Back in 2013, Bong Joon-Ho’s “Snowpiercer” cemented itself as a post-apocalyptic cult classic despite contested final cuts of the film and a smaller audience than planned. Many are still discovering its premonitory tale of a climate change catastrophe that leaves the outside world uninhabitable. Finally overcoming production woes and creative differences, TNT’s finished pilot and follow-up episode — adapted from Bong’s work and the original French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” (created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette) — signal a promising addition to this established universe without forcibly abiding by continuity.
The reboot takes place seven years after scientists caused an accidental new ice age while taking extreme measures to combat global warming. Before the shards of extinction could go into motion, Earth’s wealthiest bought tickets to board Wilford Industries’ Snowpiercer. This bullet train, comprised of 1,001 connected cars stretching ten miles, promised temporary survival until a new dawn approached. Before the train doors could shut, hundreds of mankind’s last — who couldn’t afford the exorbitant ticket prices — crammed themselves into Snowpiercer’s tail compartment. With the train permanently sealed and running on an endless track loop, these “Tailies” would form the lowest class of the remaining human population. The official story begins in 2021 when fostering resentment of this disparity mounts into organized insurrection.
One of the Tailies’ chief strategists, Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), believes long-term planning is the group’s best shot at commandeering Snowpiercer. Before he’s able to quell his fellow rebels’ violent thirst for revolt, Layton is summoned by the elite to solve a murder in their upper-class utopia. Realizing this might be an opportunity to mentally archive Snowpiercer’s schematic layout, Layton agrees to resume his pre-apocalyptic occupation: homicide detective. There’s no way of knowing what massive overhauls occurred when director James Hawes and writer-showrunner Graeme Manson respectively replaced Scott Derrickson and Josh Friedman. However, it’s difficult not to be intrigued by the pilot’s “Blade Runner”-inspired procedural implementation.
What this creative decision does is keep the show’s main conflict of class warfare close to the chest without episodic pressure of hammering its endgame plans. The abundant character roster requires a string of episodes to familiarize viewers with their connection to the current crisis (as well as discovering their pre-Snowpiercer lives). Fleshed-out arcs for all involved is pivotal if the audience means to take their triumphs, downfalls, and even deaths seriously. The series does, however, need to be careful not to make the one-percent overlords too empathetic. Doing so would create irreparable backlash, not to mention weakening the universe’s inherent theme of social injustice.
If there’s a repeated draw to be found in both “First, The Weather Changed” and “Prepare to Brace,” it’s the multitasking Melanie Cavill, performed with poised nuance by the incredible Jennifer Connelly. Not since “House of Card’s” Claire Underwood has there been a TV female antiheroine who leaves you utterly intoxicated by her moral perplexity. As Snowpiercer’s hospitality manager and a mouthpiece for Wilford himself, Cavill is a woman wearing many hats who leaves no car unchecked. The pilot’s cliffhanger only increases the desire to learn more about the enigmatic supervisor. Connelly’s brilliance is her ability to play Melanie vulnerable but still shrewd enough to keep her intentions a total mystery.
Daveed Diggs is more compelling when in freedom fighter mode than as a hard-boiled cop jotting down murder clues. For instance, some of his cheesy detective lines seem at odds with his intense eagerness to liberate his Tailie comrades. Thankfully, by episode two he appears to build a better bridge between the two roles, and ends up commanding respect from the guards chaperoning his investigation. As the season goes along, hopefully more simmering confrontations arise between Diggs’ Layton and Connelly’s Melanie. Their untapped class rivalry has the potential to create major tension since both are equally formidable meticulous planners.
It’s rare that an adaptation reboot inspires fond remembrance of its original self yet still leaves viewers excited by its expansion. TNT’s “Snowpiercer” doesn’t need Bong’s signature style to honor his science-fiction masterpiece, nor should it sacrifice its newfound identity to appease loyalists. What the first two episodes have provided is a taste of a very long destination within a destination that’s worth the price of grueling admission.