Snowpiercer Review: An Earnest, Electrifying, and Timely Dystopia

After years in the works and multiple network changes, the TV version of Snowpiercer is finally set to arrive later this month. The TNT series is just the latest medium used to tell Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette's story, which was first brought to life in the 1986 graphic novel Le Transperceneige, before being adapted into an excellent film by Bong Joon-ho. Almost since its inception, the Snowpiercer series has been shouldered with comparisons to those earlier iterations, but it soon manages to become something all its own. The first season of Snowpiercer is ambitious, entertaining, and incredibly compelling, and wears its heart on its sleeve in a way that could not be more relevant right now.

In the world of Snowpiercer, humanity's attempts to curb global warming cause a catastrophic ice age, which lead the elite to survive the apocalypse on the titular gigantic, perpetually moving train. Just before the train's departure, a legion of ordinary people fights their way on board, only to quickly be banished to the tail of the train with limited resources. Now, seven years into the train's voyage, a class system has emerged among the remaining members of humanity, which is shaken up by a bizarre and unexpected murder. Snowpiercer executive Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) recruits Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a former cop who has become the de-facto leader of the "Tailies," into the investigation, and what they both find completely changes the train's society as they know it.

Yes, the Snowpiercer series is equally a profound rumination on social inequality and a police procedural, and it honestly manages to be effective at both. Not only does that broadening in concept help sustain the story in a week-to-week television format, but it provides a clever way of introducing viewers to different parts of the train. While the Snowpiercer movie saw moving to the front of the train as a trippy and mysterious rabbit hole, the TV series makes the train feel more like an actual lived-in society. The show then uses that society to draw some major parallels to our own, with the first season tackling class warfare, allyship, code-switching, immigration, women's reproductive rights, and the symbol of a white man in power. Some of those topics are handled in a much more nuanced way than others (the phrase "eat the rich" is unironically said multiple times), but there's still a sincerity behind it all that helps it steer away from becoming an after-school special.

A lot of this is also thanks to the narrative choice to set Snowpiercer only a few years after the freeze, as opposed to the movie taking place decades afterward. Not only does it provide an interesting take on how people's old lives and professions transitioned through the apocalypse, but it bakes in a very earnest sense of hope and optimism. It's clear that many within Snowpiercer are mourning the world that no longer exists, while also hoping that their "new normal" can be rebuilt into something greater and ideologically better. In a way, the years of development hell are a blessing in disguise for Snowpiercer, as that message almost could not be more fitting than it is right now. While filming on the series began as early as 2017, there are some profound and eerie parallels to the current COVID-19 pandemic, but in a way that never gets uncomfortable to watch.

From an acting standpoint, the ensemble cast of Snowpiercer fluctuates a little bit, but grows more captivating as the season goes along, although I'll just warn you now, no one is even as remotely weird as Tilda Swinton's character in the film adaptation. Diggs is outstanding as Layton, serving as both an authentic audience proxy and a presence in nearly any situation. Having a black man at the center of the series — and its growing revolution — allows the central conflict to take such a deeper meaning, while also reflecting the ways that disenfranchised people are used for white people's gain. As the co-lead, Connelly's Melanie is compelling in a way that is subtly genius, and will probably provoke discourse and political parallels as audiences watch the series. While her character could easily serve as a sort of patron saint for white feminism, her nuances and flaws are peeled back in a fascinating way as the season goes along.

Outside of Diggs and Connelly, other standouts from season one are Pike (Steven Ogg), a criminal who is part of Landon's resistance, Ruth (Alison Wright), a highly strung and fiercely loyal coworker of Melanie's, LJ (Annalise Basso), a wealthy teenage girl who shouldn't be underestimated, and Bess (Mickey Sumner), Landon's reluctant buddy-cop partner. With Orphan Black's Graeme Manson serving as showrunner, it's unsurprising that the female characters and their relationships (both platonic and romantic) are such a prominent part of the series, and it's clear that there's room to grow as the series goes forward.

From a technical standpoint, Snowpiercer definitely captures the aesthetic established in the film, albeit in a largely less-surreal way. The set designs and costumes are an authentic blend of grounded and avant-garde, again contributing to the feeling that the train is truly lived-in. The cinematography also actively helps the series feel less claustrophobic than it could be, which is a blessing for those who are hoping to spend 10 hours with the series.

Is Snowpiercer a perfect show? Not necessarily, but it's the kind of show that knows what it wants to accomplish and does so in an admirable and entertaining way. The first season weaves a narrative that honors its source material, while also subverting expectations in a way that could sustain itself for multiple seasons (luckily, production has already begun on its second). In the process, the series uses its concept, talented cast, and social allegory to tell a story that feels unbelievably fitting for our current moment. It will be interesting to see how Snowpiercer is received within our current pandemic, as well as where the series ultimately goes from here.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Snowpiercer premieres Friday, May 17th at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.

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