Barely on the rails.
2013’s Snowpiercer was one of the most underrated science fiction movie gems of the 2010s, and it was also award-winning South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s debut English-language film. As such, Netflix’s Snowpiercer TV series reboot has big boots to fill when it debuts on 25 May 2020.
From the first five episodes of Snowpiercer, it feels like Snowpiercer is a very much a different beast compared to Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant movie. Although it’s a praiseworthy effort that the showrunners are attempting to distinguish their TV series and not simply recreate the events of the original movie, it doesn’t always work in their favour.
Am I Watching Law Or Order Dystopia Edition?
If you’re familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s original movie, the new Snowpiercer TV series explores the same themes concerning extreme class divide, social justice, and surviving in a post-apocalyptic frozen wasteland while stuck on a perpetually-moving train with very limited resources.
Both the 2013 movie and the new TV series are actually adaptations of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige.
Though the idea of a train (with a whopping 1001 connecting cars) forever spinning the globe carrying the remnants of humanity may seem outlandish, it’s a perfect setting to feature a society split by classism and social disparity. In Snowpiercer, the passengers of the train are divided into the First, Second, and Third classes, as well as another despised class, referred to as the Tailies.
The Tailies were those who didn’t have tickets for the Snowpiercer when the frozen calamity first hit the Earth, and so they are regarded as stowaways with as many rights as animals. They live in horribly cramped conditions and given black blocks of jelly for food. Their plight could also be seen as an allegory for suppressed refugees and immigrants in the real world.
Meanwhile, higher classes enjoy more freedoms and better luxuries, such as listening to music or eating sushi. Another important aspect of the society aboard the Snowpiercer (that’s the name of the train) is that passengers all have a role to play and contribute to making sure the Eternal Engine runs.
This is still sci-fi, after all, so Snowpiercer has special monikers for its group of people assigned to specific jobs or responsibilities. For instance, the Jackboots are the army or soldiers, the Breachmen are engineers, the Brakemen are peacekeepers or police of sorts, and the Janitors are, well, janitors (this is even mentioned by one of the characters as a meta-joke).
The potential of the social hierarchy and unique society of the passengers on the train should have made Snowpiercer more suited for the flexibility and longer hours of the TV format.
That’s what makes it even more unfortunate that the showrunners had to resort to one of the most worn-out TV tropes to pad out the story; crime procedurals.
The plot begins with Snowpiercer protagonist Layton Well (played by Daveed Diggs) planning a revolution with his fellow Tailies to rebel against the higher classes. However, he is then taken by the train’s management against his will for the most mundane reason ever; to solve a murder.
You see, before the world became an unhospitable frozen wasteland, Layton was a police detective, which is why the train’s management now needs someone like him. Much to the convenience of the plot, he’s the only one with the necessary skills, as he’s literally the last cop alive on Earth (I’m not kidding).
To my horror, from the second episode onwards, Snowpiercer transforms from a complex post-apocalyptic dystopian science fiction show to a something that could be aptly-titled Law And Order: Dystopian Train edition. We follow Layton as he’s whisked around the 1001 cars of the Snowpiercer to solve a murder case involving a man whose body parts and genitals have been mysterious dismembered.
This is especially jarring considering that the very first episode of Netflix’s Snowpiercer is one I’d consider an almost-perfect pilot episode, encapsulating the themes of the series and feeling very much like the original movie in terms of tone.
We go from the intriguing early beginnings of a revolution to a cop show set on a train like Murder On The Orient Express.
Snowpiercer spends its almost its entire first half of the first season on this middling crime procedural approach, when we could be getting more exciting world-building content about the role of each class, their inner workings, and what actually goes on in the 1001 cars of the Snowpiercer train. The ongoing plot of the season also hints at bigger conspiracies at work, which would have been a million times more interesting than just another plotline of a Law And Order episode.
The One Thing It Does Better Than The Movie
If there’s one thing that Netflix’s Snowpiercer does better than Bong Joon-ho’s original movie, it’s the characters themselves, many of whom benefit from the advantages of the TV format. This results in more well-developed and three-dimensional characters.
The original movie featured huge stars like Chris Evans as the protagonist and Tilda Swinton as the antagonist. While their characters benefited from their extraordinary levels of charisma, their roles were ultimately held back by the limitations of the movie’s two-hour screentime.
They were meant to be avatars of each other’s end of the extreme class spectrums, while the characters in the new Snowpiercer series have more room to breathe and develop as actual human beings.
The best example of this is the highlight of the series; Jennifer Conelly as the antagonist Melanie Cavill.
In Snowpiercer, Jennifer Conelly’s character is a cool and confident antagonist, who is in charge of making sure the train runs smoothly. What makes her the strongest character in the show is that unlike Tilda Swinton’s evil and despicable version of essentially the same character in the movie, Conelly’s antagonist is multi-layered and more than just evil for the sake of being evil.
She operates the train and maintains the social classist hierarchy because she has to, in order to ensure the survival of the thousands of people on the train.
Conelly conveys this heavy burden and responsibility very well, and you can’t help but sympathise with her character, even though she’s technically the antagonist.
This Train Ride Might Still Lead Somewhere
With only five episodes of the ten-episode first season given to me by Netflix, I can only speak about what I’ve seen so far. There’s no denying the potential of Snowpiercer‘s unique dystopian setting, but I hope that it strays from its current crime procedural elements and start gravitating towards more science fiction territory again.
Try not to compare Netflix’s Snowpiercer to the stylish and amazing 2013 movie and you’ll have a fun time judging it by its own merits. Still, this series has a lot more to prove before it can be worthy of being called must-watch programming.
Final Score: 60/100