TNT‘s Snowpiercer is a very different examination of the original graphic novel’s premise than the 2013 film, and it mainly melds a crime story into the already chaotic world of civilization being reduced to a 1,001-car train that never stops.
In this incarnation, as the world enters a man-made ice age that is going to destroy all life on the planet, a super train was created which will endlessly travel the globe, keeping its residents safe. But, as this train was about to depart, a group stormed the train and managed to take over the tail. It’s approximately seven years later, and the train is divided into a strict class system, but those in the tail are barely kept alive. As we enter the show, one man from the tail, Andre (Daveed Diggs) is brought to the front because he’s the only person with pre-train experience as a detective, and someone from the front has been murdered.
With the extended format, the series has a chance to dive deeper into some aspects of the overall story, even though it is taking things in a very different direction. It is, in every incarnation, a story that takes the “sub” out of “subtext,” and leaves nothing to the imagination when it comes to its take on the upper echelons of social structure. But, this go round with the ultra-claustrophobic world focuses as much on the simple lack of information that plagues the efforts of the downtrodden, while also looking more specifically at the inherent flaws in truly having nothing to do when you’re rich.
As Andre is taken toward the front of the train to investigate, he has a lot of agendas in play, including figuring out how to get information about the rest of the train to those in the tail, because though they have fought to move forward over the years, they actually have no idea what’s there.
Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), the voice of the train and head of “hospitality,” is the one hoping to maneuver Andre into getting her a result in this investigation, but we quickly learn that she has to juggle more than any one person could be expected to manage, especially once we get to the third episode.
The combination of setting and crime story makes for a unique set of difficulties, and more than simply acknowledging them, or delivering a passing nod, Snowpiercer uses them as the jumping-off points to really explore the system, find its flaws, and open the door to learning that perhaps something is rather wrong with this “perfect” train. Having a murderer on the loose, when there’s nowhere to go, is its own tension burn, but when your best chance at solving the problem is from a separated class that everyone considers scum, and most people want to just to kill off, it’s hard to get an investigation going.
In previous versions, the struggle and battle were really the driving elements of the story, as the “tailers” fought for a place on the train (and didn’t come to be there in the same way). That didn’t give the chance to wander the cars and become involved in the lives of the various classes, including those in, for example, third class, who also have ideas about moving up in the world. The elites get a chance to enter the stage to a far greater degree as well, and now that it is seven or so years after departure, the nature of their place in the system has a chance to at least be wondered about. They are who they are, on the train, because they invested massive amounts of money for its construction, but what does that, or the money they don’t actually have now, really mean anymore?
While our train story serves its purpose well when it comes to its straightforward social commentary, and the layers of lies and half-truths peeled away by trying to find a murderer keep you on the edge of your seat, it is best when it is simply a slow-burn reveal that the social structure is running out of steam. The film managed a quick beat on this in that one’s planned hierarchy only lasts as long as the bullets, but this one works the angle more sharply by examining the people. “Guards” who aren’t so sure what they’re guarding anymore. Infinitely extended exposure to too many people and problems eroding the “sense” behind the last people on Earth dividing themselves.
As that effort trickles out, the show becomes an utterly engrossing piece of storytelling. More importantly, the show is daring enough to switch gears repeatedly, kicking he chair out from under audiences who think they have a handle on what story they’re actually getting. That’s a risk, and slows things down occasionally, but it ultimately makes for another level of both examination and gripping entertainment.