“On Snowpiercer, one-thousand-and-one cars long” goes the adage, serving as the full-stop to the opening monologue, each time from a new character’s perspective. Among the many cars and classes of Snowpiercer, the residual few hundred of humanity flow along in perpetual motion, their only means of continued survival on the now-frozen surface of the Earth. Should the train stop, all life will perish. This is the reality for our characters as they navigate this chlostrophobic dystopian-thriller.
Originally a French graphic novel by Jaques Lob, Snowpiercer was made into a feature film in 2013 by now Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho (Parasite, 2019) starring Captain America himself, Chris Evans. The film draws key themes from the source material surrounding class struggle and social injustice. It portrays the exhausting tale of an uprising of those condemned to the back of the train to live in squalor and poverty – The Tailies – for even on Snowpiercer the class divide is stark and tragic, if a little heavy handed. 1st-Class passengers live a life of plenty at the front of the train, gorging themselves on fine food, drugs and sex as the Tailies sustain themselves on nothing but protein bars made from processed cockroaches. The film was rightfully acclaimed, it told a compact, fast-paced story while somehow finding room for world-building and character development, tying off loose ends and concluding elements of intrigue elegantly. So how well does this post-apocalyptic, class-commentary translate to long-form storytelling?
Created by Josh Friedman and Graeme Manson, the Netflix adaptation attempts to extend the fundamental ideas behind the source material across 10 episodes, but if the 2013 film was able to do this in a little over two hours, there’s some serious work to do to make this a consistently engaging series. So instead of a re-hash of the film with a few added sub-plots and filler episodes, we get a brand new take on the central narrative. The plot focuses on Andre Layton (David Diggs), a former homicide cop, as he is pulled away from his Tailie family and forced to solve the first on-train murder, in return, a more comfortable life in 3rd-Class awaits him. Layton agrees, not for reward, but to use this opportunity to better plan his revolution, free from the confines of the Tail section. The who-done-it element serves as the nucleus of the first half of the series with secondary plots and intrigue circling around it, remaining peripheral, as Layton plants the seeds of his revolution. We follow him throughout the various sections of the train, each boasting it’s own unique aesthetic but always with a metallic, machine-like texture surrounding it. This central story device helps us to understand what life is like in the other classes and allows the context of Snowpiercer to develop naturally through dialogue and Layton’s interaction with an array of characters as he conducts his investigation.
The faction-like civilisation of Snowpiercer is interesting but is expressed rather obtusely, with echoes of those over-simplistic cliques we see all to often in dramatic accounts of American High-School. With the Hospitality Staff all being glamorous women, the train security lead by an overtly masculine Commander and the The Brakemen (glorified train guards), subservient to the upper classes but abusing their power over the lower, the divisions between class and role are force-fed a little too hard and as such, lack nuance. It’s in the more tender moments, between characters, where this show starts to propel, in which they provide each other (and us) with that which lies at the heart of drama – conflict. Though the disparity between class is writ large in this show, luckily, the story itself is not as simple as Tailies vs the rest of the train. Success depends heavily on outside help, on members of 2nd and 3rd-Class to aid and abet the Tailies in their revolt and Layton must use the freedom of the case to coerce, convince and bribe his way through the train, garnering support from as many passengers as possible. Every character relentlessly wrestles with the implications of helping the Tailies. Some question the idea of risking their current comfort to liberate others and then share in that comfort, when there’s no guarantee the resources of Snowpiercer could sustain it. Others battle with the notion of maintaining the status quo in exchange for an upgrade in class. It is a constant battle between of what our characters have and what they stand to gain or lose from their actions, a dichotomy inherent to the DNA of Snowpiercer.
Supporting characters like Josie (Katie McGuinness), Till (Mickey Sumner) and Zarah (Sheila Vand) all offer up solid performances for Diggs, each with their own traumas and motivations, however there is a distinct lack of chemistry in any of these pairings. Perhaps with the exception of Diggs and McGuinness who do a decent job with the limited screen-time they share but sadly, Diggs in his first lead role leaves a lot to be desired. Whether it’s down to performance, script, direction or all of the above, it’s hard to tell but I simply wasn’t sold on the character or his relationships and struggled to empathise, especially early on in the series. The biggest downfall of the show however is in the sheer number of characters. Far too many characters get names and context when there is simply no need and when they do it is often so rushed and truncated it fails to make us care. It is a constant problem with shows that arbitrarily insist on being 10 parts when 6 or 7 will do just fine because they have to fill that extra space with more secondary characters that have no real bearing on the plot. A story needs to earn, to justify 10 episodes, instead it’s become the default and sadly shows are worse off for it. When it comes to the cast however, the standout performance is undoubtedly the female lead Jennifer Connelly as Melanie Cavill, Head of Hospitality. A villainous yet selfless woman, complex yet stoic, she holds unquestionable authority on Snowpiercer and Connelly owns that space with grace and power, to be honest, she saved the show for me and her arch is definitely the most compelling of all.
Ruling – As a series, it just about works. The latter episodes ramp up the pace and stakes enough to keep me watching. However, had they not stepped up their game at the half way point with some interesting reveals, I probably wouldn’t have continued with it. It poses some complex questions, showcases some creative concepts and does a good job in ensuring you feel the claustrophobia of the train, but as a series, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Netflix’s best.