‘Snowpiercer’ review: Bong Joon-ho’s steampunk classic turns noirish detective drama with a dynamite Jennifer Connelly

Snowpiercer has arrived at a favourable time. Adapted from a French graphic novel about a post-apocalyptic train embroiled in a class war, the story was adapted once already by Bong Joon-ho, whose recent 2020 awards season-sweeper Parasite has banked nearly $267 million worldwide. The TV version of Snowpiercer – from Orphan Black creator Graeme Manson – not only coasts in off the back of Bong mania, but also at a time where audience appetite for seeing different demographics battle it out is at its peak (see also Joker, Knives Out and Blumhouse horror The Hunt).

Following roughly the same premise as both the film and graphic novel, Snowpiercer details an environmental disaster which has wiped out most of mankind, leaving a band of survivors who are forced onto a perpetually moving train. The poorer residents live in poverty down the back of the locomotive, while the rich stay firmly, distantly, in the front.

Gone is Chris Evans’ noble warrior Curtis from the film, replaced by Hamilton breakout star Daveed Diggs. As Layton – a former detective and “tailie” – Diggs provides the show’s moral compass and seems to lead the faction until he’s assigned to solve a murder on the train by its head of staff Melanie (Jennifer Connelly, in her most compelling role for years).

The fresh narrative allows Layton to probe the inner-workings of the train’s hierarchy, and adds a noirish tone to proceedings. It’s a sensible move on Manson’s part, managing to avoid cribbing too much from Bong’s battle-heavy movie. Violence is present but used sparingly by today’s TV standards, though the shudder-inducing amputation scene from the movie is repurposed to startling effect. The show also makes use of its expanded runtime by fleshing out the space between the top and tail, giving the second and third factions their own stories while building contained, themed carriages that lean more towards a Blade Runner vision of dystopia.

Snowpiercer
The TV adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 thriller arrives on Netflix in the UK later this month. Credit: Netflix

The surrounding ensemble cast that populates the train varies in strength: The Americans’ Alison Wright (adopting Tilda Swinton’s northern accent for the show) and Annalise Basso – as a spoiled, troubled rich girl – handle some of the meatier plot lines, while other characters feature less and struggle for momentum as a result. Snowpiercer is at its best when following Diggs (as Layton) down his sticky, compromising path to attempted revolution. The actor has carved out a promising career off the back of Hamilton – notably with self-written indie film Blindspotting – and proves a compelling action lead, shouldering the weighty decisions Layton has to make while carrying off some impressive fight choreography. When he’s up against Connelly’s Melanie – an Ivy League overachiever with some major secrets – the show is dynamite, presenting more of a slow burn, suspense-fuelled moral dilemma than a straightforward rivalry.

Admittedly, the quality between the series’ 10 episodes is inconsistent, with the final chapters guilty of holding some cards back for the show’s already-confirmed second season. Those hesitant to revisit the story after Bong’s steampunk feature however should take the plunge. Snowpiercer is a stylish expansion on the world built by its predecessors that still carries a sting in its tail.

‘Snowpiercer’ arrives on Netflix in the UK on May 25 with two initial episodes – the rest of the season will be aired weekly

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