REVIEWED: SEASON 1 (ALL EPISODES) | WHERE TO WATCH: NETFLIX UK
Bong Joon-Ho’s apocalyptic train ride Snowpiercer is a candidate for the biggest sleeper hit of the decade. The arrival of a TV series expanding and modifying his idea is as warmly welcome as it is clearly inferior. Snowpiercer is a perfectly fine piece of TV that nonetheless must be content to bask in the greatness of Joon-Ho’s original film.
Based on both the film and the graphic novels by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer drives relentlessly forward with little time to turn over intricate details. It starts out as a murder mystery - lower-class freeloader or ‘tailee’ Layton (Daveed Diggs) is called upon by the train’s Head of Hospitality, Melanie (Jennifer Connelly) to solve a murder in first class. The series churns on from there solidly, breathlessly, and not always clearly, into a story of deception and rebellion. Much like a train, it can feel like it takes a long time to get up to speed, then risks slamming on the brakes just as something interesting is about to happen.
Unafraid to diverge from its predecessors, Snowpiercer takes some gambles that mostly pay off, introducing new kinds of characters into the mix. Layton is by far the most successful, increasingly worn out by carrying the burden of being “the good guy” in the face of corruption. Melanie too proves to be one of the series’ main hooks, helped by a powerhouse performance from Connelly. A few of the characters, however, end up with little or nothing to do by the end. Annalise Basso’s character especially goes from having a big role to play to being an irritating thorn who does little more than come out with some thirsty garble from time to time.
The story is well paced, making the most of its 10-episode first season without feeling badly congested (although some things don’t get the attention they need - mysteries to be resolved in the next season, you can suspect). While the film is an explosive, bloodthirsty march to social upheaval, this is a slower and more methodical collapse of an elitist system from within. Internal rivalries in both ends of the train see characters appear to swap allegiances in the blink of an eye. At its best, Snowpiercer rides on a giddy unpredictability that makes sure the narrative stays clear of any obvious conclusions. Nowhere better is this seen than in the season finale, which unloads a handful of revelations that shake the previous nine episodes to the core.
Visually, from the CGI to the gorgeous set design, the series is to die for. It’s not what you see that occasionally lets Snowpiercer down. The final three episodes are full of action and drama, but what it lacks is the sensation of sinking your teeth into reality. The subversive, piercing streak of the film goes amiss, replaced by a medley of characters and some peculiar attempts at humour. Snowpiercer is incredibly plot heavy, which at times feels like an unwelcome distraction from something more meaningful and thought through. It is pretty as a picture, if not as finely crafted.
The show is as imperfect as the humanity that it depicts. Joon-Ho’s 2014 entry looks set to remain the defining version of this story. Regardless, Snowpiercer - 1001 cars long - is a ride worth catching, as long as you can stick with it until the journey's end.