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  • Writer's pictureMartin Cheney

Snowpiercer [s1]: on the right track


It's time for a fun game of Unpopular Opinion: I prefer the new Netflix adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige to Bong Joon-ho's critically-acclaimed 2013 film. Put down your ice picks. Hear me out.

(First and foremost, I should probably confess I have absolutely no knowledge of the source material, so my stance says more about my enjoyment of watching them, rather than anything meaningful about which one is a better adaptation. For an opinion on that, you should ask someone who, you know, can read French. And likes graphic novels. This review is purely about the Netflix series.)

Snowpiercer drops us in the Not Too Distant Future, about seven years into a fresh take on a post-apocalyptic and dystopian tale. You see, global warming turned out to be a thing, and so climate scientists attempted to reverse the effects, but over-corrected to such an extent that the world found itself in another ice age (and not the cute, family-friendly kind). Oops. Don't worry though, transportation billionaire and all 'round Good Guy Wilford has built the Snowpiercer, an Eternal Engine (imagine Noah's Ark but as a 1001-car-long train) that circumnavigates the whole planet and houses the remainder of humanity, provided you had enough money for a ticket/managed to jump on before it disembarked/didn't already freeze to death. Now, split the passengers up into literal classes, based on how much they could afford, chuck the last-minute hitchhikers down in the tail, maintain order with an iron fist and hilarity ensues. Oh, one last thing: the train has to keep moving because if it stops, everyone dies. (For a narrative that partially acts as a cautionary tale about listening to science, it asks the audience to suspend a considerable amount of disbelief

Personally, I think the most impressive thing about the way this show tells the story is its world-building. The interior design is so intricate and detailed I often forgot it was taking place on a train. One of the most notable differences between the film adaption and the Netflix series is that the film intentionally avoids giving any visual insight into the class system, and more or less follows the Tailies as they gradually force their rebellion up through the train. Out of necessity, the Netflix adaptation (season one has 10 episodes, and a second season is nearing completion) has considerable need to provide greater context given the increased screen time. This is the core of why I am enjoying this episodic treatment so much more; the premise, as I inferred earlier, has numerous holes, and so I need the extra detail to hold my attention for the ride. Make no mistake, the film is OK, but there was an underlying sense of futility and pointlessness I found difficult to shake off. Like, why a train? At least with the series, I'm so invested in the subplots and character interactions that I'm distracted from the fundamental issues with the premise. I don't need everything to make sense (I'll happily classify it as sci-fi and be done with it), but I demand internal consistency and a commitment to being bonkers if that's the track the narrative is on. I feel the series understands this in a way that the film tried to be too clever for.

There's a campiness and almost schlocky quality to the early episodes in season one that I found incredibly endearing (the CGI is sometimes quite bad, but I'm not even mad about it). It was actually this aspect that made me persist through a narrative rut that nearly made me lose interest in the show completely. Fortunately, my patience was rewarded with a second-half of the series that was, while certainly not perfect, finally willing to provide most of what it promised from the beginning. It's also probably worth noting that there are some pretty stomach-turning instances of violence dotted throughout the season. Never gratuitous, they usually serve a very specific purpose, and that purpose is often to remind us of the lengths to which Wilford Industries will go to maintain order and calm the chaos.

It would be irresponsible to talk about this show and not mention Jennifer Connelly. She is, hands-down, the strongest actor in the cast and honestly the glue that holds the entire premise together. Connelly plays Melanie Cavill, Head of Hospitality and Wilford's right-hand woman, keeping the wheels turning (metaphorically speaking - it's an Eternal Engine THEY TURN THEMSELVES, GUYS) and putting out spot-fires as they arise. And arise they do. Melanie's character development is genuinely fascinating throughout the arc (lol) of the show and, in the final few episodes of season one, she turns in some performances that are better almost than the show deserves. Daveed Diggs is fine too (the guy can EAT a grilled cheese sandwich), but Jennifer Connelly keeps this from being a three-star review.

All things considered, I'm not sure you can really effectively compare Snowpiercer the series to Snowpiercer the film. While they share the same premise, they both go in such completely different directions that the experience of watching them is totally dissimilar. Without revealing any spoilers, some narrative developments in the series are wildly different to the film, so if you had a hard time with it in 2013, there's a chance this one might be more your cup of tea. However, it's possible the reverse could also be true...

If you decide to get on board Snowpiercer, whether you've seen the film or not, Melanie's advice remains the same:


Snowpiercer is streaming on Netflix now.

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