There’s a murder on the Arctic express in the new Netflix sci-fi show.
Hot on the heels of the blu-ray release of the movie that inspired it (check out our review here) comes the new Netflix show Snowpiercer. Based on the French graphic novel series Le Transperceneige. it’s a very high concept science fiction thriller. In a bid to stop global warming, scientists have made a deadly error and plunged the world into another ice age. With air temperatures cold enough to instantly freeze you to death, mankind is on the brink of extinction.
The enigmatic Mr Wilford has an outlandish idea to build a giant train and have it circumnavigate the globe indefinitely, never stopping and becoming the home to some three thousand souls who are very probably the last people alive on the planet. A class structure ensures that those unfortunate enough to be in the tail end of the one thousand carriage long train are only slightly better off than being outside. Meanwhile first class passengers live a life of absolute luxury that only gets better the closer you get to the head of the enormous locomotive. Unsurprisingly the “Tailies” want to move up the carriages, while the more affluent passengers wish to keep them subjugated at the back where they belong. Violent revolution on the speeding behemoth is always just a spark away.
When I first heard that Snowpiercer was being turned into a television series I was sceptical. After having watched the first two episodes, that Netflix have dropped together, I’m still sceptical but also a little intrigued to see what happens next. The original movie is basically a two-hour allegory about class, wrapped up in a ludicrous sci-fi idea that really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny if you think about it too much. It is however a perfectly good piece of entertainment. It’s well executed by director Bong Joon-Ho, currently riding high on his Parasite Oscar win, with a stellar cast including Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. It doesn’t however seem to lend itself to a sequel or, as the initial trailers for the TV show seemed to suggest, a reboot.
So what do we get with the series? Has it been completely reimagined? Is it just a redundant rehash of the movie? The opening episode certainly suggests it’s more the latter. Set some 6sixyears after the environmental catastrophe and the beginning of the train’s unending journey, we are quickly introduced to our main characters. Daveed Diggs plays Andre Layton, a Tailie who used to be a cop before things went to ruin. At the opposite end of the class structure is train announcer Melaine Cavill, played by Jennifer Connelly.
The episode unfolds with pretty much the same structure as the movie. We’re shown the tailies and the squalor they live in, which is juxtaposed against the luxury of the first class passengers. While the back end of the train fights over rations consisting of a disgusting looking black food bar, the only problems the elite passengers have are that the Europeans keep using the saunas naked. When one of the oldest residents commits suicide on his birthday, the dailies decide they’ve had enough and an ultimately futile revolt tries to gain them a better position on the train. Again this is all pretty much in keeping with the original film. As is the punishment for this revolt. It’s a particularly nasty idea where your arm is shoved through a porthole in the train and out into the freezing conditions outside. When it’s frozen completely solid a sledgehammer finishes the job. Quite a few of the tailies have suffered this punishment based on the number of limbs missing. Again this would be a much more effective and shocking scene if he hadn’t been lifted straight from the movie.
The main thing the series does to distinguish itself from it’s big screen counterpart is the introduction of a murder mystery plot. I wondered how what is a relatively straight forward tale would be spun out for the length of a series and it seems making it a whodunnit is the plan. It seems there have been a couple of murders in third class and people are getting anxious. As luck would have it, Layton is the only former homicide detective on the train, so he is reluctantly taken from the tail to investigate. Teamed with Bess, one of the brakeman, he sets about trying to solve the murders. I do like the idea of adding the element of a police procedural to the show, as it adds another dimension to what is effectively a class war on wheels.
I will say however that after two episodes, Daveed Diggs certainly doesn’t have the charisma of Chris Evans. Granted he hasn’t been given a lot to work with yet, so hopefully he’ll improve as the story develops. Jennifer Connelly, in contrast, is excellent in her role as the train’s mouthpiece and, in an intriguing scene, possibly the person running the whole show. It’s strongly hinted that maybe the oft mentioned Mr Wilford might not actually be in charge or indeed exist. This part of the story sounds intriguing if this is indeed the case.
This show does occasionally seem to want to undermine itself by reminding you that there is a better version of the story already available for you to watch. As well as the scenes I’ve already mentioned that are lifted completely from the film, we also have Alison Wright as Ruth Wardell. She regularly comes down to the tail section with her guards to threaten, punish and generally belittle the less fortunate. Her character is fun, both amusing and vicious. This would play better though if she wasn’t just a watered down version of Tilda Swinton’s much more over the top character from the film. She even wears a similar fur coat which I imagine is a nod to the original but just serves to remind you how much better Tilda Swinton was.
One of the best sequences occurs in the second episode when an avalanche causes one of the carriages to be breeched. It’s a cattle cart containing some of the train’s only cows and there is some excellent effects work as the bovine cargo and it’s human handlers are almost instantly flash frozen. This scene also gives us some insight as to how much of the train’s equilibrium is barely held together. With resources dwindling and the need to always be moving in order to keep the batteries charged and the lights on, it would appear to be only a matter of time before conditions on board Snowpiercer deteriorate.
The ability to explore the operation and day to day running of the train is something the show can obviously do in more detail and hopefully it plays to this strength in future episodes. The flip side of this is that it does expose a lot of deficiencies with relation to the plausibility and premise of the whole endeavour. In a two hour movie that is basically using a train as an unsubtle class metaphor you can get away with a lot. In a TV show that starts getting into the nuts and bolts of the situation, you soon begin to question just how things would actually work. Surely the time and resources spent to build a track encircling the entire world, along with a thousand carriage train, would have been better used in building an underground shelter where the risks associated with high speed rail travel become moot?
The tailies also serve no real function on the train. We are shown that occasionally a child is taken to serve as an apprentice, but all the rest just take up valuable resources and every now and then kill train guards during insurrections. We are shown them storming the train without tickets in a somewhat badly animated prologue and we see guards throwing some of them off. Why they didn’t do this to all of them or simply decouple the final carriage seems somewhat strange. Also people are put into some kind of suspended animation in what appears to be a punishment. They are literally filed away in drawers. This seems a huge waste of the limited space and power resources aboard the train. It’s a nice looking science fiction concept but doesn’t really make sense if you think about it too hard. Ultimately you could say this about the entire show.
All in all, Snowpiercer the TV show appears to be a watered down version of the film. The characters aren’t as memorable and a lot of the action beats have been lifted wholesale. The addition of a murder investigation is an interesting choice but it will take a few more episodes to decide if this iteration is a journey worth taking or simply derails further down the track.
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