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Films
by Kathi Maio

COMING SOON TO A TABLET NEAR YOU


HOLLYWOOD hates a movie that it can't easily pigeonhole. So when the Weinstein Company acquired the latest project of respected Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder, Mother), it found itself asking uncomfortable questions. Was Snowpiercer—the story of a political uprising on an icebreaker train hurtling itself through a frozen world—an art film or an action blockbuster? Troubled by many aspects of the final cut of the film (like its length and bits of spoken Korean), Harvey Weinstein and his associates opted not to order up the expensive prints and do the extensive advertising required to launch a major market film in the United States.

In fact, they opted for a hybrid approach that sabotaged the film being shown in many cineplexes around the country. Since most movie theater chains require exclusive ("Only in Theaters!") access to a film for at least ninety days, the corporate strategy adopted by Weinstein sub-division RADiUS actually blocked Snowpiercer being shown in many American venues. Marketers planned a very limited initial theatrical release followed by a Video On Demand (VOD) launch in just two weeks.

Rushing the movie to VOD relegated the initial theatrical release to fewer markets—secondary and unaffiliated movie houses. Meanwhile, audiences who prefer to stream their media when and as they wish got quick access to a post-apocalyptic actioner with a great pedigree. Two weeks after its halting release in theaters, movie fans started watching the film via options like Comcast and iTunes, where the first week's earnings were reported to be two million—very impressive numbers for VOD, even though they are only a fraction of the box-office gross of a hyped movie opening at 3800 theatrical sites.

Since I am a critic and not a Hollywood business reporter, you might wonder why I am even bothering to relate this little corporate case study. The reason is that, after doing the cost-benefit analysis, industry wonks are calling this release a success and a "gamechanger." And that means this approach is sure to be replicated by others.

The thing is that Snowpiercer is not just a random podcast, a music video, or recent episode of a sitcom—it is a big, complex, bloody, noisy and quite sophisticated motion picture. It was meant to be seen on a large screen with surround-sound rumbling and roaring around you.

Bong's ambitious movie (co-written with Kelly Masterson) is based on a very grim graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, originally produced by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette in the early '80s. It seems that scientists hoping to counter the effects of global warming shot an artificial cooling substance called CW7 into Earth's atmosphere. It worked…and how! Soon the planet freezes over and the only survivors of the new Ice Age are those humans aboard an elaborate train built by a mysterious engineering mastermind named Wilford (Ed Harris). The train circles the globe constantly. And although those on board are lucky to be alive, some are much, much luckier than others.

The rigid caste system of the Snowpiercer builds from the filthy les misérables in the rear of the train up to the privileged one-percenters who party and pamper themselves in the front cars. There is nothing subtle about this microcosm of social inequality, or the way it is brutally enforced by the Margaret Thatcher-like Wilford capo, Mason (a marvelous, if unrecognizable, Tilda Swinton) and her assorted troops and henchmen. But subtlety might be overrated when rigid social control and its response is this visually arresting.

The problem with "inequality for all" (as Robert Reich likes to call it) is that it undermines society and breeds unrest. And over the eighteen years that the Snowpiercer has been barreling through the frozen landscape, rebellion has developed several times. Now another uprising is taking shape, led by Curtis (Captain America's Chris Evans), his protégé, Edgar (Jamie Bell), and his grimy Gandalf of an elder, Gilliam (John Hurt). First, they plot to free an imprisoned security expert named Namgoong Minsu (Bong regular, Song Kang-ho), who may be able to open the doors to each successive rail car as they fight their way to the front. Namgoong's addicted "train baby" daughter, Yona (Ko Asung), joins the siege, as does Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a back-car denizen searching for her abducted son.

The series of battles—most as hand to hand combat—that the rebels must fight are only to be expected in this kind of (literally) linear warfare plot. But Bong Joon-ho is such a skilled director that he adds a ferocious grace, and even a smattering of humor, to the proceedings; each bloodbath is fresh and gripping. It helps that each car offers a striking new backdrop for the next confrontation. From the gray landscapes of the prison car and the manufacturing car where a feverish worker produces the horrific gelatinous protein bars that are the back-car peons' only form of sustenance, Curtis and his cohorts move forward to increasingly posh and colorful cars where the elite live. These include a botanical garden car, an aquarium car (and sometime sushi bar), a meat locker car, a schoolroom (overseen by a frenetic, pregnant schoolmarm played well by Alison Pill), salon and spa cars, and even a disco car more drug-drenched than the most hedonistic days of Studio 54.

Bong shot his movie in the Czech Republic, at the Barrandov Studio, a site that allowed for the building of the longest possible set. Masterful production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and his crews built a train that would have been 650 meters long if laid out in a straight line. And his sets, jostling on a massive gimbal with multiple air springs, are the biggest stars in the movie.

As Curtis relentlessly moves toward the hidden dictator in the train's engine room, there are ever fewer compadres with him. But, to his eventual despair, he learns that attrition may be what this rebellion is really all about. The film's end is harsh, as violent as you might expect, but not completely without hope. I wouldn't expect a sequel. And that is a very good thing.

While I was certainly caught up in the movie as it sped along, I can't say that the film tricked me into turning my mind off altogether. Quibbles and questions kept arising about everything from how decades of beef supplies were maintained for the upper-crusters—I guess I missed the feed lot cars and the cornfields—to how a five-year-old exploited laborer boy came up with a perfectly fitting fur coat at exactly the right moment. Even the emotional plot twists involving treachery and shocking double-crosses didn't end up making a lot of psychological sense to me. Yes, I know that you are not supposed to look for ratiocination in such an original and exciting post-apocalyptic adventure ride. And yet, I do. Mr. Bong is such a talented film auteur that I would have hoped he could make a thrilling and stylish movie that made perfect sense within its own invented world.

He didn't quite manage that. But what he did create is one of the better sf movies of the summer. I feel certain that it might well have been a mega-hit at the traditional box office, if the film's distributors had only had faith in its theatrical prospects. Having made sure that I saw Snowpiercer on a large, moviehouse screen, I feel sorry for those who experience this stunning movie for the first time on an iPad or other tablet or small device. Of course, some people who watch movies VOD actually own a humungous room-filling TV with an elaborate speaker system that might rival the theatrical experience. (Not all the one-percenters are on Wilford's train!) Still, most of us do not. Therefore, most VOD viewers will miss part of the power of this movie because they didn't even have the option of seeing this big movie on a giant screen at their local mall cineplex.

A streaming and VOD initial release would better serve a more intimate and less epic drama. Perhaps, something like the latest sf indie second feature written, directed, and edited by Mike Cahill. His film is called I Origins, and it follows the surprising turns in the life of a young molecular biologist, Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), as he tries to establish the evolution of the eye, and in so doing, perhaps bring into question the concept of an "intelligent designer," or God.

Ian's fascination with the seemingly unique beauty of the human eye has been with him since childhood, and it continues as he completes his dissertation work as a Ph.D. student. He is aided in his cramped lab by his friend and database programmer, Kenny (Steven Yeun), and by his new lab assistant, Karen (Brit Marling), who has a mind just as questioning and insightful as his. Ian's life is all about his research. At least, until a fateful encounter with an exotic young woman with very unusual, multicolored irises. They make an aborted love connection and then she disappears. Soon thereafter, a surreal morning of recurring elevens leads the young scientist to the essential clue that brings him back to his elusive lover.

Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is a model who is ruled by the spiritual world she senses around her. She seemingly would have little in common with an atheist scientist like Ian. And yet they both feel a powerful connection—one that Sofi believes must surely come from a previous life. She counsels her lover to open the door to his spiritual self. But while he responds to her otherworldliness with skeptical impatience, he is committed to their relationship. Then, shortly before their marriage, they are separated, seemingly forever.

Seven years later, Dr. Gray's research has resulted in a best-selling science book. He is married to Karen, who soon has their first child, a son. Iris biometrics, a field closely aligned to Ian's own evolutionary biology, is increasingly being used to establish a unique identity marker for human individuals. But when this advanced ID procedure is performed on Ian's new son, a false identification result leads Ian and Karen to begin an investigation that will stretch all the way to India and to a realization that life might echo in ways that cannot be completely explained by scientific inquiry. (It would be an unkindness to this thoughtful film to say much more about the plotline.)

The whole eyes as "a window to the soul" conceit as well as the need of the filmmaker to create a total dichotomy between science and spirit struck me as overly contrived. And yet, I applaud Cahill's ambition to put important philosophical ideas front and center in his movie. This may be the reason that I Origins won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize (presented to a film focusing on science or technology as a theme, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character) at Sundance earlier this year. This is the second Sloan award in as many outings for Cahill. He first won for his debut sf feature, Another Earth.

Still, I can't say that scientists come off as being completely ethical in Cahill's current film. Nor do they seem particularly careful in their research methodology. At one point, a Yale scientist lies to a couple about the purpose of her latest study, causing them unnecessary worry about someone they love. Later, when Ian chases a pair of eyes to the other side of the globe, he performs an associative test on a young child. He studies her responses to certain pictures and makes it clear to the child when her responses are incorrect. Then he doesn't even try to hide how disappointed he is by her poor final score.

If disclosed, that kind of scientific method would likely not pass peer review. But, obviously, the Sloan Foundation is a bit more forgiving. They were simply happy that a fellow in a white coat was the lead character—and a relatively likable one, at that.

I Origins has a title that makes it sound like a history of Apple, Inc. And its poster, from a distance, makes it look like a movie about sunflowers. On top of those minor handicaps, as a small independent film, it will likely not be seen in many more theaters than Snowpiercer. So, it is a good thing that VOD, streaming and cable access are in its future. As a quieter and more cerebral science fiction film, it will probably satisfy many a viewer who discovers it through a recommendation algorithm at a movie streaming service, or through a review like this one—even if the purchaser watches the movie on a tablet, computer or small screen TV.

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