2020 audiences may find it difficult to relate to a world where environmental factors have forced humanity to stay inside for survival, but Snowpiercer Executive Producers Graeme Manson and Bong Joon Ho hope you’ll come along for the ride anyway.
You may recognize the title. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige from authorfilm adaptation in 2013 from director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite). Now, fresh off of director Bong’s Oscar win, the titular train from his film leaves the station once again, this time as a television series on the TNT Network.
This is the story of a massive 1,001 car train carrying the last of humanity traversing a circular track in an endless loop around a frozen Earth. And at the center of this story, the class divide between those rich enough to have bought a ticket onto this Noah’s Ark on rails and those desperate 99%-ers who hijacked their way on board and occupied the cars in the tail.
For those who have seen the film and wonder how a long-form television series can sustain this premise, the premiere introduces several new wrinkles. Characters harbor dark secrets that threaten to jeopardize the sense of order on board. We see hints of shifting and divided loyalties. Then add a murder mystery that, on a train of 1,001 cars, would prove challenging even for Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot.
Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) and Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) are at the center of this story. Melanie lives a privileged life — or at least as much of one is possible living on a post-apocalyptic train to nowhere. She’s the head of hospitality. When I spoke to the cast and showrunner at last year’s New York Comic Con, Connelly said, “[Melanie] is quite literally the voice of the train, makes the announcements, the daily announcements, is there to sort of make sure things run smoothly and order is maintained.”
Andre, however, represents how the other half lives. He’s a former Detroit homicide detective living in abject squalor in the tail section. He’s a leader within the resistance plotting a coup when he’s suddenly recruited by the powers that be, the elusive Wilford, to solve the murder of a passenger in third class. While he’s introduced to the fancy world of Snowpiercer’s paying passengers, the more impatient Pike, played by The Walking Dead‘s Steven Ogg, takes charge of the tail.
By the end of Episode 1, Melanie is the character I’m most looking forward to exploring. While Andre is so far presented as a pretty standard heroic TV lead, Melanie is filled with contradictions. And her motivations are far harder to pin down by episode’s end. It’s clear why the producers would seek out a recognizable veteran actor — especially one who isn’t a stranger to genre — like Connelly for this role.
Like many series premieres, Episode 1 is burdened with the heavy lifting of establishing its complex world and important characters at breakneck speed for audiences previously unfamiliar with prior iterations of this story. Fortunately, the beautiful rendering of some of the series’ backstory in animation helps the necessary exposition dump go down in the show’s opening minutes. I think they’ve also wisely saved one prominent character introduction, that of Lena Hall’s character Miss Audrey, for later.
Episode 1 is quite grim and doesn’t leave much room for levity from the dire situation. I hope the show is able to capitalize on the absurdity of the first-class passengers’ complaints and mine those for comedy in future installments. The Nightcar, Snowpiercer’s cabaret and brothel, offers further possibilities for different kinds of stories.
At New York Comic Con, Showrunner Graeme Manson described what he loved about the world of Snowpiercer: “In director Bong’s film, it had that wonderful sense of what’s beyond the next door. You’d open the door, and it’d be, like, wow, that’s on the train? We keep that as well. So we keep a feeling of space and discovery. And I won’t say we’ll never go outside the train.”
While the Bong Joon Ho film took place roughly 15 years into Snowpiercer’s departure, the series begins less than 7 years in. Is this a direct prequel to the events of the film? If the final moments of this first episode are any indication, the answer is probably no. If that’s the case, there’s no way to know where this exciting new Snowpiercer will take us.
The premiere episode offers up some intriguing hints at where this series might go. In the extreme climate the characters find themselves — in more ways than one — life on Snowpiercer really may be a zero-sum game even if, as stated in the first episode, 130 cars are devoted to agriculture.
Science Fiction is at its best when it holds a lens up to humanity, when it puts us on trial to determine if we can ever truly evolve beyond our tribalism or if we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
As long as the writers continue to explore the human experience with timeless themes like immigration and class warfare, I’m confident Snowpiercer won’t go off the rails anytime soon.
Snowpiercer premieres May 17th on TNT.