I watched Snowpiercer this week, and I'm conflicted. Not about the movie, which is a singular, stunning, deranged post-apocalyptic dream, but about the way I watched it.
Snowpiercer, after doing bang-up business in director Bong Joon-ho's native South Korea, was given a limited North American theatrical opening on June 27, followed up -- only two weeks later -- with a video-on-demand (VOD) release. I paid $7.99 to download the film from iTunes and watch it in my living room.
Before, moving a film quickly to VOD was seen as an admission of failure, sharing the stigma of those "straight-to-video" flicks with washed-up '80s TV stars and bad cover art. Now VOD is being repositioned as a key component of a "multi-platforming," "synergistic" distribution strategy. Snowpiercer is not a loser film -- it's been drenched with critical praise and popular buzz -- and it will continue its theatrical expansion this weekend while simultaneously being available online. This is big news for film fans. It could be especially big news for film fans in places like Winnipeg.
Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer follows the survivors of a global ice age, who by some glorious leap of movie logic have been condemned to circle the world endlessly in a high-speed train. The social structure is physically demarcated: The swells are up front and the proles are in back, everyone kept in their places with dubious theology pragmatically backed up by black-shirted violence. In Bong's hilariously literal version of class warfare, the oppressed and hungry Tailenders incite a revolution, fighting their way to the front of the train and the pampered one per cent.
Clearly, Snowpiercer isn't a standard mainstream release. Triumphantly weird -- there's a scene with a carp that is haunting my dreams -- with tonal shifts that careen from deep existential despair to blood-spattered slapstick, it's a crazy hybrid of blockbuster and boutique film, spectacular action and late-capitalist parable. There's even a character named in homage to everyone's favourite movie money-loser, Terry Gilliam.
Studio head Harvey Weinstein -- one of his industry nicknames is "Harvey Scissorhands" -- reportedly wanted to dumb down Snowpiercer for a wide North American audience by adding explanatory voiceover narration and making deep cuts to the two-hour-plus running time. Bong resisted these changes, and Weinstein ended up altering not the film but its mode of distribution.
This new model seems to offer equality and accessibility, as well as a way to bypass multiplex limitations and get eccentric, unclassifiable films out to more people. Film fans in New York or L.A. have long had the lofty choice of whether to see a movie like Snowpiercer right away in the theatre or later on their couches. For Winnipeggers, whom the studios have tended to view as second-class passengers, this has not always been our decision to make.
Independent or offbeat films don't necessarily get to the big screen in the 'Peg. Think of the frequent frustrations of Oscar season, when the coverage of the nominees is going strong -- all the controversies and questions, discussion and analysis -- and the distributors still haven't deigned to release the indie front-runners in our town. Sometimes these small films limp into Winnipeg theatres a few months later. Sometimes they never come.
Video-on-demand is a way around that gap. Radius-TWC co-president Tom Quinn, who oversaw Snowpiercer's VOD release, seems to be promising first-class tickets and freedom of choice for everyone on the cinematic train. After all, he says, "a screen is a screen is a screen."
Well, no. Not all screens are created equal. I can see that in some ways it was a luxury to watch Snowpiercer when I wanted to (and while wearing pyjamas and drinking cocktails). There's nothing like immediate gratification. But I also lost something in this transaction.
Snowpiercer, which takes place entirely on a train, is one of the longest, narrowest movies I've ever seen, and Bong somehow turns those constraints into a visionary mix of grubby claustrophobia and sudden flashes of spectacle. I would have loved to see these images on a big screen, not squashed and scrimped onto my computer.
And even if I had some pricey, wall-hogging home-theatre system, I would still miss the communal experience of the theatre. I remember seeing Bong's 2013 breakout film The Host, which includes an unforgettable scene in which a crowd of people gather on a riverbank and watch -- first confused, then curious, then terrified -- as a monster uncurls itself, drops into the water and goes on a killing rampage. The characters' experience was echoed in the audience's experience, as viewers whispered and gasped and cried out.
I would have liked to see Snowpiercer the same way, at the Globe, now gone, or at our own tireless, tenacious Cinematheque. In the short term, VOD might offer individual cinematic plums, but it's going to be hard on art-house theatres, which in the long term could lessen the chances of sharing out-of-the-way films on the big screen.
So far, the movie studios seem to be hedging their bets, resulting in what one industry commentator calls a "split-the-baby" strategy (a term that takes on gruesome resonance when you've listened to rebel leader Chris Evans's final monologue in Snowpiercer).
And for consumers, the future is made up of tricky choices, options that offer both liberation and loss. Will this be a new cinematic paradise, or as Snowpiercer's Thatcherite functionary says, could this be "the misplaced optimism of the doomed?"
Either way, the way we watch movies is changing. And the VOD train has left the station.