The Snowman’s Netflix Success Shows Streamer Is Raising Our Tolerance for Bad Movies
Somehow one of the worst thrillers in recent memory recently found its way into the Netflix top 10. For going on weeks.
When The Snowman came out in 2017, it was almost universally, harshly panned by critics—including this one right here—and ignored by audiences, making just an abysmal $6.7 million in North America and another $36 million around the world. There’s good reason for that too: The Snowman is truly dreadful, one of the worst movies of its year, and possibly one of the most awful thrillers in recent memory.
How The Snowman became such a disaster is one of those inexplicable Hollywood stories. According to director Tomas Alfredson (the Oscar-winning Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), the film was sabotaged by a rushed pre-production schedule, followed by a heavily shortened shoot and post-production timetable, which resulted in, says the director, 10 to 15 percent of the screenplay not even going in front of the cameras. That produced an incomprehensible, unintelligible mess that’s barely a movie.
And yet The Snowman somehow ended on Netflix’s top 10 list of its most-watched movies last week, at #3 no less, another in a long line of seemingly random resurrections performed by the all-powerful, ever-mysterious Netflix algorithm. The question, of course, is how did this happen? How did this all-but-forgotten misfire, which we’re sure Alfredson, star Michael Fassbender, and everyone else involved would like to erase from film history, suddenly surge in popularity on the world’s number one streaming service?
The answer is that the service itself might be training us, subtly but surely, to have a higher tolerance for bad movies. And that’s not good.
The Snowman is Actually a Perfect Netflix Movie
We’ve been watching bad movies on Netflix for a while now. And even when they’re not bad per se—which is to say there’s at least a coherent storyline and some relatively decent acting and production values—they’re just sort of there. Bland, derivative, vaguely reminiscent of something you’ve seen before (perhaps even the previous week on Netflix), and sort of looking and playing like a surface-level, carbon copy of many better movies.
They may feature a few name actors, even a top-shelf star or two, and a recognizable director might be behind the camera. They might be based on best-selling books or a documentary (which you might have also seen last week or last year on Netflix), and they might fuzzily feel like they’re based on true stories even when they’re not. The genre is almost always crime, or perhaps that with a hint of horror, espionage, and scandal.
The Snowman fits this overall aesthetic. It’s got a bunch of recognizable actors (Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Toby Jones, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons), and a European feel thanks to some of the cast and certainly the setting (snowy, desolate Norway). It’s got a literary pedigree and a gruesome premise, but it also feels like it could be based on a real series of crimes. It’s a Netflix movie before we even really knew what those were.
And like a lot of Netflix movies—from its bargain basement offerings to its alleged blockbusters like Red Notice, The Gray Man, and Extraction—The Snowman does not require or, indeed, benefit from your full attention. To watch this film, or any of the others we just mentioned, with one’s complete concentration will only make one aware of just how dull, monotonous, and utterly formulaic any of them are, and in some cases incoherent. But if you’re watching it with your phone’s backlighting blocking half the TV, you’re doing it exactly right.
How Netflix Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Crap
Netflix uses its famous recommendation algorithm, along with neural network technology, to analyze a combination of common elements and visual cues in movies and series that a viewer watches. It then presents that viewer with recommendations that have similar elements, whether it be visuals, themes, plots, or actors. It then rolls you right into the next title unless you physically hit the button to go back.
But the deeper you go, the more generic the content gets. That’s why Netflix shows and movies are often jokingly referred to as “movies to fold laundry to on a Sunday afternoon.” You barely have to pay attention because whatever is on as you’re putting your underwear away is a warmed-over retread of the last thing that you half-watched out of the corner of your eye.
We’re simplifying a lot here. But in a weird way, Netflix creates its original programming in much the same manner. Its movies are the ultimate in “product,” cobbled together content from a series of data points on what viewers might like. An action beat every 10 minutes? Check. Ryan Reynolds and The Rock yukking it up? Got it. Gal Gadot looking blankly fabulous? Not a problem. Put it in the computer and out pops Red Notice. What’s it about? Who the hell knows? I just had it on in the background anyway.
Of course there are exceptions. Some are wonderful movies (Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma), or at least ambitious ones (Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman), where the streaming service seemingly gave a blank check to a genuine auteur. Same with many of its TV series, including acclaimed behemoths like Stranger Things. But with such a relentless, vast need to keep the content mill rolling, the company is churning out a lot of dreck as well. That’s how you log into Netflix looking to perhaps watch Seven, or at least something like it, and the service keeps sending you through an unending corridor of knockoffs and rehashes, some original, some not.
And that’s eventually how you land on The Snowman. “Hmm, never heard of it. But I saw that Fassbender guy in an X-Men movie once, and it looks just like that Dutch serial murder movie I was watching the other day. Is this a true story too?”
The Snowman is now streaming on Netflix. No, it’s not a true story.