Matt Rodgers reviews the first season of Snowpiercer…
Adapting a revered film into a scripted hour-long television series is a brave move, especially one from the mind of newly crowned Hollywood royalty Bong Joon-Ho. But then people scoffed at the idea of Fargo being re-packaged for the small screen, and look at the masterful results Noah Hawley achieved.
Snowpiercer isn’t the obvious choice from his oeuvre. HBO recently announced they would be adapting Bong’s Academy Award snaffling Parasite into a Limited Series, but at least you had the excuse of that being in a foreign language, inaccessible to those the director said were “unable to overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”.
The Snowpiercer movie is a fusion of East and West, and is arguably the directors most accessible film. Although this isn’t literal if you’re from the UK, where the 2013 Chris Evan’s film got caught up in distribution purgatory and only found its way into repertory cinemas or online at the back end of last year.
Admittedly it’s a concept which feels perfect for the small screen. We’re told at the start of each episode that there are 1001 carriages on the train, a vessel housing the only survivors of an apocalyptic ice-age, so from the drivers station to the caboose, there’s potential to mine for multiple episodes. The question is whether it’s worth wading through this spruced up, packed out train for an entire series, destination unknown.
The answer to that veers wildly throughout this first journey, as the show continuously changes tracks in order to try and find its own identity, but largely thanks to a turn of delicious duplicity from Jennifer Connelly, and a winning hero in the shape of Hamilton‘s Daveed Diggs, Snowpiercer does just about enough to earn itself a return ticket.
With a brief prologue that sets up the world we’re going to inhabit aboard the train, the show quickly establishes the class divide upon which the film was built, and which forms the basis of a lot of Bong Joon-Ho’s narratives. We root for the “tailies”, those confined to the cramped living quarters at the rear of the train, not all of whom are supposed to be on board, and whose loyalty we’re tested with thanks to a couple of rather bleak and surprisingly dark flashback revelations.
It’s here we find Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), who appears to have taken the mantle of reluctant leader among the impoverished, and whose past as police officer finds him dragged towards the front of the train to assist in solving a murder amongst the affluent passengers. Those who frequent the 1950s style bordello, where the entertainment sing achingly cool (read: cringeworthy) renditions of Frank Ocean songs, clearly influenced by Westworld‘s saloon, or the restaurant in which they eat the finest steak, farmed from the train’s cattle carriage, a location which is at the centre of one of the show’s best episodes.
This approach turns the first few episodes into a kind of police procedural, which is fine, but hardly a fresh format when it comes to television. It’s when the murder is solved that Snowpiercer really clicks into top gear and it becomes a genre mashup of a mystery and a heist.
Much of the intrigue comes from Connelly, who is the train’s announcer, and is in full-on Alita: Battle Angel mode as Melanie Cavill, a character who’s colder than the air she uses to freeze off people’s limbs as a form of punishment. Her ambiguity and motivations are constantly being questioned by the audience, as well as Diggs, and it’s really her journey that you want to see the resolution of, rather than the rabble-rousing tailies. We know what drives them, but Cavill remains an impenetrable enigma right up until the season’s final shot.
Scattered throughout the train are a series of likeable performances: taking the ee by gum mantle from Tilda Swinton is Alison Wright, who much like the series as a whole, impresses as the episodes whizz by. There’s also a creepy turn from Annalise Basso as the daughter of one of the train’s power couples, which steers the show in an unexpected, but entirely welcome direction for a couple of episodes.
The script meanders from clunkers – “limbless…….and dickless” – to on-point commentary befitting of the source – “we ration people, not the crops”, and is much better when it takes itself seriously. Snowpiercer isn’t a show that does levity very well, so it’s a relief that this dystopian drama chooses to wear a face as straight as Jennifer Connelly’s perceived baddie for the majority of the episodes.
Overall this opening salvo feels like one long teaser of intermittently enjoyable world-building, moving pawns into place and expanding the concept so that it can detach from the baggage of the movie. Hopefully this approach will enable Snowpiercer to plot its own more unique route on the second go around.
Snowpiercer will debut in the US on TNT from May 17th 2020, and will land on Netflix for the rest of the world beginning 25th May 2020.
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt