It is sort of like a dystopian Jules Verne yarn, wherein the last dregs of humanity survive the apocalypse in a train perpetually circling the earth, managed by Wilford Industries. The corporation has saved humanity, but of course they are the bad guys. That was conspicuously and gratingly so in Bong Joon-ho’s criminally over-rated film. However, there is a lot more nuance and dramatically richer characterization in the first fresh-start, blank-slate season of the TV adaption of Snowpiercer, which premieres this Sunday on TNT.
Global warming panic lead scientists to develop a planetary cooling scheme that worked too well. Now the planet is an ice ball and most life is dead. Fortunately, Wilford Industries produced Snowpiercer, a train one thousand and one cars long that must remain in constant motion to beat the freeze. Melanie Cavill is the public face of the Wilford company. It is her soothing voice that makes the PA announcements, but she also serves as Mr. Wilford’s direct lieutenant when it comes to maintaining order.
Andre Layton is the leader of the opposition. As a “Tailie,” he was not even supposed to be on Snowpiercer, but he and his fellow proles forced their way into the tail-section before the train left Chicago. Now they live off scraps and resentment, which often ignites battles with the “Brakemen,” Snowpiercer’s axe-wielding cops (guns pose a risk of rupturing the train’s environmental seals). Layton is definitely a fist-raising revolutionary, but he was also a homicide detective during his previous life, so Cavill is forced to send for him when a murder is committed up train. Of course, his investigation will uncover more of the train’s dirty secrets than Cavill imagined.
The Snowpiercer series is drastically different from the movie—and each and every change is for the better. Showrunner Graeme Manson deserves a great deal of credit for ditching the crude caricatures and in-your-face class warfare didacticism that made the film so abrasive. This time around, there really are two sides to the story, order versus equality. That in turn gives rise to real drama.
At the center of it all is Cavill, who is an endlessly intriguing and ultimately acutely human character. Thanks to Jennifer Connelly’s extraordinary portrayal, we come to understand the compromises she made and how each agonizing choice inevitably leads to another. Honestly, this could be the best genre television performance of the year.
Daveed Diggs also covers a lot of emotional terrain, humanizing Layton far beyond a stick-figure proletarian rebel. He is at his best fencing with either Connelly’s Cavill or Sheila Vand as Layton’s former fiancé, Zarah Ferami, who betrayed her class by accepting a new life working in a third-class nightclub. Like Cavill, Ferami is a complicated character, who must live with the consequences of her decisions every day.
Mickey Summer, Mike O’Malley, Susan Park, and Lena Hall all add a great deal of dimension and messily believable humanity to the mix as Till (the sympathetic Brakeman), Roche (her gruff but decent commander), Jinju Seong (Cavill’s botanist confidant), and Miss Audrey (Zerami’s torch-singing boss). Probably only the eye-rolling entitled Folger family (and 1st class trouble-makers) would be at home in Bong’s film.