SNOWPIERCER, based on the film by Bong-Joon Ho, and bearing very few similarities to the French comic Le Transperceneige that inspired both, is the endlessly troubled result of a production from hell. Between showrunners being fired, directors walking from the production, and the entire pilot being reshot to suit the vision of the new leaders, it’s a miracle that SNOWPIERCER ever saw the light of day. It would be great to say the trouble was worth it, and out of the strife came a lean, unified vision worthy of director Bong’s sci-fi masterpiece. Sadly, this is not the case.
SNOWPIERCER is an aimless, dour, and unbearably unimaginative cover song of something far better. It wastes its wild setting by forcing the sparse plotline into a network friendly format that feels so out of place it makes you wonder why they used the IP in the first place. At a little over ten hours long, the series feels twice that with half the substance. Plot threads are so flimsy one could barely call them tattered and there’s a constant sense that nobody knew where to take the story after a reasonably solid pilot.
None of which is the fault of a game, mostly impeccable cast who try their hardest in salvaging the mess of a script. Daveed Diggs (of HAMILTON fame) is perfectly amiable as the underwritten Layton and his bickering friendship with Mickey Sumner‘s brakeman Till is one of the highlights of the series. It’s also Sumner who delivers the finest acting of the season, effortlessly making her conflicted would-be guardian of order into a truly interesting character to watch. Jennifer Connelly is as solid as ever, but one can’t help but feel that the extremely slim role is something she could play with her eyes closed. The wonderful Alison Wright brings much needed spark to Connelly’s second in command, but her character gets lost in the endlessly convoluted plotting.
Set seven years after climate change and human meddling has rendered the planet in a state of permanent ice age, the train Snowpiercer still runs across the globe as a perpetual motion machine, keeping the last few thousand people clinging on to life. Life in the 1001 cars is split into three classes: The uber-rich caricatures living in opulence in first; the white collar workers in second; and minorities of all kinds in third. Beyond that is the tail, where the poor and those just unlucky enough to not get a ticket on the steel ark have boarded by force. They’ve been forced into living without sunlight, food, or basic care of hygiene. As Snowpiercer makes another revolution around the planet a coup begins brewing. All it takes is one spark to set it off and Andrey Leyton, the self-righteous leader of the Tail just might be that.
Normally it’s not fair to compare a series to the film that inspired it, but SNOWPIERCER immediately throws that out the door by openly imitating its superior version right out of the gate. Visually it takes everything from the surface level with none of the subtleties of Bong’s film, which makes the experience hectic to say the least. Production design and costumes are mostly borrowed or nod heavily to its predecessor, and there’s even an entire major set piece that copies a memorable moment from the film.
In theory everything looks great, but it comes at the cost of the story. Additions such as a tunnel system beneath the train immediately breaks the already strained suspended disbelief, and that’s not even getting into the entire swimmable lagoon in one of the cars. The Night Car exists in some weird half-life between CABARET and MOULIN ROUGE, complete with mind readers who help others visualize their need for exposition. Characters often pipe in about how the actual length of the cars spans some ten miles in length, yet everyone constantly feels like they’re only a few cars apart at all times.
Making the train a magical reality to be explored in depth could work, but the series never commits to that either. After initial introductions are done we only ever return to a handful of cars, each increasingly similar to the other. Despite the series repeating in every episode how long Snowpiercer actually is, the result feels small in all the wrong ways. The reason why this nitpicking feels so prevalent is that the show’s plot is so easily forgotten that the mind wanders.
The reason for repeat visits is equally dull. In a bizarre turn of events, the front section of the train discovers that Leyton was a homicide detective before the end of the world; which is lucky for them, because out of the thousands of other survivors nobody else apparently is as much as a ticket inspector (despite the train having its own police force), and there’s a murderer on the loose. So the Neo-Marxist story about class warfare becomes, I kid you not, a police procedural.
Over half the season is dedicated to a nonsense plot that goes nowhere and it feels like the showrunners know it too. By the time the case is solved (which is followed by an interminable court case episode), nothing new is known about the train or its characters. Attempting to course correct at the last minute, the last three episodes are dedicated to replaying the big beats of Bong-Joon Ho’s film, only with less grace.
Where its inspiration lived in the murky grey zone of morality, SNOWPIERCER the series embraces convention at every turn. One of the more repugnant aspects of the show deals with the deification of heteronormative values by depicting polyamorous couples as deviants; LGBTQ characters as abusers; and even granting moral reprieve from murder when it’s in service of the traditional family unit. There are elements that feel like vague attempts at satire, but the series is tonally so confused it’s hard to figure out what is and isn’t intentional.
Overall the series feels like an exercise in crude reductionism. While the film wasn’t exactly subtle about its themes, it was at least nuanced in depicting them. Compare for example Octavia Spencer being cornered by guards in the film to Daveed Diggs experiencing the same in the show. Both clearly draw parallels to police brutality against African-Americans, yet where the film knew just how much to show and where to cut, the series underlines the point so much the whole turns into a crass doodling. Such is the case with everything else.
But that’s the deal you strike when you want to gain the biggest possible audience. You need to sugarcoat things. SNOWPIERCER the film didn’t do any of that and it was a marginal success, a critically acclaimed cult classic at best. A major network serial was never going to attempt doing the same. It fears losing its audience so much that it would rather remove any wit, bite, and semblance of intelligence to deliver exactly the same thing we’ve already seen a hundred times over.