Snowpiercer is intriguing, frustrating and bewildering. It takes the clichéd route just when you think the story is getting interesting, it gets interesting just when you think the plot will plod along. Based on Bong Joon Ho’s sleeper-hit film of the same name, which, in turn, is based on the 1982 comic book series Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, the TV series has big shoes — and big expectations — to fill and, unsurprisingly, fails.
The premise is simple enough: the last of humanity survives on a train, escaping the freezing temperatures and an uninhabitable world outside. The train, as it speeds around the globe, is a microcosm of the unequal society the survivors have left behind: it’s divided into three classes and the tail — a section of the train where unticketed passengers hitched a ride — with each class representing the respective strata in society. There’s even a god of sorts to keep everyone in line — the elusive Mr Wilford who envisioned and built the train has an almost Oz-like presence and some passengers believe in him with a messianic fervour. However, the passengers never see and barely hear from Wilford. Instead, the Head of Hospitality, Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) is his person on the ground, and the voice of the train.
As in the film, the Tailies are planning a rebellion, but since here there are 10-hours to fill, not just two, the story starts off on an odd tangent. Mr Wilford wants a brutal murder that took place in Third Class to be urgently solved and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), the leader of the Tailies, who also happens to be the last homicide detective on the planet, is recruited to solve it. The murder mystery itself is not that riveting but it serves well as a plot device; it’s a way for Layton — and thus the audience — to explore the different worlds of the train, and sets the groundwork for the main story.
The real story begins when Layton discovers that Cavill is sitting on a secret that could implode the entire Wilford train project. However, the twist comes too many episodes late: by turning the first-third of the story into a run-of-the-mill police procedural, the showrunners have driven away many fans of the film.
Based on Bong Joon Ho’s sleeper hit film, the Netflix series Snowpiercer has big shoes to fill and often fails in its ambitions
Some of the haphazard plotting is probably due to Snowpiercer’s tumultuous production history: the show spent five years in development with showrunners, directors and even networks changing multiple times. Graeme Manson (co-creator of Orphan Black) replaced showrunner Josh Friedman (creator of Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles); the pilot was scrapped and reshot; Scott Derrickson, who directed the original pilot, left soon after, announcing on Twitter that the original pilot, scripted by Friedman was “the best I’ve ever read”. The show was originally supposed to air on TNT, then TBS, till it was back on TNT again.
Of course, even without such a chaotic production, no cable show would have been able to match the frenzied intensity and suspense of the original movie. Bong stripped Le Transperceneige’s central concept into a riveting noir thriller about class warfare and an absurd commentary on capitalism — something he went on to do far more brilliantly in his Oscar award-winning film, Parasite. The superb action sequences (one scene was brilliantly shot as if through night-vision goggles) and the stunning visuals (one of the train cars features an awe-inspiring aquarium and is a feat of engineering) more than made up for any flaws in the central idea.
As an analogy, the story works well — the train is capitalism — and the brevity of the movie doesn’t allow much space to question the logic of the premise but translated to television, with its much longer hours, the weak world-building comes to the fore.
This isn’t really the fault of the series itself and the writers have expanded Snowpiercer’s world: the night car — a place of debauchery, secrets and self-discovery — adds an interesting layer and intriguing characters to the story and the underground section of the train that connects all the different compartments plays a central role in the story.
The show also explores aspects that the film merely touched upon and which Snowpiercer fans would be interested in, such as the origins of Kronole, a recreational street drug that is widely used on the train and what really goes on in the Drawers, a place where people deemed ‘trouble’ by the authorities are put to sleep in an artificial coma. We also get to learn more about how the different classes interact and how food and other essentials are produced.
Snowpiercer has a lot of potential, as the episodes after the murder is solved show, but often just as the story picks up momentum, the plot loses its thread. Trouble Comes Sideways perfectly illustrates that: political conflict between the classes bubbles to the surface, making for some great drama but the revolt Cavill is facing fizzles out almost as soon as it begins; Layton stumbles on a secret that can be used against Cavill, but its usefulness as a threat evaporates as soon as it materialises; Josie (Katie McGuinness) and Layton start discussing the revolution, only to stop midway through and have sex because it’s a cable show and how would cable be edgy without nudity and violence not shoe-horned in at odd moments?
The weak characterisation doesn’t help either: as the story progresses, Layton simply does whatever is needed to move the plot forward; Cavill falls victim to it too, eventually becoming a hero caricature. It’s a pity, considering the extremely talented cast at the helm: Oscar-winner Connelly, in her first television role since 2001, plays Cavill brilliantly as an ice-cold, calculating leader and has a strong screen presence; Diggs (Grammy and Tony award-winner for the Broadway play Hamilton) makes the most of his character and plays the broody and pensive Layton well; Alison Wright (The Americans) who plays Ruth Wardell has done an interesting interpretation of Tilda Swinton’s role in the film.
The superb acting and the great visuals elevate the show somewhat. On its own, as a science fiction series, the show is entertaining enough and if you want to learn more about the Snowpiercer universe, it’s a must-watch. If the writers continue to expand on the world and explore the various characters’ stories in the planned second season, the show has the potential to be far more interesting. Just don’t expect it to be ground-breaking.
Snowpiercer is currently airing weekly on Netflix.
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 5th, 2020