The original Snowpiercer film, directed by Bong Joon Ho before Parasite made him a global superstar, is an intriguing allegorical sci-fi in which the remaining inhabitants of a frozen Earth endlessly circle the planet on a giant train. At the front, in first class, passengers are pampered with sushi and chamber music, while at the back a forgotten underclass subsist on lumps of mysterious black jelly. The plot is a simple but effective story of revolution, starring Chris Evans as the sans-culotte in chief and Ed Harris as the mysterious Mr Wilford, the creator of the engine.
For the Netflix adaptation, whose second series launches today, the Evans role was taken on by Daveed Diggs as Andre Layton, a former detective, with Jennifer Connelly playing Melanie Cavill, the train’s inscrutable “head of hospitality” and notionally Mr Wilford’s representative. The first series expanded on the film’s story to include romantic and sleuth subplots, but broadly stuck to the same arc. The problem that loomed down the line in an era of TV that tends to rumble on is that there are only so many places for a train to go. In Snowpiercer, the geography is doubly limited, because it’s is too cold for humans to stay outside except in special suits.
At the start of the second season the problem has been sidestepped by the arrival of another train, Big Alice (Seriously, what is it with the name Alice? Come on.), which has latched onto Snowpiercer and taken control. At its helm, Mr Wilford himself, played by Sean Bean as a grumpy tycoon in a velvet smoking jacket who enjoys baths and David Bowie. Melanie left him for dead at the “boarding”, seven years beforehand, so he has a bone to pick when she sneaks aboard Big Alice to demand Snowpiercer’s release. She thinks he has no bargaining chips left, but she has reckoned without her daughter, Alex (Rowan Blanchard), still being alive.
Back on the main train, Layton’s ex-wife Zarah (Sheila Vand) is pregnant, which entitles her to first-class privileges. Given the state of emergency, Layton is forced to put the fledgling democracy he has established on hold, making himself a Roman-style dictator until the enemy is defeated – a move you can’t imagine will go down well with the masses.
Snowpiercer the series trades the satirical spice of the film for a more fully realised world, and anyone who has stuck with it this far will relish the details of the train’s operation and its inhabitants, who range from the level-headed, like Diggs, to the full-blown lunatic, as with a couple of doctors who appear to treat Melanie’s frostbitten shoulder.
Alongside Diggs and Connelly, there are enjoyable performances from Mickey Sumner, as a good-hearted member of the train’s de facto police force, and Alison Wright as Ruth Wardell, the officious deputy head of hospitality. Despite this competent ensemble, the opening episode rests heavily on Bean’s arrival, and – quite aside from the typically fraught issue of whether his character will survive – it’s not entirely clear how Snowpiercer will maintain our interest without a descent into family soap. When there’s only one train in town, everyone’s lives depend on keeping it going. It might be a clear environmental message, but it’s not necessarily conducive to drama.
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