Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian masterpiece ought to be the film that everyone’s talking about this summer, just like Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975. So what went wrong? Warning: Spoilers for Snowpiercer ahead.
This past 4th of July, instead of going to see the fireworks, I went to see Jaws. A beautiful print of Jaws, at a beautiful old theater (BAM Harvey) where, if you pick your seats right, you can find the feeling of being totally enveloped in the screen without ever craning your neck. It was perfect, and made even more so on the big screen: the blockbuster everyone should’ve been seeing on 4th of July weekend, instead of lukewarm Transformers leftovers.
Back in 1975, Jaws was the first true summer blockbuster. There was a huge marketing campaign, teaser trailers, cross-promotion with a book, all of the things we’ve come to associate with blockbusters today — all of that coalesced with Jaws. But Jaws didn’t bulldoze the summer ($470 million worldwide, which is over $2 billion in today’s terms) because of a novel marketing campaign. It was more than the sum of its high-concept parts: There was the shark, of course, but what this film really had was hypnotic sound design, three unique characters, an unknown yet beguiling and dangerous world, heady narrative tension, and a twist.
It had story — unique, addictive, transfiguring story — and it had style: two things that nearly every contemporary blockbuster lacks. Whether the contemporary blockbuster features a superhero or a massive CGI monster, the narrative is always the same, the stakes never change, the world never grows. The sweeping score plays on in a continuous loop of swells. The handsome men and beautiful women become interchangeable. One major American city is destroyed, you can’t remember which, there’s so little truly at stake. 9/11 allusions abound. You’re unmoved by the threat of the end of the world: That’s how ineffective these movies have become.
Snowpiercer is the first film I’ve seen since District 9 that takes the tropes of the blockbuster and transforms them into something so compelling that days after seeing it, you stop can’t thinking about it. It turns moviegoers into proselytizers: Once you’ve seen it, you can’t shut the fuck up.
It has the same DNA as the blockbuster, but unlike the last decade of summer films, it has a pulse. It’s alive, much in the same way Jaws and the original Star Wars and Jurassic Park felt alive. And it should be the blockbuster of the summer: the thing that everyone sees, that anchors discussions for weeks, a bookmark in an ever-growing stack of summers past. The summer of 2014 — that’s the summer I saw Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.
The narrative of Snowpiercer is straightforward and set up in the first minute of the film: The world was getting way too hot; some countries decided to shoot some stuff into the atmosphere to cool it down. That backfired; the world froze. Cut to the train. In most blockbusters, the first half hour would be spent carefully setting out exposition: Here are our heroes, and here’s why we should superficially care for them. Here is our setting, and here is why we should fear for its demise. Here is the threat, and here is the man or woman or creature or natural disaster that embodies that threat.
Snowpiercer, in contrast, offers a bit of bare-bones exposition and drops you in the thick of the plot, expecting you to piece together narrative clues. You can do this because you are a human being with a modicum of reasoning and patience: It’s not that hard. But it feels novel because the contemporary blockbuster spoon-feeds us plot, oftentimes through clunky dialogue.
There’s a reason for this simplicity, of course, and it’s not that we’ve become less intelligent. It’s the global film market, which now accounts for the majority of ticket sales. And when making a film for the global market, every idea has to be simple enough to readily translate not only in another language, but for another culture. All markers of identity must be clear and legible. And everything must be PG-13: The violence is endless but without blood, sex is romance without chemistry or lust or true passion. The narrative may have high stakes, but the actual actions are cold, metallic, without true consequence.
Snowpiercer, however, is one of the most visceral films I’ve seen: The grime and dirt and claustrophobia are palpable. The fact that it takes place on one long, single train makes it clear that every action has consequences: You can’t shoot a bullet without hitting someone. You can’t eat, or breath, or move without touching someone. There’s a great line at the end of the film when our protagonist is asked, “When is the last time you were alone?” He doesn’t answer, but we know: not once in the 17 years since he’s been on the train. That’s the level of intimacy, of psychological claustrophobia, that this film is operating on. Who needs a love story when you’ve got half of existing civilization sleeping literally on top of one another?
Like Jaws, the plot of Snowpiercer is straightforward. But both films have a velocity to them: In Jaws, it’s the Great White’s infinite appetite; in Snowpiercer, it’s the train, of course, whose speed, when shot from outside, is terrifying, but it’s also the inertia of the rebellion from the back to the front, like the tide coming in if the tide were on crack.
In each film, there’s a motley crowd of personages, each unique, each functioning as archetype. But these archetypes are distorted: In Jaws, there’s the island police chief who’s terrified of water, the scientist whose technology fails, and the salty captain with a secret past. In Snowpiercer, it’s the handsome hero who’s a coward, the Asian tech master who’s a skilled fighter, the doting mother who’s fierce and not the hero’s love interest, the sage with an evil secret.
According to film-history lore, Spielberg hated the way the animatronic shark looked in Jaws. Even after months of fiddling, it still looked too fake to have a prominent role in the film. Spielberg’s solution, then, was to use it only at the film’s end, filling the rest of the movie with score, sound design, even the shark’s point of view in order to create tension. Add in the terrifying sight of clouds of expanding blood and you don’t even need the shark: just the suggestion thereof.
Snowpiercer also saves the reveal of its own “shark,” as it were, for the film’s final section, and the reveal is arguably as hammy as the fake shark snapping on the back deck of the Orca. But the identity of “Wilfred,” the so-called savior of humanity who constructed the train, matters far less than the journey to slay him, and that, like Jaws, is played out like a piece of exquisite choreography.
Snowpiercer’s set piece is a scene, halfway through the film, in which Chris Evans’ Curtis and the Tailenders confront a masked group of fighters from the front. There are no guns — everyone fights with hatchets and scythe-looking weapons that mangle and eviscerate. But what transforms the scene from purely aesthetic to cinematic beauty is the sound: First, before the door to the section even opens, there’s total silence as the hero, Curtis, asks Yona (Ah-sung Ko) what’s behind the next door. She screams, the sparks fly to open the door, and everything slows down, including the score, which takes on a distorted, digital sound with a heavy drum tolling the meter, like a Civil War drummer gone spacepunk, or a more sullied version of the creeping horror of the Jaws theme.
The theme intensifies as the male fighters step forward, then softens as one of the guards hands another a massive carp, coated with slime, and cuts into it with his ax — the only diegetic sound we’ve heard since the doors first opened. It’s squelchy, disturbing — and knowing how much blood is about to be shed, totally unsettling. The camera shoots the carp in close-up, and follows as it’s passed around, each guard dipping his weapon in the fish’s blood as if seasoning it for the blood to come. A reaction shot of Curtis and sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell) follows, along with an exterior shot of the train, with its screeching, urgent sounds as it goes around the bend, and then cut back to the fight — each side flinching, readying, and then: total mayhem.
This is where I usually just stop paying attention. All the bodies become one massive hulk of fight, and I can’t tell what’s happening, who’s winning, or why. There’s a bit of that here, but it only lasts for 30 seconds, at which point the sound begins to approximate that of stunned deafness: as if we, the viewer, had been clocked by one of these guards, and are watching, at a distance, our senses dulled, as Curtis makes his way through the hall. The motion slows down and the sound turns to delicate piano, punctuated only by Curtis’ heaves and grunts as he avoids one attacker, slays another, slips on the fish, and falls, rolling to avoid a falling ax. It is, in a word, balletic.
Crucially, however, the ballet isn’t fetishized: The blood is not beautiful. And when they go through a tunnel and we’re given a point-of-view shot from a guard’s night goggles, the world seems clumsy, mottled, and chaotic, a mass of lurching, lunging ax strokes that miss as much as they hit their mark. Which is part of what makes the next scene, with the child torchbearer running in from the back, so cathartic: Filmed as a tracking shot from behind, then in front, the score turns anticipatory, like it’s on the brink of triumph. The torchbearer is dirty and weak and small; the man who comes to join him is hobbled and crazy-eyed. But they summon the remaining dirtied masses like so many angry, torch-bearing mobs from the history of cinema. The rudimentary (the flame, the ax) triumphs over the technological, and the entire scene, with its three crescendoing movements, is in sharp contrast to the traditional action scene, with its dials ratcheted to 11 throughout.
Snowpiercer was a huge hit last year in director Bong Joon-ho’s native Korea, and would have been released earlier in the U.S. if not for a massive disagreement between Joon-ho and the film’s American distributors, The Weinstein Company. Harvey Weinstein has long been known as “Harvey Scissorhands” for his hands-on approach to editing, especially foreign imports, and purportedly wanted to cut 20 minutes of the film.
It’s not that Americans won’t go see a long film — hello, every Transformers movie and its three-hour running time. More that Weinstein, I’d wager, was afraid of what U.S. audiences would make of the film’s frank strangeness: the carp scene, of course, but also the high-pitched propaganda of the schoolteacher scene, and the uncannny performance of Tilda Swinton (and Swinton’s dentures, generally). But as Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh explains, “it’s these rough edges that set Snowpiercer apart from more sanitized dystopian summer sci-fi flicks like Oblivion or Elysium.”
Those moments of weirdness, however, are what transform a good film into greatness, the same way that a distinctive mouth or mole or set of eyebrows make a pretty face beautiful. And Americans will go for weird beauty — see, for example, Twin Peaks, No Country for Old Men, Tim Burton’s Batman, even the first Pirates of the Caribbean — it’s just that we’ve forgotten, at least in our summer blockbusters, what it feels and looks like.
People love the catharsis of terror, which is part of the reason so many of them went and continue to go see Jaws. There’s a similar draw for apocalyptic films, which manifest, narrativize, and resolve our fear of our slowly imploding world. As horrific as that implosion will be, we’re drawn to its abjection: We want to see the things stewing in the vat that become the protein bar, we want to hear Curtis’ soliloquy about what the tailenders did to and for each other when faced with their own extinction. We want to hear it and let it sit with us, wondering how we’d behave in similar circumstances: What would the jaws of a shark feel like around your leg? How would a baby taste in your mouth? It’s totally unsettling, but that’s the lure of the abject: We must be confronted with it in order to reject it and, in so doing, know that we are human.
What angers me most about Snowpiercer’s relative lack of success, then, is that it doesn’t just have the narrative and aesthetic elements of a blockbuster — it has the superficial ones as well. A truly diverse cast means it can play in nearly any country, especially the Asian ones that make up the bulk of the international market (China, maybe not so much). It has a handsome, charismatic, truly legitimate movie star in Chris Evans. Plus, the accents and the languages are from everywhere; indeed, the train is the global market — including the wage exploitation and division between developing and developed countries — made manifest.
Jaws had a similar capitalist allegory about the blood sacrifices that businessmen were willing to make for the sake of a robust economy. In the mid-’70s, with the country in full contraction mode from the liberalism of the ’60s, that was a radical (if sublimated) message. Snowpiercer’s doesn’t just indict the capitalism locomotive; its derails it, literally crushing the male patriarchy and leaving an Asian teen, a black child, and a polar bear as heirs to the world. That is radical.
But I don’t think that’s why people aren’t seeing this movie. As of this writing, Snowpiercer has made over $80 million in Korea — making it the ninth-highest-grossing film in Korean history — but only $3.5 million in the United States. Part of that meager gross can be traced to the Weinstein’s limited release and VOD strategy, which means the box office figures don’t tell the complete story: Hundreds of thousands have paid $6.99, like me, to watch this film at home, in their pajamas, on demand.
But part of the reason people aren’t seeing it is because they, like me, have lost faith in the capacity of the summer blockbuster to even approach something like “good.” There were cries of amazement, recall, when Tom Cruise’s latest film, Edge of Tomorrow, turned out to be not just watchable, but highly entertaining — “no, really,” people told me, “it’s actually good!”
At what point, then, did we just start expecting every movie that came out in the summer to be bad? At what point did “not horrible” become synonymous with “critic favorite”? I’d date it to sequel-mania — and the continued spread of the global market — which awards the pre-sold, derivative property, no matter how lame, over the original script. Who cares if The Hangover Part 3 is unfunny and flat and clearly bored with itself: It may cost $100 million, but it makes $300 million internationally.
It’s too late to change the new Hollywood calculus. But by proselytizing for Snowpiercer, we can incentivize the production of films like it and, in so doing, revive the potential of blockbuster cinema to move, unsettle, and even entertain. It’s the summer you saw Snowpiercer. Now go tell your friends.