The Year's Best Film About Income Inequality Was Nearly Ruined by the 1 Percent

"Snowpiercer" could be a smash hit, if it weren't trapped in the art house.

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Jul 15 2014, 11:59am
Snowpiercer. Promo image.

I watched the summer's best and most original action movie—hands down, no contest—in an art house theater with about two dozen people. The screen, one of just two the establishment operated, was smallish, and the sound was even on the quiet side, or at least, it was quieter and smaller than we've been conditioned to expect anytime we sit down to watch Captain America smash through waves of foes with nothing but his fists and his gumption. And all because a notoriously harsh one percenter tried to crush the year's most exciting film about income inequality.

Snowpiercer, the fourth film from director Bong Joon-Ho, stars Chris Evans (sans the shield and jingoism), along with Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris. It cost $40 million to make. Its entire two-hour runtime is given over to action and/or suspense; it's all gripping, immaculately staged fight scenes and splatterhouse violence, interspersed with brief snippets of social satire that's actually funny and buffeted by singular, engrossing set design. It has received overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Yet after two weeks in theaters, this is the total US gross of Snowpiercer: $2 million. That is, to put it mildly, absurd. If any American sci-fi star vehicle were to make just $2 million in two weeks, it would supplant Ishtar as the biggest flop in history. It would beckon comparisons to Plan 9 From Outer Space. It would be a catastrophe. But Snowpiercer's take isn't a disaster, given its circumstances—it's nearly miraculous. 

The film opened in eight tiny theaters nationwide. EightTransformers 47, or whatever installment that franchise is currently at, is playing in nearly 4,000. And the reasons for Snowpiercer's marginalization has already become the stuff of independent cinema legend. It goes something like this: 

Harvey Weinstein, impresario of indie cinema and owner of the dubious nickname 'Harvey Scissorhands', snapped up the American distribution rights for Snowpiercer on the strength of a few sample scenes and Bong's impeccable resume (his last two films, The Host and Mother are regarded as masterpieces). 

When he saw the final cut, Weinstein "balked," and instructed Bong to remove 25 minutes worth of character development and to add voiceovers to the beginning and end. Bong refused to compromise his film, and Weinstein refused to release it unless he did. So the film stayed in limbo, even as it proved a runaway success in Bong's native Korea, where it was released in 2013. 

Weinstein eventually decided to all but bury the film instead; relegating it to a small subsidiary of his studio and a very limited distribution—interestingly, that's because said subsidiary traffics in View on Demand, which major theaters spit out like poison—so it will never see wide release. Hence, a star-studded English language blockbuster ended up being treated more like a black-and-white revival of the Czech new wave.

It's especially striking not just because it's a tale of a hot-headed, iron-fisted producer—that's the standard expectation for Hollywood moguls, I guess—but also because Weinstein is behaving a lot like the hammy, 1-percenter villain in the very film he's smothering; the megalomaniacal Wilford, the train's engineer.

Snowpiercer is, admittedly, an odd beast. It's based on a post-apocalyptic French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, and depicts the travails of the last survivors of the human race, who circle an ice-entombed earth in a giant locomotive-cum-perpetual motion machine. Its weird audacity is also why I was so eager to see it; in an era of resurgent dystopian sci-fi, few films seem willing to imagine the original, truly satirical allegories capable of elevating the genre to greatness.

The premise is undeniably that: In Snowpiercer, we have trapped ourselves on a planet that we have destroyed, and, greed-stricken to the very end, we replicate the same inequality-laden class system we've been repeated throughout history. 

The film unites what are probably the two greatest Issues of our time: global warming and income inequality. At the beginning of the film, we're introduced to the train, which is forever circling the frozen planet—we tried to geoengineer our way out of temperatures we drove to rise with burning fossil fuels by dousing the atmosphere with some chemical. Instead of working as planned, it clouded out the sun and brought on a premature ice age. 

Once thought of as a deluded mad scientist, Wilford is an ambitious engineer who, anticipating the calamity, built a train that generates its own energy as it goes, and harvests water from the snow that falls on the tracks. As ecological disaster loomed, a lucky few bought space on the luxurious sleeper cars near the front, and a less-lucky few stowed away in the back where they live in the dirty, dark like cockroaches. 

As the film opens, Chris Evans, now a bearded Captain Humanity, is organizing a revolt—the oppressed back-of-the-trainers, who are forced to sacrifice their children to the fronters for unexplained reasons, will rise up and… do something? 

No one is really all that certain of what, but they know their current lot is unsustainable. They are abused and tortured by the privileged authoritarians, and something must change, especially as the harsh environment outside leaves them with no other options. So as long as the conceit is foregrounded, the film works as a powerful, brutal allegory for the ills of our present moment, which of course is itself marked by growing class and income disparities and ecological woes serving as the pressure cooker. Evans slogs through the security complex, losing friends and peers all the way, and eventually fights his way into the front echelons of the train; where the one percenters dwell.

Here's where we get to the spoilers, so if you haven't seen it yet, you may want to get off here…

The penultimate revelation of Snowpiercer, which is less satisfying than much of the rest, is that the entire train is controlled by this single man; the 0.01 percent, if you will. He orchestrates everything—the machine that helps them survive, the social order, and, yes, even the rebellion that leveled off the train's population so that it remains sustainable. He acts alone; he is power-mad, and he believes he knows what's best for all those working with or opposing him. 

If the film were an allegory about an indie film fighting to see the light of day, Wilford would be Weinstein (who is, I might as well note, estimated to be worth $200 million). 

According to a film festival promoter who's close to Bong, "[the Weinstein Company] people have told Bong that their aim is to make sure the film ‘will be understood by audiences in Iowa ... and Oklahoma.’" Having watched each of the 126 minutes of the film fairly closely, I can attest to the fact that not a single one of them is too complicated for anyone with an ambition to watch an R-rated movie. If it were a book, it would be about a sixth-grade reading level. The comment seems downright insulting to anyone residing in those fine Midwestern states. It inspired blogs, like io9 to pen commentary like this one: 'Harvey Weinstein thinks you're too stupid for 'Snowpiercer.' 

Whatever Weinstein's genuine intentions really were—I actually agree that some of the fat could have been trimmed from the film, but not for any reasons resembling  "it's too complicated"—will remain unknown. A reporter for the Boston Globe tried repeatedly to get a comment from the studio on the matter, and was declined. So, with just speculation to go on, it simply seems that one very powerful man in the film industry punished a director and his film for refusing to do as he wished. 

Obviously, it's an imperfect analogy; a rich, successful director, Bong is far from oppressed, even if his art is being blocked out. Still, it's a somewhat useful reference point; after all, the film's strong showing, like Evans' hero, is breaking down walls by itself. It expanded to over a hundred theaters after a warm reception, critical praise, and nothing less than a 4,000 signature-strong Change.org fans' campaign

Now, Snowpiercer is primed to move onto 350 or so screens, and it's beginning its cycle through the on-demand rotation, too. It will never see truly wide release, though, and will never get anywhere close to becoming the cultural force it could have with 1,400 theaters, and the marketing might of the studio behind it. That's too bad. This, the first film to compellingly—if bluntly and, eventually, confusingly—tell a revolutionary story about global warming and inequality, is primed to strike a deep chord with an increasingly receptive public. 

I left the theater that day puzzling over why this film was relegated to the art houses. It was exciting, easy to follow, well-paced, colorful, bleak in the hip way things are bleak now. It was an exciting, affirming piece of art. Why couldn't everyone share it? Turns out it was just one or two guys who happened to be exceptionally rich and powerful, ruining the distribution for the rest of us.