Snowpiercer Review Analysis – Why the TNT Show Fails the Class Criticism of Bong Joon-Ho’s Movie

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Snowpiercer Review Analysis – Why the TNT Show Fails the Class Criticism of Bong Joon-Ho’s Movie

Class conflict has been a guiding preoccupation of dystopian and post-apocalyptic sci-fi cinema since the moment industrialist scion Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) descended into society’s lower depths to find a machine devouring its working-class operators in Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis. The struggle between the wealthy elite and the exploited masses has long functioned as a central dramatic tension for the genre, employed again and again to provide a pressing and relevant edge to fanciful visions of the future. Be it the food-related paranoia of Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green, the consumer-ish nightmare of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the totalitarian terror of Michael Radford’s 1984, the Reagan-era critique of John Carpenter’s They Live, or their modern kindred spirits – think everything from The Hunger Games to The Purge to Elysium, to name simply a few – movies have regularly looked ahead and seen strife born from the disparity between those who rule the means of production and those who toil at their mercy. It’s a David-vs-Goliath dynamic that, regardless of the era, never gets old.

Of the many recent efforts to till this class-conscious soil, few boast a pedigree quite as illustrious as 2013’s Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of future Oscar-winner Bong Joon-Ho, with a cast led by Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Ed Harris and Bong’s favorite leading man, Song Kang-ho. Adapted from a 1982 French graphic novel, Bong’s film concerns an Earth frozen to its core, the result of failed efforts to combat global warming. In response to this apocalyptic cataclysm, humanity’s last survivors have boarded a high-tech train that can only sustain itself (and its passengers) by remaining in perpetual motion, speeding across the globe in an endless cycle. Aboard this vessel, society has been separated into different classes, with the rich and powerful residing in the head cars, and the poor and marginalized living in squalor in the tail. Systems of segregation don’t come much more literal than this, and rebellion, organized by Evans’ reluctant hero, eventually erupts.

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Bong embellishes this tale with a raft of stylish flourishes: a brutal axe-centric centerpiece skirmish; the memorably grotesque origins of the tail’s buggy food supply; unnervingly cheery, propagandistic elementary-school lessons. Yet for all of its thrilling momentum, Snowpiercer’s course, and message, is one-note: the masters of industry are villainous and cruel; the working class are just and kind; and their revolt—from the back of the train to the front, a streamlined metaphor for social movement—is inherently noble. There’s scant nuance to Bong’s propulsive film, only a simplistic sci-fi fantasy about the oppressed striking back against their oppressors. Thus, news that a television adaptation was in the works evoked both excitement over the prospect of having the film’s premise expanded in multifaceted ways, and fear that—should that not occur—its conceit might be merely distended to monotonous lengths.

It’s the latter, unfortunately, which has come to pass. Premiering this Sunday night (May 17) following three-plus years of development delays due to clashes between the network and producers, TNT’s Snowpiercer speeds into action, delivering all of the ham-fisted social commentary its story promised, and very little of the complexity or originality it required.

Set seven years after Earth was transformed into a subzero wasteland, Snowpiercer doesn’t deviate mightily from its predecessors’ basic structure. Taking place exclusively aboard the train, which each pre-credit sequence reminds us runs 1,001 cars long, the show pivots around two diametrically opposed main characters. In the tail, gruff Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) foments insurrection. In the front, head of hospitality Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), broadcasting daily loudspeaker messages, serves as the right-hand woman to the train’s mythic (and never seen) architect Mr. Wilford, keeping the human race on its circular track while maintaining the status quo. Layton is perpetually dirty, and Cavill is prim, meticulous and rigid, her angular blue suits matching Connelly’s sharp features to heighten her sense of efficient, no-nonsense ruthlessness. Such dichotomies are also found throughout the vehicle, with the tail depicted as a filthy bunkbed-stacked refugee camp—which it is; the “tailies” forced their way onto Snowpiercer without tickets, to avoid certain death—and first class portrayed as a collection of swanky dining rooms and luxury abodes.

Snowpiercer’s initial twist is that, before this powder keg can explode, Layton—who, back in day, worked as a homicide detective—is unexpectedly commissioned by Cavill to solve the murder of a man whose extremities (including the one between his legs) were severed. Since this isn’t the first such crime aboard the train, a serial killer is thought to lurk among the passengers. For Layton, though, this assignment is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally venture beyond the tail and see how the other half lives—and to carry out clandestine reconnaissance for his eventual war. By marrying its high-vs-low class concerns to a gumshoe narrative, the show attempts to follow in the footsteps of Ridley Scott’s infinitely superior Blade Runner. The problem, however, is that it barely cares about this investigative angle; Layton’s sleuthing is perfunctory at best, and complemented by incessant bickering with superiors about access. You won’t be surprised to learn that the victim’s fate is related to Cavill’s secrets, since everything ultimately leads back to the wickedness of the powers-that-be. But you’ll be astonished by how lackluster this mystery turns out to be, not to mention how hastily it’s dropped less than midway through the ten-episode first season.

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The dutiful business of building toward revolution is all that Snowpiercer really cares about, and it does so in a manner that negates any doubts about who’s right and who’s wrong. No matter Layton’s involvement in dealing with cannibalistic fellow tailies, he’s an unimpeachable freedom fighter. And despite empathetic scenes of her cavorting with engineer Ben (Iddo Goldberg), and lounging around her modest quarters in an MIT sweatshirt and Yale baseball cap, Cavill is a monster—as is her second-in-command, the fur-wearing, condescendingly sneering Ruth (Alison Wright). Sure, some characters eventually turn over a new leaf and switch allegiances, or reveal their ugly true natures. Yet such flip-flopping doesn’t alter the series’ fundamental, one-dimensional moral paradigm. The downtrodden are good and decent and deserve equality, and the affluent—epitomized by cartoonish snobs Lilah (Kerry O’Malley) and Robert Folger (Vincent Gale), and their even more cunning and amoral daughter LJ (Annalise Basso)—are the root of all evil.

“So it’s not that complicated—haves and have-nots,” says Layton’s surrogate son Miles (Jaylin Fletcher) in episode eight, thereby summing up the entire affair in fittingly graceless fashion. For all of its twists and turns, including revelations about the chemically induced sleep “drawers” utilized by Cavill, Snowpiercer has nothing novel to say about class. That lack of sophistication is compounded by plotting that often skims over important information and hurriedly handles key developments, leaving the proceedings feeling slapdash. A constant stream of clichéd storylines doesn’t help matters, nor does production design that fails to build upon Bong’s film. The aquarium passageway, sushi bar and diner cars, and third-class marketplace and after-hours Night Car club (overseen by Lena Hall’s sultry Audrey) all look polished but unimaginative. And the fact that some of these compartments are no more than ten feet high, while others feature multiple levels—all as exterior shots of Snowpiercer prove that each cabin is uniform in size—do much to raise nagging, unanswered questions about the literal structure of this setting.

Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly in Snowpiercer.

Justina Mintz

Through this all, Connelly shines, her steely imperiousness lending the action a chill to match the freezing weather outside, even as she colors Cavill—an authoritarian convinced that the means justify the ends—in as many shades of grey as the two-toned material will allow. It’s not hard to see her The Wizard of Oz-esque bombshell coming from a mile away, but Connelly nonetheless sells it, and its fallout, superbly, which is more than can be said for Diggs. The Hamilton alum has approximately two gears here, righteous fury and righteousier fury, and his lack of subtlety is calamitous for Snowpiercer, burdened as it already is with cornball melodrama seen a thousand times before, in far better sci-fi affairs. To some extent, he’s a casualty of scripts that always veer toward the predictable and preachy. But even so, Diggs’s lack of charisma is a routine problem that grows more pronounced as the show barrels toward its (pretty decent) cliffhanger conclusion.

In its focus on disparate people trapped inside confined quarters, coping with disconnection, and fearful of infection, Snowpiercer proves an unintentionally timely saga about individual and societal collapse, and the difficult process of persevering in the face of unimaginable hardship. Those parallels to our present moment, however, are as fleeting and insubstantial as its politics are thin and rudimentary. Like its characters, the show is only capable of proceeding along a straight and narrow line, and it doesn’t take long for that trajectory to become as tedious as the many rote mini-dilemmas playing out inside the train. A few promising late-season developments notwithstanding, the end result is a wearisome portrait of life at the end of the world.

Nick Schager is a NYC-area film critic and culture writer with twenty years of professional experience writing about all the movies you love, and countless others that you don’t. 

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