Created by Josh Friedman and Graeme Manson
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs, Mickey Sumner
It’s a testament to the instant recognizability of Bong Joon-ho’s version of Snowpiercer that the series adaptation dispenses with the mystery and opens with a variation on the film’s final twist.
Both adaptations take their premise from the 1982 French graphic novel La Transperceneige, in which an effort to battle global warming catastrophically backfires, plunging the world into another Ice Age and forcing the last remnants of humanity to seek refuge in a circumnavigational train with a perpetual motion engine; a revolution against the elite, luxuriating in the forward cars under the patronage of an unseen mogul named Wilford, soon erupts among the poor huddled in the tail section.
One adaptation will be better, and of course it is Bong’s. Which is a bit of a head-scratcher: If there were ever a time when an apocalyptic sci-fi story about people confined in close quarters would have such resonance, now would be it. And yet the series adaptation, with its troubled history of turnover among key behind-the-scenes personnel—showrunner Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) left the show over creative differences, as did executive producer and pilot director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange)—can barely muster enough horsepower to chug out of the station.
There are three factors to explain the deficiency. One, once Bong’s adaptation sets up the particulars of its world, it focuses on the rebels’ violent progress through the train’s compartments as a metaphor for the failings of capitalism. The film’s concentration never wavers long enough to analyze the feasibility of its universe because as a viewer, you don’t learn more about the train until Chris Evans and his band of revolutionaries do.
The series, on the other hand, has approximately eight hours to fill, and so it must by necessity examine the myriad corners of its makeshift society. Under closer scrutiny, that society’s creakiness is revealed almost immediately. It is, for example, a bit of a stretch to ask us to believe that with the train’s linear social striations and strictly defined class boundaries, that onboard police couldn’t immediately detect the proliferation of an illicit drug.
Second, there is a core structural weakness to the series. The first half of its ten-episode season follows a “Tailie”, a homicide detective named André Leyton (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs), as he investigates a serial killer preying on the train’s working class and chafes under the hawk-eyed supervision of hospitality manager Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly). Never mind that in a train 1,001 cars long—a fact the show reminds us every episode, or roughly 1,001 times—the powers that be could find only one pre-Ice Age detective. The procedural doesn’t really open up into an insightful peek of the closed human ecosystem of the train, and is forgotten altogether once the class warfare plotline heats up.
It’s a weakness that isn’t helped by the clunky writing. Each episode is introduced by voice-over from one of the train’s denizens, and the annotation can be cringe-worthy. Just take a gander at this florid elocution piece: “I mistook my ticket to survival for freedom. But justice never boarded, and Wilford doubled down with a jackboot on our throats and a fat finger on the scales.” Or this exchange between two ex-lovers: “You know what they say when you break up on the Snowpiercer.” “See you around.” Yikes.
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On top of that, Diggs doesn’t make for a particularly compelling figure to serve as our entry point into the series. Despite all the relationship drama which the writers heap on Leyton, Diggs can’t seem to make his revolutionary leader jump out of the screen. (His thick dreadlocks are an instant standout, though, which makes his ability to elude train authorities almost supernatural.) Thank the engineers of Snowpiercer, then, for casting Jennifer Connelly who, even at her most austere, is too good an actress to consign Melanie Cavill to one-note villainy. Even when Melanie is at her most despicable, Connelly manages to give her grace notes of courage and crippling guilt; the Oscar winner is one good reason to board this train.
Snowpiercer is currently streaming on Netflix.