'Snowpiercer' review: Searching for the right track
It took seven years, and some stops and starts, for the 2013 South Korean film ‘Snowpiercer’ to get remade as an American television series. It was just long enough for the film’s director, Bong Joon-ho, to give the show a publicity boost by winning multiple Oscars this year for ‘Parasite,’ his latest violent allegory about the haves and have-nots.
There was never any question, though, that the series (premiering May 25 on Netflix in the UAE) would have the brutal, bloody single-mindedness of Bong’s ‘Snowpiercer’ ironed out of it for commercial TV. That the show’s connection to the movie doesn’t go beyond the premise — a slave-labour rebellion on a train that circles a frozen earth carrying humanity’s 3,000 survivors — was probably a given.
What comes as a slight surprise is that something as singular as Bong’s film would be turned into something as familiar as ‘Snowpiercer’: a standard basic-cable science-fiction thriller, with the look, atmosphere, staging and much of the Canada-based supporting cast you’ve already seen in any number of shows on TNT, Syfy and the CW (basic cable’s cousin). Or maybe it’s not a surprise, given that the ‘Snowpiercer’ showrunner, Graeme Manson, was a creator of one of those series, BBC America’s ‘Orphan Black.’
As different as it is, though, this ‘Snowpiercer’ is weighed down by the freight of the film’s premise (which originated in a French graphic novel series, ‘Le Transperceneige’). The train as a microcosm for a striated society — with its rigid procession of “classes,” luxurious front to prisonlike back — is a particularly on-the-nose metaphor, and the longer you spend with it, the more reductive and limiting it gets.
Manson and his colleagues, lacking either the dollars-per-minute or the visual imagination that Bong brought to bear, try various strategies to stretch the film’s simple thesis over 10 hourlong episodes (with a second season already ordered).
One — and you have to give them credit for audacity — is to turn the protagonist, a steerage passenger named Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), into a former police detective. In the first of a series of contrivances that drive the plot, Layton, who’s about to lead an armed revolt of the oppressed stowaways known as tailies (for their position at the train’s tail) is summoned to the front of the train to investigate a murder.
The mystery itself turns out to be incidental, and the solving of it doesn’t provide much in the way of noirish entertainment. But as a nonviolent method of breaking down the rigid divide between the front and back of the train, it sets up the show’s real theme, which — in a radical departure from the thorough nihilism of the film — is cooperation. The train is starting to break down after seven years of constant motion (stopping means death by freezing), and the class divides will have to be crossed if anyone is to survive.
‘Snowpiercer’ as a treatise on leadership and representative government, with fight scenes and a lot of near nudity, is something that fits both basic-cable norms and the blue-state side of the current national mood. It’s a struggle, though, to reconcile those ideas with the fundamental appeal of the book and film — continuous bloody combat and kicky dystopian ambience — and it’s a struggle the show never quite wins. The action is routine, the drama tends toward the banal and sentimental, and the social symbolism of class division and technocracy, while cleverly worked out, isn’t compelling or coherent enough to tie it all together.
Of course, that could also describe a number of reasonably successful shows in this category, and ‘Snowpiercer’ will find its fans. They will discover that it offers one significant bonus: the casting of Jennifer Connelly as Melanie Cavill, the train’s hospitality director and the voice of its mysterious, Oz-like engineer. (The large cast also boasts Alison Wright of ‘The Americans.’) Cavill emerges as Layton’s opposite number, and Connelly’s performance as a tightly wound, fiercely competent woman bearing a crushing responsibility is so good that it’s almost enough reason to watch.
Don’t miss it!
‘Snowpiercer’ premieres on May 25 on Netflix in the UAE. With a new episode every Monday.