Snowpiercer has two equally engaging shows inside it. Instead of creating a unified vision, both sides undermine and bring the other down.
Based on French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, TNT’s Snowpiercer takes place years after a great freeze has ravaged the surface of the Earth. The remnants of humanity have been forced onto the titular train, aboard which the survivors have built up a cult-like devotion to Snowpiercer’s creator, Mr Wilford. Under his jurisdiction a rigid class structure has formed, with the poorest in society, dubbed Tailies, residing in the tail of the train and the richest of pre-freeze society stationed in the head. Tailie and former detective Layton (Daveed Diggs) is called uptrain by Snowpiercer’s omnipresent guardian, Melanie (Jennifer Connelly), in order to solve a series of murders. The series follows Layton as he reluctantly attempts to solve the case while he plans the next Tailie revolution.
As the second adaptation of the source material, after Bong Joon-Ho’s 2013 film of the same name, the series had a tough act to follow. Instead of attempting to mirror the more well-known film, the series admirably differentiates itself by telling a much larger and more varied story than in 2013. With more time to develop throughout the series the world aboard the train feels fully realised and lived in. The world of Snowpiercer feels truly horrifying, as humanity is one thin wall away from an eternal prison of ice. The series never forgets this horror, with plot threads being put on hold while natural disasters realistically interrupt the everyday politics of the train’s inhabitants. The show, however, is more focused on the internal struggles of the survivors, with factions in both class and political alignment forming throughout.
In terms of performances, the star of the show is undoubtedly Daveed Diggs as Layton, bringing an aura of optimism to a man who has been beaten down consistently and confined to darkness in the Tail. Diggs’ charisma is ever-present, allowing the audience to understand why the revolution would so easily align themselves with him. Another exemplary performance comes from Mickey Sumner as Breakman Till. Till’s journey from secondary antagonist to ally with conflicting interests remained the most engaging aspect of the show and Sumner perfectly portrays her inner conflict between humanity and loyalty. If nothing else, Snowpiercer has convinced me that a Diggs- and Sumner-centric collaboration is a must. The rest of the cast all perform well – there is not a bad performance to be found throughout the series – but Diggs and Sumner steal every scene they are in.
The biggest problem with Snowpiercer is that is it tonally inconsistent. The series feels like it is trying to be two very different shows at the same time. One half of the show is a critique on capitalism’s oppressive treatment of the poorest in society and the hate-fuelled revolution this leads to. The show wants to use the train as a microcosm of the system, and by placing the train as a physical hierarchy, from poorest to richest, the show wears this allegory on its sleeve. This allegory, if overt, works effectively, as seeing Layton walk from the cramped confines of the Tail to the wide-open apartments of First motivates the viewer to sympathise with his struggle. Despite its dystopian setting, the show goes great lengths to depict the injustice of the Tail in the most realistic way possible. From the great production design showing the Tail to be dark, secluded and revolting, to the directing having the camera up close and intrusive in the Tail, only to become more free and spacious in First, the show really wants the audience to take the struggles of the Tail seriously.
The other half of the show shatters any realism that the series had built up in favour of a more casual and even goofy tone. As Layton interviews and meets more inhabitants of the train it is a coin toss whether they will be a tragic figure hurt by the system, or a stereotypical evil drug dealer. Some scenes end with an obviously psychotic villainous caricature smiling directly into the camera accompanied by an orchestral sting. One minute a woman is slowly dying due to her amputated arm becoming infected and being too poor to seek medical help, the next an evil military man rubs his hands together manically as he plans to murder civilians. The show undermines the realism of nuanced characters who use capitalism for selfish desire, and instead makes First irredeemably evil. They openly mock the poor and not one of them has a shred of humanity left within them.
Having the realistic drama of the Tail sections of the narrative be supplanted by the villainous Firsts, robs the show of any tension it once had. Sometimes an affecting and powerful scene will play out, only for tonal whiplash to occur and suddenly the seriousness of systemic oppression is undermined by a few individual bad people. If Snowpiercer had stuck to either the serious realism or the more light-hearted action sections, then I feel that it could have been an amazing show. Both sides have standout moments, but they continuously clash and take away the impact of the other. The show cannot be fun because we are reminded of children starving to death, but the show cannot be serious as maniacal villains puppeteer the authorities as they laugh behind wide smiles.
Snowpiercer was a disappointment. While there were moments that felt engaging and exciting, its inability to decide what type of story it wanted to tell made the whole thing largely uninteresting. I would be getting into the atmosphere of a scene, only for the next to uproot me and drop me into a different series. Despite this, I am anticipating season 2, as there are two good shows within Snowpiercer and I would be happy to watch whichever one emerges if one hopefully does.
Snowpiecer is available on Netflix. You can watch the trailer below.