journey continues, the film reveals more and more about all the players involved, their pasts and their motivations, deepening the gut-punch of an ending. It's a movie that starks dark and goes even darker, but is not without its glimmers of hope. The actors are all utterly committed (and props to Evans for taking on a role which would send most young heartthrobs running) and is far more narratively and visually inventive than any of the other summer movies out there.
So why isn't it making more of a splash? The film's distributors decided to release it on VOD at the same time as opening it in a handful of theaters. I presume the strategy was to give it more of a chance of finding an audience. But I can't help wondering if it undermined the film's ability to be a true sleeper hit. For god's sake, I saw "Snowpiercer" ON THE PLANE the same day it opened in the US. I would've been more than happy to pay to see it on the big screen, but now, I'll probably just wait for it to show up on cable to see it again. And I do plan on seeing it again.
On the up side, if you are looking for an action-packed but not brainless movie to entertain you on a summer evening, "Snowpiercer" is only a download away.