Discerning television viewers are right to be skeptical about the idea of adapting the sci-fi film Snowpiercer for the small screen, but once they see the depth of emotion and heart-pounding action of the ten episode series that begins on TNT at 9pm ET on May 17th, their cynicism will disappear. This is not just an attempt to capitalize on original screenwriter Bong Joon Ho’s popularity after he won the Oscar for Parasite, nor does the series seek to recreate the same plot twists and shocking reveals of the 2013 movie. Although the idea of a world-circling train as a method of surviving a frozen apocalypse is still fairly outlandish, accepting the premise at face value opens up a world of possibilities for exploring class conflicts, life-or-death survival scenarios, and hidden conspiracies that create a most compelling drama.
It doesn’t hurt that Snowpiercer features top-notch performances from Tony winner Daveed Diggs and Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly among others. Diggs as Andre Layton represents the tail of the train, in which non-paying stowaways who stormed Snowpiercer on launch day are treated as slave labor with no human rights, and Connelly as Melanie Cavill is the hospitality director at the front of the train who needs Layton’s unique skills as a former police detective to solve a murder in third class. Right away, the tensions between the elite of first class and those whose lives appear to matter less draw us in as we get a lay of the land along with Layton, who has never been outside of the caboose.
But if Snowpiercer were just about the class warfare and the murder mystery, it could not be considered a complete success. To the show’s credit, the focus shifts skillfully between small details revealed during the investigation that turn out to be much more important than they appear at first, and the audience quickly realizes the stakes are much higher than simply imprisoning the wrong person or providing a way out for those in the tail. Not only are there questions about the prison system itself but also about the wisdom of Mr. Wilford, the mysterious and reclusive engineer of the train, for allowing a “tailie” detective to conduct interrogations of paying passengers.
And that’s just for starters! Then there are the inevitable relationships that blossom aboard the train, both forbidden and otherwise, to add passion to the drama in Snowpiercer. Although the entanglements we find Layton in lack chemistry in some respects, others, such as a fiery cross-class romance between a “thirdie” brakeman (think beat cop) and a sushi chef in second, are more successful at igniting our interest. And they’re not just there for the sake of personal drama either. In fact, Melanie’s own hidden relationship provides a wonderful test of loyalty late in the series despite initially appearing as a simple release of tension for the beleaguered director.
But what will really keep the audience returning to Snowpiercer week after week are the widely varied action sequences, which will either glue the viewers to the edge of their seats or have them leaping up and shouting at their televisions as the tensions mount. And it’s not just the battle sequences as mounting dissatisfaction stirs the lower classes to insurrection, although those are certainly well-choreographed if initially predictable. It’s the sudden emergencies, shocking betrayals, and unexpected consequences that truly shine, and whether it’s the train itself or the established power structure that’s in danger, these scenes (or sometimes entire episodes) are sure to win many fans.
Perhaps it goes without saying that no one should focus too closely on the hows and the whys of the train mechanics, the condition of the tracks, and the closely managed ecosystem that provides the tail with protein blocks and first class with boeuf bourguignon. Nitpickers are going to miss out on the true fun of Snowpiercer if they do that. Instead, they should admire the beauty of the glass-walled aquarium car in second class and the bohemian elegance of the Moulin Rouge-like “Night Car” in third. They should appreciate the nods to the film like when a member of hospitality wears a Tilda Swinton-esque fur coat when addressing the tailies or when the school teacher instills devotion to Wilford in her students.
But let’s be clear: Snowpiercer the series is not the same as the film despite Bong Joon Ho receiving executive producer credit on the show. Although some thematic elements, specifically those about class, are similar, the twists and turns as hidden truths are uncovered are quite different from what unfolded in the movie version. That being said, the events of the finale honor the epiphanies of the film’s ending even though the results are not alike. In this way, Snowpiercer is a wonderful tribute to the source material while providing new ways to continue the story into a second season while simultaneously providing a satisfying resolution to the ten episode arc.