Will Snowpiercer, Netflix's adaptation of 1982 French comic and Bong Joon-ho's 2013 film, go the distance?

Netflix's Snowpiercer comes amid headlines about how the super rich jetted off to disaster bunkers, private yachts and holiday homes to sequester themselves during the coronavirus crisis, while millions of others are barely getting by.

Rohini Nair May 29, 2020 09:32:03 IST
Will Snowpiercer, Netflix's adaptation of 1982 French comic and Bong Joon-ho's 2013 film, go the distance?

This post contains some spoilers for Netflix's Snowpiercer, episodes 1 and 2.

***

First, the weather changed.
The deniers knew why but they still doomed us with their lies.

Netflix's Snowpiercer series begins, as many dystopian stories do, with a brief explanation of the doomsday event/s that led to the post-apocalyptic world we see before us now. The lore in this case is the same as in the source material — the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (1982) and Bong Joon-ho's 2013 film Snowpiercer. An attempt to "fix" global warming backfires, freezing the earth's core. An "ark on rails" — a 1,001-carriage long train that continuously travels around the world, designed by an enigmatic engineering whiz known only as Mr Wilford, of Wilford Industries — carries earth's last remaining survivors on it.

The train isn't a benevolent ark though; it is a "fortress to class", its various coaches determining not only the relative degree of comfort the passengers travel in, but also what resources they have access to, what rights they can enjoy, and what quality of life they can hope to have. The front end, by the engine, is for the uber-rich; the tail end is steerage — for the everyman and woman who managed to fight their way onto the train as it set off on its journey. The necessity of maintaining order to ensure that the delicately balanced systems on the train continue to sustain life is a constant refrain; in reality, the accepted order is rigged to suit only the richest and most powerful.

Will Snowpiercer Netflixs adaptation of 1982 French comic and Bong Joonhos 2013 film go the distance

Still from Netflix's Snowpiercer

The opening sequence of episode 1 of Snowpiercer, the series, is a throwback to its big screen namesake. The "tailies" are clustered together, made to crouch low as the guards wheel in their rations for the day — a single protein slab each, made of some indeterminate opaque, gelatinous matter. One among them — Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) — isn't focused on the food itself though; he's meticulously timing how long the guards leave the carriage doors open while bringing it in. This information, like any bits of information that can be gleaned about the rest of the train and its functioning, will be carefully used by Layton and his comrades in planning their revolution.

Through snatches of conversation among the tailies, and the morning bulletin for the train by its "Head of Hospitality" Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), we learn a few more details about Snowpiercer's world: that it has been nearly seven years since the doomsday event that triggered the train's journey (which places the show ahead of the 2013 film's timeline, since the latter depicts the events that occur 17 years after the end of the world),;that the temperature outside the train is -119 degrees C; that the tail section launched a quickly suppressed revolution in Year Three.

The visual similarities to the film (right down to that punishment arm amputation scene) can be the merest bit disconcerting when you realise that — of course — a 10-episode, multi-season series isn't going to follow the same narrative arc. And so, it takes a moment to register the change of pace when the first episode shifts from depicting the rebellion fomenting among the tailies to Layton — a former homicide detective — being abruptly and forcibly deputed to solve a murder in the third class section of the train.

It is a particularly gruesome murder — the victim tortured and dismembered before being stuffed into a service chute. The modus operandi of the crime is the same as another committed a couple of years ago, for which a woman was apprehended, convicted and sentenced to the "drawers" (a morgue-like space where the condemned are suspended in a death-like state). Initially reluctant, a combination of circumstances compel Layton to take up the case.

This is no Murder on the Orient Express though. The investigation unfurls over episodes 1 and 2 even as the train navigates a particularly dodgy section of the tracks; catastrophe and extinction are always just a hair's breadth away. Moreover, as Layton discovers, the murder case is tied in with the train's seedy underbelly — one that Melanie Cavill will do anything to keep under wraps. Melanie's character marks a significant deviation from the 2013 film: While the name of Mr Wilford is invoked on sundry occasions in the Netflix series, it is Melanie in fact who runs the train — in charge of everything from its engineering issues, to maintaining law and order, signing off on the crop cycle rotation, and keeping the first class passengers happy. We see a brief glimpse of her life as it was in the outside world: she had a baby, was associated with MIT.

Just as the film chanelled some qualities of the graphic novel in its visuals, the Netflix series too creates a few striking moments: in one scene, as Melanie sits at the engine and monitors the tracks ahead, the light from the train's many windows cast glowing squares on the mounds of snow on both sides. In another, a disturbance on the tracks is reflected in the pattern of ripples in a teacup.

The Netflix series isn't as gritty as Bong Joon-ho's film, nor is it quite as outre. It does, however, create a few moving sequences of its own over these first two episodes: One in which an older and respected member of the tail celebrates his birthday by asking for some privacy in which to listen to Rachmaninoff, and another in which the tailies prepare to rush the guards' chamber, make a favourable impression.

Netflix's Snowpiercer comes amid headlines about how the super rich jetted off to disaster bunkers, private yachts and holiday homes to sequester themselves during the coronavirus crisis, while millions of others are barely getting by. In our deeply unequal societies, calamities only widen and perpetuate the divide.

New episodes of Snowpiercer season 1 are being released weekly on Netflix. 

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