Review: SNOWPIERCER Chugs in Workmanlike Fashion
Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs star in a television adaptation for subscription cable network TNT.
Like Noah's Ark on rails, in a very cold future. This train, however, may be in vain.
The series premieres on TNT on Sunday, May 17, 2020, with new episodes scheduled to premiere each Sunday thereafter. I've seen all 10 episodes of the first season.
Seven years after departure, big trouble continues to brew aboard the titular train, which stretches for 1001 cars and accommodates thousands of people from diverse backgrounds who are bent on surviving the frozen apocalypse that has gripped Planet Earth.
Powered by a perpetual-motion machine, the train slices through the empty wastelands that encircle the globe. Passengers are divided into four economic groups: First Class (wealthy and arrogant), Second Class (happy to be alive, somewhat resentful), Third Class (grumpy blue-collar workers, enforcers, and servers) and the Tail (miserable miscreants who forced their way onto the train and have nothing to do except to complain constantly and be treated horribly by the upper classes, i.e. everybody else).
Built by a wealthy industrialist named Wilford, the train is commanded in his stead by the icy Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), the head of hospitality, who seeks to maintain an iron grip over the crew and passengers. Smiling on the outside at the first-class passengers, her inner pragmatist compels her to enlist the help of Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a homicide investigator before he boarded the train illegally and became a so-called 'Tailie,' or resident of the Tail section.
A grisly murder has stirred up emotions throughout the train, threatening to amplify the already-ample divisions between the classes. Layton, a rebel leader in hiding, begrudgingly accepts the assignment to find the killer so he can obtain an informed view of possible security weaknesses on the train and lead a new rebellion against The Man (even if it's now represented by A Woman), backed by the increasingly desperate Tailies.
The television adaptation cites twin inspirations: Le Transperceniege, a graphic novel by Jacques Loeb and Jean-Marc Rochette that was first published in 1982, and Snowpiercer (2013), adapted for the screen by director Bong Joon-ho. It appears that the series also draws inspiration from the three sequels to the original graphic novel, published in 1999, 2000 and 2015.
I'm only familiar with Bong Joon-ho's feature adaptation, which I watched again recently to refresh my memory, and which retains its power to dazzle in its visual artistry and compel in its strong narrative storytelling. (Our own Pierce Conran reviewed the film in July 2013, concluding: "While it remains to be seen whether or not mainstream western audiences will embrace Bong's dark and ferocious genre film, in many ways he's already beaten Hollywood at its own game. A tour de force of science fiction, Snowpiercer is a singular and breathtaking cinematic experience."
The irresistible premise and the film's worldwide success drew interest stateside for a television adaptation and plans were announced in November 2015, with Josh Friedman (TV's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) tapped to write. The series was picked up by U.S. cable network TNT; Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) directed the pilot episode in late 2017.
TNT parted ways with Friedman in January 2018; Graeme Manson (Orphan Black) came on board as the new showrunner in February 2018; Derrickson declined to return for reshoots in June 2018 because "the new showrunner has a radically different vision for the show"; showrunner Grame Manson said the original pilot was completely scrapped because he says he "pitched a different world."
In January 2020, Manson said he wanted "to know all of the classes within the first couple of episodes to create an actual character drama so we could understand what life was like first class, second class and then the tail." What, then, has Manson wrought out of the terrific premise and boundless possibilities?
The first episode, now helmed by TV veteran James Hawes (Black Mirror, The Alienist) from a teleplay by Manson, sets up the stakes and Layton's intentions as he investigates the murder(s). He is exposed to the other sections of the train for the first time, makes contact with informers, and begins to lay out more concrete plans for the rebellion.
The plot lurches between economic classes, with side trips devoted to stories of individual characters, both good and back, flashbacks to former times on the train, and a few hopeful wishes for the future. The editorial content limitations inherent for a basic cable show in the U.S. -- blood and sex are fine, but the flashes of naked body parts and deadly violence are restrained -- are not as problematic for the show as the requirement that this is a network show supported by advertising.
In other words, by necessity, each of the 10 episodes, less than one hour in length, must allow for multiple commercial interruptions. That makes it very difficult to build much dramatic momentum, and instead favors bite-sized moments that are strung together in an effort to make each episode as strong and compelling as possible, a few minutes at a time.
Frankly, it's difficult to dismiss Bong Joon-ho's film entirely when watching the show. To its credit, the series tackles different and more diverse subjects, along with two fascinating lead performers who appear to be in different shows. Jennifery Connelly's character is difficult to piece together, with competing motivations that never feel genuine; despite her best efforts to game her personality threads into a single figure. Daveed Diggs is a very strong personality, which fits his 'rebel with a cause' character, but he also plays things much more broadly than Connelly does.
Their actions are sometimes quite puzzling, and, combined with the noodling and canoodling among many of the characters, means that viewers are meant to be distracted by things like love scenes, petty betrayals, and convenient lapses of memory when we've all just witnessed characters do heinous things.
Individual episodes are fine for what they are, yet it's difficult to see any guiding insight behind the psychology of the wide range of characters on display. Because new episodes will be broadcast on a weekly basis, I avoided binging the episodes that were provided for preview (all 10 of the initial season), but, frankly, it was easy to resist the temptation. A broader sense of the different characters, or the world that is on the edge of oblivion, might have been more satisfying than the mishmash of familiar ideas that are retread throughout the series.
Summing up: The television adaptation is not horrible, but it makes for a routine trip that is flatly disappointing.
For more information about the series, visit the official site.