These are our revolutions…
In a time before Bong Joon-ho managed to make history by acquiring four different Oscars in one evening (a feat that only Walt Disney had ever achieved previously), he was out there making sure one of his movies made it to the big screen with minimal edits. The end result of his stalwart defense was 2013’s Snowpiercer, based off a 1982 French graphic novel. It featured a diverse, star studded cast featuring the ranks of Chris Evans (who had just been reintroduced to the world as Captain America), Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, John Hurt, and Ed Harris and (not unsurprisingly) was a poignant look at class warfare on a beautiful looking set piece that was a very, very, very large train.
That was seven years ago though, and since the world has indeed shifted tracks to what feels like a darker timeline on a variety of levels. And one of the features of this time is a television adaptation of this movie based on this graphic novel about a world that has frozen over and the only remnants of humanity are still divided by literal classes where the rich feast, the workers toil thanklessly, and those in poverty are exploited and treated horribly in the name of some twisted balance. Which is to say, there are parallels to be drawn and entertainment to be had so long as everything’s handled correctly. And after watching the first season, I think it was.
The opening minutes of the pilot start out with an unexpected animation, evoking a storybook sensibility that explains all of the basic details of the plot if you weren’t familiar with them from the original movie: the world froze over and a Mr. Wilford had engineered an engine eternal to power the Snowpiercer, a gargantuan train that would use a global railroad track to power itself indefinitely therefore preserving the life of its passengers. But quickly, the storybook aesthetic blurs into a brutal bloodshed, and we see the night of Snowpiercer’s maiden voyage where people are desperately trying to get on without tickets.
… on Snowpiercer: One thousand and one cars long
The main narrative picks up roughly seven years after that (the first of many deviations from its source material whose time jump was seventeen years), and focuses on the diametrically opposed ends of the train primarily through the lens of its two principle characters: Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) and Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly).
Andre Layton is a “Tailee,” part of a nontrivial population of the Snowpiercer that occupies the last few cars of the behemoth. They didn’t have (or could even think of affording) tickets and barely managed to get on and their lives are as destitute as you’d expect in a post-apocalyptic dystopian society. Conversely, Melanie Cavill is the Head of Hospitality, tasked with keeping the train running at all costs on a variety of fronts. And if you’ve seen the movie this should all sound very familiar, but I can assure you that the narrative quickly distinguishes from its source and evolves in a very different, but ultimately still familiar, direction.
The pilot makes it clear that it’s willing to go off the proverbial rails and provides a natural hook into letting us see more of the train in a less linear order than the movie. It’s a move that I appreciate because it could have easily been a straightforward progression, but instead we get to revel in multiple perspectives.
An Engine Eternal
And the key takeaway I want to emphasize before continuing is that the series justifies its existence. This is an imaginative, well-thought expansion of the simple concept of “class warfare on a giant train.” It looks beautiful, the sound mixing is incredible, the acting is engaging, and I was sold on the series on the strength of the pilot alone. This is good science fiction, capitalizing on a particular zeitgeist with a unique aesthetic.
I will also temper this by saying that this series doesn’t quite have the same visceral impact that the 2013 movie had for me. It just hits differently. In some ways, the series pulls its punches and in others, it puts on a special pair of brass knuckles. Getting to spend more time on Snowpiercer, getting to know its inhabitants over 10 episodes as opposed to two hours allows for more investment and world building and the premise does benefit from this extended runtime.
Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly helm the series beautifully, giving great performances that anchor the central narrative. In particular Diggs’ natural charisma just works so well on the camera, whether it is an impassioned speech to rouse the troops or a tired eye roll of a white man making a reference to slavery. And the supporting cast featuring Mickey Summer, Shelia Vand, Alison Wright, Susan Park, Jalyin Fletcher, Rowan Blanchard, Steven Ogg, and all of them interact with the leads and each other to bring the world to life (a sentence whose irony is not lost on me). The writing plays with your expectations and on a cinematography front, it looks good. Some shots don’t have quite the same luster, but on average it’s a worthy spectacle.
Honestly, the single biggest accolade that I can give this show is that it gave me hope that the Parasite TV adaptation could actually be good. This was a proper way to reboot and relaunch this series. You have a strong cast, great direction, and a world that is paradoxically both self-contained and boundless. The adjusted timeline and new central narrative work well, and I’m looking forward to when more people get to witness the revolution on TNT on May 17.