‘Snowpiercer’ Series Derails from 2013 Film But Avoids Train Wreck With Strong Finish – Review
No one could have imagined how much of a cult following would develop around Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer. A cinematic rendering of the 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the movie’s modest domestic box office performance did not indicate how popular the film was upon its release. However, thanks to its popularity overseas and its reintroduction to American audiences through home video/streaming, the 2013 film is now finding another life on television.
TNT’s Snowpiercer series had a tough time leaving the pre-production station. Doctor Strange helmer Scott Derrickson directed the original pilot, which he claimed “may be my best work” on Twitter in June 2018. While Derrickson thought highly of the pilot, the network didn’t. They fired the original showrunner Josh Friedman under the guise of “creative differences” and replaced him with Orphan Black creator Graeme Manson. Director James Hawk was hired to oversee reshoots of the pilot, leading to a nearly year-long delay in its release.
Despite the setback, TNT seemingly stumbled upon a perfect release date for the series. After four massive wins at that Oscar ceremony, Bong Joon-Ho is a hot commodity in Hollywood. So much so that TNT again adjusted the release date of Snowpiercer to be within Emmy qualification dates. The Snowpiercer train took a drastic track switch from pre-production messiness to a vigorous Emmy consideration push. With so much invested in this series, does Snowpiercer deliver?
Snowpiercer adapts the same name as the 2013 flick, but tells a completely different story. Starring Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly, the show takes place seven years after the surviving bits of humanity boarded a 1001-car train amidst a world-ending bizarre. Diggs plays Andre Layton, a homicide detective who lives in the “tail” of the train. He is commissioned by Melanie (Connelly) to investigate the murder of a third-class passenger. Both the show and the movie adopt the basic concept of humanity-saving train divided by class. However, outside of that basic premise, the similarities between mediums are next to none.
The lack of Bong Joon-ho’s gritty, unfiltered directional style is notably missing. The movie’s high energy usage of shaky cam and violent camera jerks matched with adrenaline-inducing fast speed editing gave the film a heightened sense of intensity. Further aligning with Bong’s Korean New Wave contemporaries, the film incorporates a lot of tone shifting and satire.
But as the film’s plot is more focused on the challenging class revolution ignited at the beginning, the show’s plot is driven by this underlying murder mystery within the train. Henceforth, Hawke’s pilot establishes an aesthetic more akin to detective procedurals like Southland and The Blacklist. This includes more muted colors, more shadowy corners, and a more standardized shooting style that reserves ramping up the energy until the big action kicks in midway through the series.
What makes this program different is its otherworldly dystopian production design. Nearly every set in this show is both incredibly detailed and massively claustrophobic. For what the show lacks in Bong’s hyperkinetic camera movements and bombastic editing flair, it more than makes up for in expanding the mythology of Snowpiercer.
The film only had two class systems, but the television show includes four. Throughout the series, the audiences learns about the inner workings of the political and societal divisions of the train. As the “tailies” in the back of the train are forced to ration disgusting-looking protein bars, the bourgeois passengers in first class are drinking champagne and eating shrimp. The dynamics of the third-class working-poor society of the train (the class above the tail) play a huge impact into the underlying political metaphors.
The series’ greatest strength is how much it is able to expound on the class differences between the front to the back. The people in first have zero regard for lives in the tail – lives that are so starved and deprived that they are craving the flesh of the rich. The disillusionment of fairness and inequality resulted in a lack of morality on both sides.
The show comes at a perfect moment in cinema, as movies like Joker and Parasite were major cultural hits in 2019 that both directly confront issues of class. It incorporates both the inequality of a rigged system and the complacency of the people at the top who allowed the inequality to happen. While these themes are the best thing the show has going for it, much of the first four episodes are overwhelmingly centered around the detective plot.
Andre Layton aims to lead a rebellion for the folks in the tail to take a stand. However, his plans go awry when he is plucked from the tail and moved up train to investigate this murder. He is reluctant at first, but he takes the job to gain leverage in negotiating rights for the tail. The murder itself is the classic dismemberment and castration, and the un-turning of stones leads to greater questions about how such a rigid societal system would be a conducive environment for unsolved murders.
While Snowpiercer may fall into some of the tropes that detective procedurals tend to inhabit, the characters opt to engage in questions of morality and class disparity amongst an apocalyptic backdrop. Its choice to enact its central protagonist to be both a political revolutionary and a hard-boiled investigator makes for a noteworthy departure from the traditional detective show structure.
One of the driving narrative devices implemented throughout the series includes each of the characters declaring their allegiance (or lack thereof) to the train. Some passengers look up to the train’s elusive creator Mr. Wilford as a religious deity; others see Mr. Wilford as the ultimate dismantlement of decent society. The discussion of religion and philosophy is illustrated through various supporting characters like Ruth Wardell (Alison Wright) – who basically acts a railroad fundamentalist in her adherence to the train.
On the opposite side, Josie (Katie McGuinness) stands as a foil to Ruth, as the poverty she’s endured in the tail strips her of any sort of greater belief. Using characters and conflict to highlight competing ideologies allows the show to explore new avenues in the Snowpiercer world, making the show much less about the revolution and more about how humanity’s relationship to religion correlates to the conditions of mankind.
Connelly does shine as Melanie – the “Voice of the Train” who manages the day-to-day living of ticketed passengers, leaving her to largely ignore the concerns of the tail. Connelly adds a veteran presence to the cast of mostly newcomers, as she anchors the duality of being the public face of the train while running much of its disastrous behind-the-scenes turmoil.
Early on, Melanie appears to empathize with Andre and the tail, but her incrementalist approach to problem solving elongates the suffering of the people most depleted. Diggs’ performance as Andre initially comes off as a little stiff and out of place, as the actor’s cool makes it hard to separate himself from the character. But as the audience learns more about Diggs’ background, the more his stoic chillness makes sense. The more Diggs grows into the role, the more the audience will believe him as the rebellion leader he was destined to become.
The opening four episodes are the toughest hurdle the Snowpiercer series has to overcome. Though the murder case is somewhat interesting and subversive, the momentum of the show really picks up at the show’s midpoint. The investigation not only uncovers a gruesome murder, but an intriguing controversy gives the show an extra kick that is worth seeing.
Ultimately, TNT’s Snowpiercer does not live up to the expectation of the film it is based off of, but it truly attempts to be something radically different. It manages to evolve a sometimes stale murder mystery plot into a enthralling revolutionary story. Once the train revs up its massive “Eternal” engine, there is no turning back. Go into Snowpiercer ready for a little commitment and it will eventually pay off.
Snowpiercer is can be seen Sunday nights at 9:00PM (EST) on TNT and is now streaming on Netflix (outside of the US) with new episodes weekly.