In a time when we’re all stuck at home and hungry for more things to watch, I’m thankful for Snowpiercer, one of the newest series to drop on Netflix. Based on the series of graphic novels by Jacque Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand, and also Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed 2013 film of the same name, Snowpiercer is set 10 years before Bong’s movie and has yet another revolution brewing in the tail section of this locomotive ark, one thousand and one cars long.
But while Snowpiercer the movie deftly condensed weighty commentary on class warfare, capitalism, and ethics into one fast-moving and tight storyline, Snowpiercer the series languidly ambles about. It features the same issues that Bong’s film dealt with, but it is also, oddly enough, a detective procedural that spends a lot of time on a murder mystery.
If you’re looking for a television adaptation of Bong’s work, you’ll be disappointed. Aside from their shared setting, Netflix’s Snowpiercer takes quite a different direction from the 2013 film, but it’s also easier to watch because of that. This is surprisingly riveting television, and – this is probably an unpopular opinion – one that I prefer over the Chris Evans-helmed film.
Netflix’s Snowpiercer, a reboot of the 2013 film and set only seven years after the big freeze, is produced by Bong but run by Orphan Black’s Graeme Manson and Josh Friedman, who is co-writing James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar 2. It wastes no time in evoking its big screen predecessor, with an opening sequence that takes us into the tail in much the same way as the 2013 movie. In yet another callback to the movie, the series also gives us a scene where someone gets their arm stuck into a port and exposed to the outside, effectively freezing the limb off.
But that’s about where the visual similarities end. Every scene in Bong’s movie was pervaded by a distinctly claustrophobic feeling, and it was impossible to lose sight of the fact that all the action was taking place in narrow train carriages. On the other hand, Netflix’s series allows for some oddly spacious rooms, with high ceilings seemingly out of place on a train. As train detective Layton seeks out clues through Snowpiercer’s various cabins, it’s sometimes almost too easy to forget that everyone is still stuck on a chugging locomotive.
That aside, one of the things that bugged me about the original Snowpiercer was the hard divide drawn between those living in the tail and the privileged classes living up front. Tilda Swinton’s maniacal Minister Mason is a delight to watch, but she feels like more of a political caricature than anything else. Similarly, much of the action is concentrated in the tail, and we never get the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the upper classes. Instead, they appear almost uniformly monstrous, mere obstacles to be shoved out of the way with brute force.
Snowpiercer the series shows us that there are real human beings on both sides of the divide, and in each of the train’s classes, be it the decadent First, bourgeois Second, or the downtrodden Third. Head of Hospitality Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) is something of an analog to Minister Mason, but the two could not be more different. While Mason is an unlikeable mishmash of all that is wrong with capitalism, Melanie puts on hoodies that we’d wear ourselves on a Friday night when she’s not on the job and has loud, raucous sex with one of the train engineers. She’s human, through and through, and despite her questionable morality and the awful things she’s done, it’s hard to really dislike her. She exists in a grey space between the obvious villain and the protagonist you’re rooting for, and her internal struggles make it even easier to relate to her and empathise with her decisions.
Similarly, Brakeman Bess Till (Mickey Sumner) is a member of Snowpiercer’s security force, but she is far from being a brutish thug. Instead of just beating down the tailies, as the inhabitants of the rearmost cabins of Snowpiercer are dismissively referred to, Till has a strong inner moral compass and cares deeply about doing the right thing. Her relationship with her girlfriend further humanises her, especially as her efforts to aid a tailie possibly end up jeopardising their chance at happiness.
Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) somewhat embodies Curtis, even sharing a similar dark past related to cannibalism, although Layton’s story retains a veneer of heroism. And as a former police detective, he appears cannier than Curtis too. Learning about the tailies’ backgrounds is one of my favorite parts of the series – it’s an easy way to showcase the arbitrary nature of wealth and class divides, which hardly operate along the lines of merit.
Ultimately, Snowpiercer works because its length allows it to more effectively flesh out the human beings on both sides of the divide. There are good people (and questionable ones) on both sides, and it's an effective counterpoint to the us versus them mentality that pervaded the original movie. The acting is solid, and the plot moves along because of the characters at the heart of the story – their frustrations and struggles are some of the most tangible things that viewers can grasp onto. It’s also always fun to find out more about how the train works, something that we weren’t really given much of in the original movie. Small details are sprinkled in with the story – Third class passengers need to win a baby lottery in order to have kids, chefs on board can’t make smoked salmon ever again because they’re out of wood chips, and the train relies on cows for methane.
And then there’s the biggest twist of all, which concerns the very nature of Wilford himself. As Layton says knowingly to Melanie, “A myth’s a powerful thing.”