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‘Snowpiercer’ review: Murder on the Polar Express

‘Snowpiercer’ review: Murder on the Polar Express

© Justina Mintz / TNT

The prolonged follow-up to Bong Joon-Ho’s sci-fi stunner streams on Netflix

MANILA, Philippines – The 92nd Academy Awards might have cemented Bong Joon-ho’s Hollywood legacy, but it was back in 2013 when the Korean auteur first rocked the western world with a little film called Snowpiercer.

Bong’s adaptation of French sci-fi graphic novel Le Transperceneige emerged the victor out of that year’s Korean co-productions outperforming Park Chan-wook’s Stoker and Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand. Aside from predicting Bong’s Oscar fate, Snowpiercer immediately opened borders, earning a serial adaptation with American network TNT. 

Much is already written about the trainwreck that followed, with original showrunner Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) swapping out for Graeme Manson (Orphan Black), but after years of putting Humpy Dumpty back together again, Snowpiercer is finally coming to Netflix on May 25.

The poor man’s Poirot

The Snowpiercer series supplements both the 2013 film and the original graphic novel, chronicling the voyage of an indomitable train carrying the last remnants of mankind through a frozen apocalypse. The microcosmic ark harbors its own dystopian order, from the ultra-wealthy first class to the scavengers in the rear, also known as “tailies.”

With its own original story, the series introduces a fresh cast of characters to the expanding lore. Hamilton star Daveed Diggs spiritually succeeds Chris Evans’s renegade taily while Jennifer Connelly offers a colder (and perhaps better) alternative to Tilda Swinton’s “voice of the train.”

Season one’s premise is simple: a high-profile murder leads to the unlikely appointment of the train’s only detective, taily rebel Andre Layton (Diggs). The show, however, stumbles recklessly into the mystery genre, exposing its biggest secret way too early. 

And while each opening’s signature monologue echoes Snowpiercer’s “1,001 cars long,” network television constraints ultimately reduce the ark-like juggernaut to the Orient Express. The bigger mystery is how characters traverse tail to first class without breaking a sweat, although it is -30 degrees outside.

Allegory over story

Despite its missteps, the show is a true offspring of Bong Joon-Ho’s vision, a parable of proletarian revolution. His colorfully rendered dystopia is exactly what show writers stood to inherit. For better or worse, it remained their greatest asset.

Profound in its world-building, the Snowpiercer franchise has always risked falling in love with its own reflection. The show itself is a primer into the political philosophies of Rousseau projecting the effects of monarchical, aristocratic and democratic dystopias all in one season.

In one of its more poetic moments, a former janitor relates the carefully stratified Snowpiercer to “a high-rise laying on its side.” 

It leads with symbolism, leaving story last. 

Minus Connelly as the elusive Melanie Cavill, Snowpiercer‘s otherwise two-dimensional passengers function more as organs than whole organisms within the grand scheme. In all seriousness, the real main character of Snowpiercer is the train itself. 

Such is the challenge with allegorical fiction as with George Orwell’s unadaptable Animal Farm, often better told in prose than on screen. We might have already seen Snowpiercer’s greatest potential realized in 2013 by Bong Joon-Ho. 

Burdened by branding

And now in 2020, it is that same name – plated in Oscar gold – that curses the show each time the credits roll. With the series’s long and troubled history, even fellow auteur Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) appears as one of many Executive Producers, perhaps only evidenced by a hammer-wielding fight scene later in the season.

Who knows if Josh Friedman’s original take could have improved this series. It is difficult to imagine that a family-friendly network like TNT would go the necessary lengths to execute Snowpiercer’s gritty demands.

This brings me to an even more poignant note on today’s programming. It is worth enforcing that Snowpiercer is not a Netflix Original, but Filipino viewers like ourselves would not be able to tell the difference.

For all we know, any thumbnail bearing the red “N” is written and produced by the same studio that brought us “peak TV” shows like The Crown, Master of None and Stranger Things. In a vastly changing landscape where lines blur between channels and platforms, Netflix must scramble to find its identity while competitors catch up.

Bong believers will probably skip Snowpiercer, with their eyes set on HBO’s more anticipated Parasite limited series. Perhaps with its latest offering, Netflix might have already missed the hype train.

The show gets off to a rough start, but the finale does promise an intriguing second season. If you’re willing to brave the storm, then buckle up. You’re in for a bumpy ride. –

Outside of Rappler, Pawi is an independent filmmaker and founder of Manila Movie Nights, a weekly film club hosted at Borough, Bonifacio Global City. As both a New York-trained cinephile and Marvel fanboy, Pawi promotes movies that overlap mainstream and arthouse circles in the hopes of cultivating a more inclusive film community.

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