When I first watched Bong Joon-Ho’s excellent 2013 film Snowpiercer, I thought many things: I thought it a shame that the film’s release had been so bungled as to deprive it of a much bigger audience; I thought it a certainty that it was only a matter of time before Bong had a real breakthrough hit; and I thought it a necessity that more films should feature Tilda Swinton delivering sinister speeches in a bizarre Northern accent.
I must confess, however, that at no point while watching did I think the film would particularly benefit from being stretched out into a 10-episode TV series with a new cast and storyline. Clearly, though, TV producers disagreed – and so we now have a new series, which takes inspiration from both Bong’s film and the original French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, on which that film was based.
The series has had something of a complicated production history, with several different names (including Doctor Strange filmmaker Scott Derrickson) having been attached to write and direct at various points in its long development, and so the show is arriving significantly later than had once been planned. So is it worth the wait? Well, unfortunately it’s hard to answer that with anything even approaching a resounding yes.
It should be pointed out that this is not a direct adaptation, a reboot rather than a remake. While the basic premise, setting, and themes – that of a huge train carrying the last remaining survivors of a climate catastrophe around a permanently frozen Earth – are the same, the characters and plot threads are altered.
In the first few episodes, we are introduced to Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a stoic passenger living in the ‘tail’ section of the train – where we learn that the inhabitants have sometimes been reduced to cannibalism as a consequence of the train’s rigid class structure and the vast inequality inherent in that system. Layton is asked by those in the more privileged sections to use his apparently impressive detective skills to help solve a mystery further up the train – a proposition which he is hardly in a position to refuse.
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Now, the premise of a murder mystery aboard a train has often proven fertile ground for great storytelling – just ask Agatha Christine or Alfred Hitchcock – but here it feels a little contrived. It comes across merely as a quick way of forcing Layton into the train’s more affluent compartments and setting up the action to follow in the second half of the series, rather than interesting plotting in its own right.
It makes sense that the series’ plot would differ – and indeed expand on – that of the film, but I’m just not entirely convinced that the narrative path the adaptation has chosen to go down does the story any favours. The film focused on a group of tail passengers leading a revolt as they slowly made their way through the train’s different sections, affording the story a sense of forward momentum that allowed for a constantly captivating watch. But in seeing characters jump around the different sections from the start of the series, much of that momentum is lost – and the structure of the whole thing ends up coming across a bit muddled.
This lack of focus isn’t helped by the truly mammoth cast of characters and competing plot threads we are introduced to in the opening episodes – with upwards of 10 major players making themselves known in the early proceedings. Having a big ensemble isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but by dumping all these characters on us from the get go, the result is that many of them are underdeveloped, and it’s consequently difficult to care too much about many of their fates.
At least the performances are, for the most part, decent – with Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connolly impressing in the lead roles. But their job is made all the more difficult by a script which regularly saddles them with uninspiring and often clunky dialogue. None of the characters speak in a manner resembling real human beings, falling foul of the sort of post-apocalyptic dialogue that sees them earnestly use nonsensical words such as “tailie” and speak in a brooding, this-is-very-serious manner at all times. Such dialogue is clearly meant to place us firmly in the world of the characters, but instead it just makes it difficult to engage – it’s all just so unnatural.
The fundamental problem is that the series simply isn’t enough fun. Bong’s film, although gritty in places, had a sort of gleefully bonkers aspect to it which made it a constant thrill, but any attempts to recapture this energy in the series seem overwrought; it’s simply missing the magic spark which so markedly characterised the movie.
That’s not to say the series is entirely without saving graces – the set design is frequently a feast for the eyes and the themes of inequality are obviously admirable. But even when it comes to the things that the show gets right, it’s difficult to pinpoint anything it does that really builds on the film which came before it.
Perhaps it’s a little unfair to compare the two directly – and maybe if judged simply on its own merits the series is a little better than I’m giving it credit for. But when adapting source material that’s so recent, it’s impossible to avoid those comparisons. And so it seems that the show’s best quality is that it might give viewers renewed incentive to seek out Bong’s still somewhat overlooked film – because the series just can’t quite live up to it.
The first two episodes of Snowpiercer are airing on Netflix from Monday 25th May, with a new episode each week thereafter. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.