Snowpiercer has been through a few iterations. It began life as the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, then in 2013 Bong Joon-ho, winner of Best Director this year for Parasite, made his sole English language film to-date with the Chris Evans-starring film adaptation. Now a TV adaptation has completed its debut run on Netflix, with Joon-ho acting as an Executive Producer – though how hands-on he is with the property is unclear.
The characters all differ from the film adaptation, though the idea that a man named Wilford created an eternal engine on which the Snowpiercer is based remains. The show keeps the same basic concept as the film. In the near future the world has become a frozen wasteland, with attempts to reverse climate change having backfired. The temperatures are so low that anyone exposed to it dies in seconds. Humanity’s survivors have packed onto a train – Snowpiercer – that is 1001 carriages long, and is based on an everlasting engine that allows it to stay in continual motion, as it circumnavigates the globe.
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Seven years on from the freeze, the ship is divided by class and wealth, with three official classes ranging from sheer opulence for the first-class passengers at the front of the train, to a reasonably tolerable standard of living in third, further back. At the very rear of the train is what is known as ‘the tail’. This is, effectively, a slum, with its passengers living in squalor and held in place by armed guards. Running the train for the unseen Mr Wilford is Melanie Cavil (Jennifer Connelly, portraying the grey area between good and bad, and leaving the audience constantly unsure of her motives).
When a murder occurs she enlists, from the tail, Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs – also seen recently on Disney+ in a dazzling turn as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton). Andre is the only former detective on board, and is brought forward to the more wealthy sections of the train to investigate. From there he learns of how the rest of the train lives, discovers certain truths about Melanie, and works with the tail to launch an insurrection to ensure everyone on the train has a decent standard of living, not just the few.
Snowpiercer has already been commissioned for a second run, suggesting it has done rather well, or at least as well at it needed to for both TNT – the network producing and showing the programme in the US – and Netflix, worldwide distributors. On the plus side, the cast are excellent. Diggs is evidently versatile, and a star in the making. Connelly is superb as a layered, well thought through character; and there are many more in the supporting cast that would be worthy of mention but for one of the weaknesses we’ll come to.
The show mirrors the film’s emphasis on the battle for equality, and the longer running time really does allow time for consideration of some of the themes of the work. One such theme is the battles on the train all being zero-sum games. With finite resources, someone getting more means someone else getting less – and vice versa. The carriages that grow food are easily damaged by foul play or natural phenomena such as avalanches. Snowpiercer is a fragile ecosystem, that barely has enough to go around, but is hideously distorted by some having so much. This is a clear parable for our times, and the fragility of an unequal world facing the challenge of climate change. How such inequality came to be, on what is effectively an ark, would be worthy of exploration in a later run.
There is the question of at what price order? The train is something of an humanitarian exercise when we consider how it came to be, yet the residents of the tail, in particular, are subjected to the most brutal punishments, ranging from having limbs held outside until they freeze and shatter, to the death penalty. When a first-class passenger commits a crime, their treatment is somewhat more lenient – again, very much a theme that resonates with current world events.
The show is exquisitely designed, with the conditions in each part of the train being at once easily recognisable, and broken into varied and distinctive looks. The visual language of the film is detailed, and a key part of the storytelling. Though the external CG effects are, arguably, a little weaker that we might expect from this era of TV, with some of it evoking the CG in the Battlestar Galactica remake from over 15 years ago (along with the conceptual similarities to that show), the overall look of the series is more than a match for the film that preceded it.
Snowpiercer has two major flaws that prevent it reaching its potential in season one. The first is the pacing. Netflix may not have produced the show, but it has the flaw common to so many things we see on that service: that slight feeling of padding, of a show spinning its wheels in places. We take a long time on an investigation that ends up having few consequences, and then take an age to get to the real meat of the season – the rebellion. The last three episodes of this season are excellent, mature television: well-paced, thought provoking, with decent action, and even better performances. Before that it was becoming a chore. Each episode felt fine when watching, but it wasn’t something that was anticipated with enthusiasm each week. This is a show that is better watched in chunks, rather than one episode at a time.
Part of this may be due to the second flaw: character work. The performances are all excellent, with particular praise due – beyond those already mentioned – to Mickey Sumner (as Till, a Brakeman on the train), Alison Wright (an outstanding performance as Melanie’s deputy, Ruth Wardell, and one which evolved from one-note to layered and damaged as her arc unfolded), and Mike O’Malley as Roche, the Head of Security. The complaint is no more specific than every character name mentioned here needed to be looked -up. The performances are terrific, there are a couple of interesting arcs, but little about these people truly resonates. With the show taking time to get going, it is vital that we care about the people we are watching. By and large, this wasn’t the case.
There is little about what is on display here that screams out for a second season. Snowpiercer is, despite this, a well-made show, featuring thoughtful design, a good cast of actors, and a creative team that seem to care very much about what they are producing. It will be worth watching to see where it goes next, but this run can be filed under ‘must do better’. In a competitive TV landscape, this is not yet a standout.