Warning: Spoilers for the ending of Snowpiercer
Somewhere along the way, purchasing a ticket for Bong Joon-ho’s long-awaited Snowpiercer became a populist act that echoes the content of the film itself.
Months of coverage followed Harvey Weinstein’s threat to cut the festival favorite. Knowing the kind of backlash that would ensue, Weinstein opted not to cut the film himself but instead asked Bong to shave 20 minutes off and add an explanatory voice-over to bookend the film. Bong refused, and the web backed him by reporting on the story, supporting the director’s vision and pushing for its unblemished release. While The Weinstein Company narrowed the rollout of Snowpiercer from a wide to a limited opening, no cuts were ever made, and it would seem that the voices of many overcame the far more powerful voice of one.
It’s a strange case of life mimicking art, with movie fans and erstwhile supporters of artistic integrity using collective action against a major cultural gatekeeper. After traveling worldwide mostly without incident, film fans and prospective moviegoers pushed Snowpiercer to pry open the door and enter the American moviegoing scene on its own terms.
But, as the film itself shows, the relations of power are never quite as simple as they seem.
Bucking the straightforward rise-of-the-proletariat classical Marxian critique that would place Snowpiercer comfortably among other dystopian sci-fi class narratives like Elysium or any antecedent of 1984, the film’s third-act reveal allows the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris) to uncover that violent proletariat revolution is, in fact, a regular and essential part of the train’s carefully maintained ecosystem. Thus, underclass dissent is a device of the powerful, and resistance is something already inscribed to benefit existing hierarchies of power. The outcome of Curtis’ (Chris Evans) revolution was already written before it ever began.
The most unnerving part of these final moments of the film is how compelling Wilford is in several of his observations. In terms of his desire to replace himself with Curtis, he has the authority of history on his side – what is much of the world’s modern history if not a cycle of those exploited by power taking it from those who control (and abuse) power, only to themselves later become powerful exploiters?
In this way, Wilford is a most insidiously cunning villain – he not only designed a system for exploiting a populous underclass to vampirically extract their resources and provide nothing in return (the ultimate one-percenter), but furthermore made their awareness of their exploitation and resulting unrest essential to the operations of that system. Thus, any populist empowerment Curtis and his fellow revolutionaries experienced throughout their struggle is expended in service to the very system they sought to dismantle. (Under these terms, could the film have ended any other way?)
But more to the point, this cycle of – forgive the pun – engineered dissent permits something essential to take place anytime the powerless combat the powerful: the momentary catharsis of attempting (much less achieving) resistance. In Wilford’s spoken tribute to past attempts at revolutions that he planted the seeds for, the gaps between these efforts tell as much of a story as the events themselves: they settle things down, momentarily emboldening the powerless with pride in their confrontation with the powerful. It’s this catharsis that both returns order and promises further revolutions to continue the cycle of control.
Had Curtis taken the reigns of the train (and, for a moment, I honestly thought he would), this no doubt would have been seen as a remarkable populist achievement until the necessary requirements for the train’s ecosystem demanded the reinstitution of strict order.
Just as the uncut Snowpiercer is celebrated by those who advocated for its release, the film’s rollout and newfound exposure to filmgoers has been met with a satisfied, cathartic exhale – “finally, this movie gets to be seen and shared on the artist’s terms, not those of the powers that be.” Poised against the biggest, loudest, dumbest, and most shamelessly market-driven film of the summer, Snowpiercer not only heralds summer counter-programming with the potential to bring something resembling personality, vision, and inspiration into the multiplex, but it assumes a direct counterpoint to films made within the typical terms of big-money media power, using its signature devices against it. Or, as David Ehrlich put it in his review:
“Snowpiercer is like watching a typical Hollywood action movie reflected against a funhouse mirror. It looks and sounds similar to the thoughtless garbage churned out by our studio system (noticeably cheaper, though), but it’s also dark, overtly political and profoundly weird.”
But as we learned from the film, an oppositional gesture can be used as a beneficial tool for gatekeepers.
When asked about its release opposite Michael Bay’s newest festival of stimuli, Radius/TWC co-president Tom Quinn told The Boston Globe, “I’m going head to head with Transformers to make the direct statement that I feel this movie is as big, even though we’re not as widely launched. I know which one I would go see.” This statement seems to stage Snowpiercer’s release opposite Transformers as a veritable David and Goliath story – or, more aptly, a restaging of the Alamo, as we know that Snowpiercer will make a fraction of Bay’s film, but it’s obvious which one they want us to remember putting up the good fight.
Snowpiercer is not so much being released on its own terms and merits as it is being poised as a challenge to the limits of conventional filmmaking powers.
A similar notion is informing the film’s VOD release, which Quinn articulates in terms that suggest an embrace of populism, a push towards possibilities outside of the existing system, and an affront to the lack of innovation that plagues commercial filmmaking:
“Everything is either a limited or a wide theatrical release with zero room for anything innovative or nuanced. So, we at RADiUS, decided early on, to do something completely different with this release…we’re embracing both the benefits of a platform theatrical, but also the merits of going SUPER WIDE by making it available on more ‘screens’ then any movie this summer.”
So, basically, the same company that attempted to cut and thereby limit audience access to Bong’s intended vision is now placing itself in the position of being on the side of Snowpiercer’s outspoken supporters and TWC’s most vocal critics, rejecting its status as a gatekeeper with the unique power to determine the fate of the very film being promoted.
By placing itself against Transformers, TWC tethers itself to the potent populist status Snowpiercer has accrued, expecting audiences to recognize the company in turn as a supporter of artistic integrity, a purveyor of inventive visionaries, and a relief from cinematic norms rather than a threat to those very things. TWC is hardly savvy enough to have instrumentalized and motivated grassroots support for Snowpiercer, as Harvey Weinstein’s scissors have never constituted an empty threat. But the company is smart enough to harness the activism surrounding the film to its own advantage, redirecting the much-publicized dissent to benefit the power of its brand.
Snowpiercer’s belated theatrical release deserves a cathartic moment of satisfaction. Yet unlike Snowpiercer’s ending, we should recognize that the film’s less conventional rollout under a subsidiary label is simply a switching of conductors, an action that by no means promises a desirable outcome for future eruptions. Through moments of chaos, the carefully maintained ecosystem remains in order.