On its face, Snowpiercer doesn't offer much that moviegoers haven't seen before: A global catastrophe results in a tiny remnant of the human race clinging to survival in an enclosed space where civil society has been reduced to the law of club and fang. Naturally, a hero must come forward to right the scales.
Sprinkle in some fight scenes, and you have The Poseidon Adventure meets Mad Max.
Snowpiercer, however, is much more than the sum of its parts. Set on a self-sustaining train powered by a mysterious perpetual motion engine, survivors hurtle through an ice-encased world. The rich live in the front, with all the luxuries of their lost civilization, while the poor live in the back, eating bile-colored bars of gelatinous protein to stave off resorting to cannibalism.
Smart writing, stylish filming and masterful acting (mainly on the part of Tilda Swinton) rescue the film from its melange of tropes, pulling off one of the best sci-fi films in recent memory.
While it's a bleak vision of the future for humanity, it signals something big for the future of the film industry. Snowpiercer was released in the United States on June 27 on a mere eight screens, but distributor Weinstein Co. chose the revolutionary approach of making the film simultaneously available online through video on demand. The gamble paid off: Snowpiercer pulled in $3.8 million in its first two weeks on VOD, compared to $3.9 million during five weeks in theaters--and that was after expanding to hundreds more screens.
It may be that the VOD release strategy has found a way for smaller, high-quality films to step out of the blockbuster shadow. At the very least, it enables people with small kids to actually see a first-run movie. Either way, it seems to be on the right track.