Blu-ray Review: SNOWPIERCER, Moving Forward is the Only Option
I love apocalypse/post-apocalypse stories. And I love trains. So it's likely not surprising to know that I've been a fan of Snowpiercer since I was first introduced to the graphic novel series over a decade ago. The stories of the last humans on Earth perpetually circling a frozen planet, with all the problems that cause the freeze, still on board with them, in a constant political struggle. I was a big fan of Bong Joon ho's film, distilling the story as it did yet still keeping its essence.
Needless to say, I was excited, but also nervous, at the prospect of a television series. Would they stick to the novels? Would they add new stories and characters? Scott Derrickson directed a feature-length pilot episode, written by the first showrunner, Josh Friedman. Then Friedman was replaced by Graeme Manson, and Derrickson declined to do the extensive re-shoots on the pilot that Manson wanted. Another director, James Hawes, was brought in to finish the pilot. Obviously this is a rocky start for any show, and sadly we're unlikely to ever know what Derrickson and Friedman created. But the show was broadcast, with strong viewership (two more seasons have already been announced), and a Blu Ray of season one is being released this week.
It's been seven years since the Snowpiercer train began its journey. 1001 cars long, divided into first, second, third, and 'tailie' class, Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), the Head of Hospitality, also seems to be the head of everything, the liason between all departments and the final word before the train's owner and designer, Mr. Wilford. But there's a seriel killer on the loose, and Melanie is out of her depth. She forcefully enlists a tailie: Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a former police detective and one of the main forces behind a brewing rebellion from the rear section. Around this case, we learn how the train operates, meet various characters from all classes, and see just how close to the brink this last of civilizatiom teeters.
Through the ten episodes, the story moves between survival narrative, mystery-thriller, and more than a little melodrama/sexual thriller, as politics of both the personal and societal kind bang against each other. It takes a few episodes to pick up steam (pun not intended), as the mystery itself - who is killing so viciously - would seem a bit, well, 'ordinary' (ie something seen in a lot of television drama) for a concept of this scope. But as each episode passes, the interconnectedness of this crime with the overarching story of how those trapped in such a space survive both individually and as a group - in that individal survival is not possible without the group.
This is more than just a microcosm of our contemporary western capitalist existence transplanted to a smaller space - there is both metaphorically and literally, almost no room for movement, no room to improve one's lot in life, without sacrifices that make the marginal improvements hardly worth it. Cavill may be the glue holding this precarious society together the only way she knows how, but she is still adhering to a political structure that assumes that some must be always be on top and some must akways be on the bottom, while Layton still must walk a careful line in order to bring about the necessary rebellion.
For the first class passengers, there's not much to do, except indulge themselves with leisurely activites - food, drinking, sex. For everyone else, their day and lives are caught up in survival. From the cops and army, to the doctors, to the janitors, and especially those who provide the more salacious entertainment, everything becomes about not getting sent to the drawers, or worse, losing a limb to the cold. The power struggles enacted by all the characters are centred through the relationship between Cavill and Layton, as each believes completely that their vision of life on the train is the only one possible.
As such, the series mixes its tones; it's not just science fiction with appropriate moments of heart-stopping action, but it also has a nighttime soap opera/fantastical story quality. The series builds on the images seen in the film, the various train cars that house the people, hold their food and medicines, but is expanded to give more settings as is necessary to give the story more variety and interest. Connelly, Diggs, and all the actors (including Sheila Vand and Mike O'Malley) throw themselves into the story, you fully believe they've been stuck in this large moving coffin for years.
My colleague Peter Martin had his own thoughts about the show; I seem to have liked it more than he did, though it took a few episodes to grow on me. I found myself less interested in the somewhat predicatable, more melodramatic elements, than I did in the larger post-apocalypse survival concept and the mechanics of the production and set design, and I appreciated the performances, especially from the two leads.
Like many contemporary TV shows, work on special features begins while a show is in production; it makes sense, as the actors and crew are on set for interviews, and there is good behind-the-scenes footage to capture. Given how many shows now exist only on streaming sites, for those who want the permanence of physical media, it's good to be able to get these discs; on the other hand, the somewhat rushed nature of their production and release can often mean the special features are a bit on the thin side.
First there is an 'Overview' of the show; really an extended introduction/trailer than introduces us to those we might not know by face, such as director James Hawes and showrunner Graeme Manson, as well as some of the cast. 'Class Warfare' gets into discussions of the main theme oif the show, and how the writers developed the series to go deeper and beyond the first novel, to find more ways of communicating the political struggle aboard the train at large and smaller, more personal levels. Interviews with Connelly and Diggs delve deeper into their character's struggles and how they each representing the opposing force, each believing their way is the only way for survival of the species.
The best part of the special features cover the set and art design of the film. As noted, the train cars are bigger, in order to accomodate the story (and likely the reality of what would be necessary if such a transportation existed. It's fascinating in 'The Train' to hear the designers talk about how they came up with their designs, and how they make them work both are realistic renderings and ones that can accomodate the needs of the television show. We see the trainc ars design and creation, how they differentiated between living and work quarters, the different classes (like the markets and the clubs), how they used the vertical space. Equally interesting is 'Art of the Frozen World', which introduced the art directors and how they combine practical effects (such as the set and the actors' movements) with visual effects to recreate the frozen landscape of the planet, both in grand vistas and up close, as well as some of the terrific costume and prop design.
While these special features might be a bit short (only 20 minutes total), for fans of the show, it's a good start if you're a collector. Hopefully future editions like a complete series will have more of these features.
Snowpiercer Season One will be available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital, on January 26th.
- Josh Friedman
- Graeme Manson
- Jennifer Connelly
- Daveed Diggs
- Mickey Sumner
- Alison Wright