Netflix UK TV review: Snowpiercer
Ivan Radford | On 03, Jun 2020
This review contains mild spoilers. Already seen Season 1? Read on below for our spoiler-filled thoughts about the whole season, including the finale.
“There’s more to this than meets the eye,” says Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) in Snowpiercer, a TV series based on Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 movie of the same name. It’s something of a delayed journey, after significant reshoots and a change of showrunner (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ Josh Friedman was replaced by Orphan Black’s Graeme Manson). The result is the same, but different, as the show takes the basic premise of the bold sci-fi satire and tries to ride it to a different destination – even though the rails seem fixed.
The titular train is an armoured vessel comprising 1,001 carriages that speed across the frozen wasteland that is now Earth – after attempts to reverse global warming plunged the planet into a new Ice Age. The Snowpiercer is the final ark for the remnants of humanity, originally conceived as sanctuary for the wealthy – until a host of people from the lower classes stormed the vehicle. The result is a microcosm of class divisions and social tensions, with the poorer people in the back, fed a mysterious black jelly for their meals, while those upfront get to feast on sumptuous food.
Andre, a former homicide detective, is given the chance to move from the rear up one class to third – an offer that’s made with the alluring possibility of eating actual tomato soup and real bread. To earn his passage, though, he needs to provide his skills and serve as the de facto train detective, solving a murder for Melanie (Jennifer Connelly), the woman who provides the Voice of the Train.
Turning one of the most idiosyncratic thrillers of recent years into a crime procedural might sound like a terrible idea – it recalls the decision of Fox’s Lucifer to turn its lead character into a criminal-catching police consultant – but Snowpiercer the TV series comes loaded with several carriages’ worth of potential. That’s primarily because the initial concept (from the graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette) is such a strong one – the notion of a high-rise on wheels is one that’s permanently pertinent in an inherently prejudiced and unequal human society. But it’s also because the series’ extra screen-time gives it the possibility of fleshing that out in more detail.
The concept’s power comes from its scathing simplicity, but there’s intrigue in the show’s in-depth exploration of the practicalities involved. The film introduced us to the bizarre indoctrination of an onboard school, but the series also gives us a nightclub, a fight club, a delicate farm and a butcher’s idea of paradise. There are politics and uneasiness even among the ruling class, as Connelly’s sort-of leader attempts to keep morale high and maintain the motto-spouting authority of the train’s elusive founder, Mr. Wilford – when it comes to the queasy punishment of freezing someone’s arm off, nobody really wants to do the dirty work.
There are also personal stakes for Andre, as his investigation leads him to cross paths with his ex. Meanwhile, he still finds himself tied to the Tailies, hoping to gather intelligence to help the inevitable, oncoming rebellion. Diggs is a naturally charismatic screen presence, bringing a quiet thoughtfulness to a figure who could become a generic audience foil – and he’s matched by Connelly’s ice-cool train conductor, who has her own plans afoot. (Connelly smartly opts for a different presence to the overseer played by Tilda Swinton in the film.)
Between them are other curious characters, from Andre’s foster son, Miles, who is recruited into the train’s school system, to brakeman Bess Till (Mickey Sumner) who accompanies Andre on his rounds. And, with pressures mounting on the electric supply and the supply of meat for food, plus a black market drug being traded across carts, Snowpiercer opens up a wealth of opportunities to dissect this close-quartered, claustrophobic melting pot of inequality.
The effects outside of the train aren’t always up to scratch, but it’s inside the train that counts and directors Sam Miller (Daredevil, Luke Cage) and James Hawes (Penny Dreadful, Black Mirror) bring a sense of progressively worsening living conditions to life with a touch of gruesome action and a grimy sense of world-building. The result is a seemingly pointless exercise in extending Bong Joon-ho’s riveting, relentless masterpiece to something slower and longer, but Snowpiercer the TV series lays down enough bends in the track to tease a possible departure from its source material – as long as it can keep the pace up.
Snowpiercer: The Series is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Living La Vida Loco (spoilers)
What’s the only thing better than one train? Two trains. That’s the brilliant humdinger that Season 1 drops on us in its finale, and it opens up the world of the story to new possibilities that take Snowpiercer the series to new destinations away from the original film – like Amazon’s Hanna, this reimagining of the source material gets more impressive the more distinctive it dares to be.
Even before the finale, though, Season 1 impresses by drawing out the consequences of each revelation. First off, Layton solves the murder of Sean Wise: the enjoyably dastardly and spoilt Folger daughter, LJ (Anna Basso). That revelation sparks a revolution of sorts from Melanie, who takes the chance to try and bring LJ to communal justice – not the way things are normally done on the train. That decision only intensifies the tensions on board, as the secret that Melanie has been pretending to be Mr Wilford all along begins to leak out.
Layton’s the first to work it out, and she promptly puts him in a cryo-drawer, which loses the one ally she had. Layton tells LJ, who promptly sows seeds for a rebellion – led by First Class and the Folger family, as well as second-in-command Ruth (Alison Wright), who is the favourite of the menacing Gray to be the figurehead/puppet of the posh revolution. In an attempt to quell that uprising, Melanie decides to commute LJ’s sentence altogether, but that only angers other passengers further – and the rest is Third Class and The Tail plotting to storm through the whole train and take down First.
Meanwhile, Layton is rescued by Josie from the drawers, but she ends up falling fowl of Melanie who is trying to track down the missing detective – and their ensuing interrogation and fight turns all kinds of chilling, as Melanie ends up locking her in a room with the outside blizzard blasting its way in.
All of this is enjoyable enough as a pulpy social thriller, but Snowpiercer’s added runtime, versus the film, means that Melanie becomes an increasingly intriguing figure – because, thanks to Connelly’s on-screen conviction, we believe that she genuinely wants the best for the train. She’s an engineer at heart, not a politician, something that’s proven first-hand to us by a nail-biting incident that sees her stop the train from being entirely derailed. Putting Miles up in the front of the train with Melanie’s co-conspirator, Bennett (Iddo Goldberg), is a nice way to up the human stakes, but it’s testament to Connelly’s performance that the tension is high enough regardless.
The battle sequences are solidly executed, finding variety in the different moods, lighting and style of each carriage, as the bloodshed unfolds in darkness, silence, strobe lights and more. By the time it’s all finished, Layton’s challenge is only beginning, as he tries to hold together the train’s many shifting factions – the fact that almost a whole hour is given over to the aftermath of the showdown is a sign of how interested Snowpiercer is in the people dynamics as much as the action. Just look at the way Bess (Mickey Sumner) grows to become a sympathetic, rounded figure, or the way that Wright’s Ruth is humanised enough to make her convincing, if not likeable.
The climactic reveal that Mr Wilford is alive after all – and that he has his own train, which he rides into Snowpiercer, with the support of Melanie’s daughter (another big clanger) – is enough to keep the series recognisably Snowpiercer in its make-up, but also puts these tracks firmly in a new direction. The result is a season that remains full of potential, from Steven Ogg’s loathsome Pike, who is ready to betray Layton for some luxuries, to Sean Bean being cast as Mr Wilford, a man who – at least, according to Melanie – is more interested in profit and power than helping the human race to stay alive.