If there was any justice in the world of film distribution, the new English language post-apocalyptic climate change thriller “Snowpiercer” by Korean director Bong Joon-ho would be taking the world’s box office by storm.
It’s a stunning film, technically brilliant, hilarious in parts and fabulously designed, paced and directed. It’s torn from tomorrow’s headlines, and shamelessly borrows from numerous recent films such as “The Hunger Games” series, “The Road” (which still gives me nightmares five years later), “The Day After Tomorrow” (global cooling), “Divergent” and “Elysium”.
Instead, despite a 95% positive critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, excellent acting turns by John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and from Chris Evans (“Captain America”) in the heroic lead, it is only playing in a handful of cinemas here in Australia (just two in Sydney, by last count) – with an Australian box office gross of about Aus$100,000. As of yesterday, it was only in 100 cinemas in North America, where it has grossed a paltry US$4,213,337.
By contrast, the film has pulled in some US$60million in South Korea. All of the reasons for this murky release pattern are unclear but seem to have something to do with arguments between the director and the Weinstein Company, and may well become an unfortunate case study of the decline of theatrical release of films.
“Snowpiercer” may well fall into the category of one of the best films you may never see, and what a shame if it does, because this is a big screen film if there ever was one. It’s winter here in Sydney, and the cinema I saw it in was running on the cold side in my mid-morning session (with just six other patrons), so I acutely felt the cold shown on screen – the only time I have felt this way before was when watching “The Day After Tomorrow” in the cinema some years ago.
The plot, outlandish as it is: scientific attempts in 2014 to avert global warming have resulted in a catastrophic global cooling that has virtually killed off all living life. Picking up the story 17 years later in 2031, the only humans left are those on a high-tech train – invented by mastermind Wilford – that circles the globe. But the situation on the train reflects the worst sort of social engineering and fascist inequality, with severe deprivation and brutality visited on the masses in the last few cars, who are fed with gelatinous protein bars, kept in concentration camp-like conditions and occasionally recruited to do special jobs for the rich and spoiled elite who live, work and – especially – party in the front cars. As a special delight, the film presents a great mixture of white, Asian and brown faces, neatly capturing our “multicultural” present.
The dirty masses dressed in rags are perpetually scheming about how to revolt, and when an opportunity arises they take it, led by Curtis (Evans), with the support of his grand master Gilliam (Hurt), attacking the ideologue “Minister Mason” (Swinton, in a role uncomfortably close to Margaret Thatcher at her worst). As Curtis and his supporters battle their way to the front, they meet one surprise after another: I won’t present any spoilers, because this is where “Snowpiercer” is simultaneously at its most wondrous and barbaric (those who fear gore, be warned).
“Snowpiercer” is an achievement of major proportions. Sure, it liberally uses ideas presented by others on-screen, but does so in a way that is unique, riveting and ultimately very personal. Like the best of films, this one reflects our present anxious moment of both climate change and inequality of wealth (see authors such as Thomas Piketty and “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”) in exceptional and unexpected ways.