The Snowpiercer TV series knew that it would never be able to match up to Bong Joon Ho’s 2013 film, and to be fair, the show embraces this certainty. It’s almost the opposite of Watchmen in that way. Remember how a lot of comic book fans felt, at best, ambivalent about the HBO series (because Zack Snyder made such an underwhelming flick) before it landed as a successful reimagining? Whereas Snowpiercer is rebooting a masterpiece, and that’s also tough stuff. Comparisons are inevitable, but the notoriety of the movie (and the source material, Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s graphic novels) will bring viewers into the fold. Yet the show pushes hard to be something almost entirely different than the film, which pulled off a deeply dark parable with an absolutely frigid take on class warfare and social uprisings. Starring an unusually gritty Chris Evans and a deliciously bonkers Tilda Swinton, the film also threw down (as I wrote in our Best Films Of Last Decade list) a fiercely confident and savage mating dance between an action dream and an art-house hard-on, one that still chills to the bone.
Bong Joon Ho’s now gained even more respect with the multi-Oscar-winning Parasite, currently one of Hulu’s most-watched titles. If those viewers hadn’t watched yet Snowpiercer, they sure as hell have done so by now and are familiar with a story that’s so compelling that the “babies taste best” line couldn’t ruin the vibe. Expectations must be managed, though, for there’s only a superficial resemblance between and movie and TV show. Yes, TNT’s series is still set in the same place: a post-apocalyptic, globe-circling train, which can never stop and contains the last survivors of humanity. Almost everything else is tweaked, other than the same basic class structure (wealthy, ticketed passengers enjoy opulent luxury near the front, whereas “The Tail” occupants began as stowaways) and the talk of a mysterious benefactor, Mr. Wilford. Within his almost mythic feat of engineering, rules must be followed, lest one lose a limb or two.
Speaking of appendages, this show’s first season (it’s already renewed for a second one) never finds solid footing, although it’s plenty entertaining.
Look, reboots happen, but should one reboot a masterpiece? It’s a dilemma and a valid question on whether this series can justify its own existence after fighting to do so for many years. This Snowpiercer, while striving to be different, doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be. At first, the series adopts a Law and Order-esque, procedural framing that later evaporates into campiness that doesn’t quite reach the level of the movie’s schlocky thrills. It does tackle power structures and questions why humans choose what leaders to worship, but the show doesn’t go broadly philosophical like the movie. And things get kinda saucy when people fall into train-sex mode with former lovers and new ones. It’s kinky and strange! And soap-operatic. At least it’s not dull.
Running this version of Snowpiercer would be Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly, doing the ice-queen thing), chief of hospitality and messenger for Mr. Wilford. Melanie is carved from stone but capable of great cruelty and brutality. Her adherence to order is threatened by a murder mystery, and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs of Hamilton) gets pulled out of The Tail because someone up in third class remembered that he used to be a homicide detective. Can he abandon his people and pledge allegiance to Wilford? It’s a question that’s posed oafishly when Andre gets to eat a grilled cheese sandwich for the first time since the apocalypse. The scene is overplayed, almost sensually, like so many others in this season, as a contrast to the very clinical feel of Melanie’s hopes for how this train should operate. It sounds f*cking weird for me to single out a grilled cheese sandwich scene, but that’s when I (first) sensed that this show was going to overdo things for the sake of overdoing them.
It’s almost so intentionally clumsy that I have to admire all of it. My gut feeling is that much of the show’s jam-packed feel (although in a literal sense, the TV series sets feel far less claustrophobic than the movie did) means to overcompensate for the absence of Tilda’s Mason character and her enormous, scenery-chewing chompers. Of course, Mason did not exist in the graphic novel, so I can accept that she doesn’t exist in the show’s take on the story (even though she should be on the train, since it takes place 7 years after the extinction event, as opposed to the movie’s 15 years), but the show feels like it’s tossing in wacky sh*t to make up for Mason’s omission. It can’t pretend to be hiding Mason somewhere in a corner, but the character’s spirit haunts the TV show in an incomplete way. Blame Bong Joon Ho for putting such an indelible stamp on this franchise, right? One can’t forget the genius of the movie after witnessing it.
Still, I do think it’s possible for the TV series to find a forgiving audience. As I said earlier, the show quickly dispenses with the procedural framing, and Diggs’ Andre later starts striving toward mutiny. That’s where we’d expect a Snowpiercer show to go, and hopefully to thrilling places in the process, but the show is too confused about its own identify and kind-of disorganized, even while attempting the opposite effect. Multiple framing devices exist, including how each episode begins with a different character monologuing about their life on the train, but the show still can’t wrap its arms around a bigger picture. Again, this reboot isn’t bad at all. It’s fine, but man, this train’s fighting an uphill battle for acceptance. It slip-slides all over the ice while simultaneously attempting to live up to and dodge expectations laid down by Bong Joon Ho’s work of art. That takes guts, so perhaps this less-artsy-train-that-could can grip the tracks and find a fanbase of its own.
TNT’s ‘Snowpiercer’ premieres on Sunday, May 17th at 9:00pm EST.