Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, 2013’s Snowpiercer followed a high-speed, non-stop train filled with the survivors of the second Ice Age which turned Earth into an uninhabitable icy wasteland. Humanity had attempted to cure climate change, but instead it plunged the Earth into a deep freeze, where the only means of survival is a train that circles the Earth forever. Unlike the film, the TV series takes place seven years after the destruction of Earth, whereas the film took place 15-years after.
The inhabitants of the train carriages are divided by class, despite the wiping out of society. The overcrowded back-end is where the underprivileged stay, controlled by the trains militia as they struggle for food and water. As you move down the 1001-car train heading towards number one, they get more luxurious. The elite are living like they’re on holiday, where they are pampered with servants, beauty salons and sex parties.
From the back-end of the train we have Daveed Diggs, who plays former police detective Andre Layton. Layton is pulled from the impoverished back-end to solve the murder of an elite at the front. It’s not the first murder of this type on the train, but the suspect was put away in “the drawer”, a cryofreeze punishment for passengers. This means they either have a copycat or they convicted the wrong person. After 19-years, Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connelly returns to television to play head of hospitality Melanie Cavill who also acts as spokesperson for the train’s mysterious inventor Wilfred.
Layton spends the first half of the series exploring the hedonistic carriages of the “Rattling Ark.” There are brothels, nightclubs, and fight clubs whilst the back-end struggle to keep their elderly alive. When the train hits a bump, it’s the back-end who lose food and power whilst the spoiled elite complain about the smallest of inconveniences.
Fed up with the conditions the “tailies” have been forced to live in, Layton uses the investigation as a way to gain allies and help lead the back cart to freedom. Although Melanie clashes with him, informing him that the balance of class must be maintained, she sympathises with him having worked her way up from nowhere. Aside from the murder investigation, Melanie is facing a resources crisis not helped by the needy elite who expect to keep up their five-star standard and the middle classes who demand the respect of the elite.
Besides Melanie and Layton, there are too many characters that it’s hard to cling onto any one of them. There are a mix of characters; mysterious member of the security force (Mickey Sumner), a conniving janitor-turned-cop (Shaun Toub), and the research scientist who is now in charge of monitoring the coffin like drawers (Happy Anderson). Just as audiences start to become interested in one character and their pre-train life, we move onto another one. It’s easy to lose track of who everyone is, and who everyone once was, especially as many characters slowly reveal their true selves to the audience. Although the performances are fine, it lacks the eccentricity of the film’s the characters played by Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Chris Evans. These characters won’t stick in your head and you’ll soon be longing for the Thatcher-esque tones of Swinton.
Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi movie was celebrated, so it’s no surprise that a TV series based on the film was put into development. A pilot was ordered in 2016, before TNT ordered a 2018 series. Since it’s pilot was ordered, the project has been hit with a multitude of setbacks. It was moved from TNT to TBS due to behind-the-scenes creative disputes, before being moved back to TNT where it will finally premiere.
While the show delivers the same theme of class, race and social politics, it also expands the mechanics of the event that causes the train to become a necessity. The politics that are hinted at in the film are expanded upon but will still leave viewers wanting even more.
Fascinating quandaries about pushing the bounds of scientific progress at the expense of humanity, the perils of social climbing and justice for the elite are brought up but washed over. Writer Josh Friedman (Terminator: Dark Fate, War of the Worlds) wrote the original pilot script and was the planned showrunner, but TNT ultimately decided to hand over showrunner duties to Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson, who rewrote Friedman’s original script. The lack of direction and focus is evident as the show goes on.
The show delivers on visuals, brighter and seedier; from the dark industrial back-end to the lush greenhouse, to the dining carriage straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, to the 1920s styled cabaret club. Whilst the show looks good—although a little too darkly lit— the plot is messy and confused. From unnecessary sex scenes to new sectors of the train that add nothing to the plot, Snowpiercer lost its way somewhere on the tracks.
Snowpiercer is ultimately a disappointment, especially in comparison to the violent revolutionary movie. It feels like three different acts from three different genres of television, all featuring underwritten characters and a wasted backstory. It’s pretty to look at but quite boring to watch.
Snowpiercer premieres on TNT May 17th
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy