Ever since the series has been announced, it has almost felt like a pall has been cast over TNT’s SNOWPIERCER. Stuck in development hell, many of us wondered if it would see the light of day. The production has experienced showrunner switch-ups to pilot reshoots and complete re-writes to complete indecision regarding which network was actually going to air the series. Now, as the premiere date of the new series rapidly approaches, the question that is probably on everyone’s minds is whether or not the wait has been worth it. I’d say the series is most definitely worth it even if the subject matter hits a little too close to home given the state of the world. As a general disclaimer, this is a spoiler-free review.
Look. I’ll come out and say that this series has a lot to live up to. Bong Joon-Ho’s adaptation lives long in the memories of many, with the fast-paced action and the storyline being positively critiqued back in 2014. While many will argue that the series is unnecessary, I’d say they are wrong. Showrunner Graeme Manson has built a series that pays homage to the original graphic novel and Bong’s adaptation. However, while paying homage, he also manages to create a series that offers up plenty of surprises, building upon the world that has been pre-established, and introducing believably complicated characters that will make the audience feel all sorts of emotions. That’s saying a lot considering how many characters the audience will be introduced to throughout the course of the series. And, while the inclusion of such a large ensemble serves to be a bit of an overwhelming detriment in the first couple of episodes, the characters build and establish themselves to a point where we’ll know each and every single person by the season’s end.
One way in which the series excels is in its world-building. As someone who didn’t have much knowledge surrounding SNOWPIERCER prior to this, the first episode easily sets up the premise for viewers unfamiliar with the property. It’s been seven years since a Snowball Earth effect turned the entire planet into a frozen, desolate wasteland. The only hope that anyone was aware of was the train with a non-stop engine titled SNOWPIERCER. As we learn quickly in the pilot, there are different class systems based on who acquired a ticket prior to departure and who did not. This easily lends itself into how characters interact with one another and why things onboard the train are so tense. Class tensions coupled with the many secrets onboard the ship heighten the stakes and quickly make the case for why the viewer should buy what they are being sold onscreen. As the series progresses, we get to sink deeper into the layers of the world, while also experiencing the rapidly building tension among all of the classes. While Bong’s adaptation showcased a similar version of this build-up, I do think that the series benefits from being able to build upon the layers each episode so that it does not become entirely overwhelming.
Another element of the world-building that I cannot neglect to mention is how dangerous the outside world is. The train was built to withstand the temperatures outside in a subzero world. And, while that could easily have been an element that continued to remain a backdrop, the writers utilize it within the plot itself to up the stakes for all the characters in the world. While living on the train is a whole world within itself, especially with how differently the class sections are portrayed onscreen, the reality is that there is so much more than the train. At any moment, something can happen and all can be lost. These frequent reminders throughout the course of SNOWPIERCER serve to further enforce the world-building elements that truly serve as the strongest point in the series.
This world-building extended into the set design of the train, which I thought was completely on point. While we know that there are separate classes onboard the train, in order for the audience to truly understand the difference, the set design needed to accommodate that. The design of the tail end of the train made it clear that those considered as stowaways would be treated as such. This is reflected in the darkly lit cars the tail-end occupied. Through the usage of color and narrowing in the hallways of the cars, you could tell that conditions are bleak, cold, and non-hygienic. This makes the decadence and brightness of the first-class feel markedly brighter and cruel in comparison. While they get fresh meat and desserts with fancy silverware, the tail-end is fed blocks of gelatinous much. The second class isn’t illuminated as much, though it is demonstrated that there are significant privileges provided for the second class. The third class is essentially reflective of the working class. It’s not the cleanest, but there is almost like a Moulin Rouge feel to it all, especially once the audience is introduced to the Night Club located in third class. Without this differentiation in design between classes on the train, I’m not certain the class divide would have been conveyed significantly enough for the viewer. So, kudos for the art direction and the design!
However, a series cannot subsist on the world-building alone and that’s where the performances come into play. While the focus in the trailers has been on Daveed Diggs (“Blackish”) and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), I would say that it is in the collective performative strength of the ensemble that helps give this series some heavy weight behind it. This is not to dismiss Diggs or Connelly as they both stand out in their roles but, given how intimate of a setting SNOWPIERCER is and how heavily intertwined each person’s life is onboard the train, having a weak ensemble would have made it much difficult to invest in the slower early episodes of the season. And, as the series progresses if viewers had continued on, the emotional punches that are designed to hit the viewer wouldn’t have hit as hard. Notable standouts were Sheila Vand (The Rental), Alison Wright (“The Americans”), Itto Goldberg (“Salem”), and Mickey Sumner (Marriage Story). No, the performances delivered by the ensemble cast will slip deep under our skin. Even more so, with certain characters, we will find ourselves thinking of people out there in the world now that we just want to smack some sense into. I’d explain further, but that would get into spoiler territory.
With all of that said, I do need to point out the performances of Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly as they both do a fair amount of heavy lifting in the series. Diggs’ Andre Layton is earnest and idealistic while Connelly’s Melanie Cavill is cool and pragmatic. Both serve as a foil to one another but, as the series continues on, we understand that they are more alike than they’d expect. While at times it did feel like Diggs’ was over-acting in certain scenes, the bulk of his performance lent itself to the character’s overall more positive, idealistic nature. I also have to acknowledge that the more idealistic character might have appeared more overt because, in comparison to other characters that permeate the world of SNOWPIERCER, Andre Layton stood out. Moving onto Melanie Cavill, she may be one of the most complex and – maybe- polarizing characters I’ve seen in a while. Due in part to the more subtle performance from Jennifer Connelly and how the character has been written, it is hard not to want to root for Melanie’s success as the series continues. I have to attribute that want entirely because of Connelly’s performance.
Overall, I think TNT’s SNOWPIERCER is a fair adaptation of the original graphic novel and the film we all know. While some may still argue it’s unnecessary, the series can stand up on its own. The worldbuilding conveyed through both writing and set design, the performances and characters developed for the show, and the writing really helps to create something memorable, relevant, and exciting for the viewer. While the issues of systemic class imbalances may hit harder given the state of things right now in the world, I do think people should give this a shot. And to further deliver the point home, I’ll admit that by the time I was done with the final episode, I did want more. I’m curious to see where the second season would take us.
SNOWPIERCER will premiere on TNT on Sunday, May 17 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.