Television

An Absurd Premise and Stellar Acting Anchor TNT's Snowpiercer

Just try not to ask too many questions about what’s happening or why.

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Snowpiercer. TNT. Sunday, May 17, 9 p.m.

"Good morning," the train conductor announces with cheery good will. "The temperature outside is minus-119.6 degrees Celsius." And, she adds brightly, "It's now seven years or so since departure." And no, your junior-high-science memory of how to convert centigrade to Fahrenheit has been ruined by all those drugs you took. We're talking minus-184 in good old pre-metric numbers, cold enough to make even Budweiser taste pretty good.

That's the opening of the new TNT series Snowpiercer, which has a premise that would have made my buddies and I howl at the moon in enthralled delight back when we were 10 or so. Scientists trying to reverse global warming have screwed up and blown up the sun or something. (Seriously—at least, that's what it looks like in the animated precede that sets up the show's backstory.) So now we've got global freeze-your-balls-off instead, and the only survivors are a bunch of mammothly rich swine endlessly circling the planet In a 1001-car train that can never stop because doing so would, you know, freeze your balls off.

The glory of sci-fi back then was that hard questions were never thought of, much less asked. Where'd they get all the food to feed everybody, especially the meat? Why would you build a track over rickety bridges and through sketchy mountain passes under avalanche-prone peaks? Why not just stick to a simple oval in the middle of the Kansas flatland? What about fuel? And booze for the bar car? Or the economic plausibility of the aliens stuffing all those stupid Earthlings with food to fatten them up in the Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man." ("It's a cookbook!") What did they do with the poop? And, speaking of trains, why didn't Charlie's wife just put a nickel in the lunch sack she handed him every time the MTA express  he was trapped aboard circled past the station?

Snowpiercer's producers, prudently anticipating that today's 10-year-olds are smarter, even if their parents aren't, has tried to distract from these mostly unanswerable questions with a pair of sideshows: one a barbarous incitement to class warfare, the other (more successful) an Agatha Christie-style mystery that might be titled Murder on the North Pole Express if you dressed it up just a little. (Homicidal reindeer! Elf cannibals! Mrs. Claus leaving a boiled snow bunny in Frosty's kitchen!)

They work rather well as long as you don't squint at them too hard. Their success is all the more surprising because Snowpiercer was widely suspected to be one of the all-time television bombs. Based on a crazed 2013 film of the same name by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (which in turn derives from the French comic book Le Transperceneige), the television version of Snowpiercer has been through four years of development, two directors and two showrunners, one of whom took to Twitter to call the other "an idiot, a coward or a vichy motherfucker."

Beyond the basic concept of a supertrain racing around in the snow, this Snowpiercer is only loosely linked to its predecessors. The timelines are incompatible (the film took place 17 years after the train left the station; this one just seven years), relatively few of the original characters made it to this one, and the truly nutty rage of the film has been toned down.

But it's still lurking there. The train, created as a sort of ark for his 1-percenter pals by a mysterious zillionaire known only as Mr. Wilford, was nearly hijacked as it departed. Several hundred proles managed to board it and clamber into the caboose, where they've remained ever since, starved and sterilized and stomped-upon, planning at any moment to revolt and seize the train. Their dark, dank, tail-end of the train contrasts sharply and sickeningly with the Robin Leach-esque parks and nightclubs up front.

A 10-year-old might ask why the train security forces don't kill them or just cut the caboose loose and leave it behind to freeze. Not to mention why Mr. Wilford, who had enough money to feed not only his passengers but their pet alligators (apparently in the future that's a thing), could afford to equip his security forces with guns, forcing them into regular—and quite costly—hand-to-hand combat with the rebels.

That 10-year-old would be directed to shut up and pay attention to the other plot arc. A murder has been committed up in the train's posh front—and worse, it's the second one in two years, both in the same style, with all the limbs severed and, well, as a member of the train staff asks, "What about his dick?" The possible answers to that question probably should not be contemplated at the same time as another one, where does all that meat served up front, really come from.

To find the killer, Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), Mr. Wilford's right arm, promptly summons one of the stowaways from the caboose, Andre Layton, who before he broke into the train was a Detroit homicide detective. Unknown to Cavill, Layton (played by Daveed Diggs, who originated the color-crossed role of Thomas Jefferson in the original Broadway production of Hamilton) is also the leader of the planned revolt. Because he thinks working on the murder case will allow him to collect intelligence on the front the train, and because he's still a cop at heart), Layton accepts the assignment.

The smoothly played cat-and-mouse game between the equally deceptive Cavill and Layton is far more interesting than the class-warfare plot, partly because it's better written and partly because Connelly and Diggs are extraordinary talents. She won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, he a Tony for Hamilton and if Snowpiercer represents a step down from those productions, you'd never know it from their performances. Bobbing and weaving, keeping not only their characters but the audience guessing about what they're up to. Connelly's passionate delivery of a long soliloquy about how the murder is not just a routine crime but an existential threat to the train's carefully balanced ecosystem, even made me wonder if Snowpiercer amounts to something more than its obvious eat-the-rich pretensions. Could the show be launching a slyly subversive attack on planned economies? I thought about that for a moment, then went back to wondering what they do with all the poop. But with a smile.

NEXT: Plans for Extended Unemployment Benefits, Wage Subsidies Risk Creating a Zombie Economy

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  1. “make my buddies and I howl”? What happened to fifth grade grammar?

    1. A classic case of hypercorrection.

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  2. What the hell happened to Jennifer Connolly? She used to be a goddess. Now she just looks skinny and kind of masculine and not in a good way.

    1. It’s Hollywood and she’s a woman. Her options were to get fat and then disappear from the screen against her will, slowly turn into Steven Tyler or Mick Jagger on screen, or voluntarily leave the stage and do whatever she pleases.

      IMO, the recent notable exception is Elizabeth Shue and even she kinda disappeared from the big screen after The Saint.

      1. Hollywood makes women starve themselves to death. And very few of them age well as a result.

        1. With at least a few it’s probably a chicken v. egg tossup whether they developed an eating disorder and then started using drugs or started using drugs which suppressed their appetite.

    2. The hotness that was Jennifer Connelly

      For those of you already familiar with this movie, your favorite scenes are at 5:05 and 9:15.

      1. She was like 19 in that movie. I get it that she is close to or over 50 now and isn’t going to be that hot. But man she should be a lot hotter than she is given how hot she was to begin with.

        1. Agreed. Labyrinth, Career Opportunities, and The Rocketeer show Connelly at her peak.

        2. A disturbing lack of adipose tissue is going to accelerate the aging process, especially in a career field that likely incentivizes excess UV exposure, substance abuse, and so on.

          And I say this as someone who likes his women slender.

          1. What about men? Do you like a slender man?

        3. her hair’s just not down. she was still pretty in the alien movie w/Keanu Reeves

      2. that clip better be the movie she spends @Target.

    3. She grew up. Dude, she’s 49. Women hit a steep decline in their 40’s and most don’t look half as good as she does by 49.

  3. The movie was entertaining enough for all its weirdness, but you had to accept the idea that this train was able to keep moving around the world carrying the remnants of humanity and not break down or need much resupply. I honestly don’t see how it will work as a series, it was one thing to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours but to do so for the extended period of a series doesn’t seem sustainable to me.

    1. I honestly don’t see how it will work as a series, it was one thing to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours but to do so for the extended period of a series doesn’t seem sustainable to me.

      ^This^

      The premise was *barely* good enough for a movie. If you took the movie and broke it up into 3-4 episodes, I’d bet you’re at less than half the viewership by the 4 episode.

      I can go watch the CW if I want to watch talentless writers shovel narrative bullshit into a storyline that it doesn’t fit.

      1. This and This.

    2. Agree.
      The movie was basically a video game plot, with the protagonists going up against a series of levels to reach the big boss/reveal.
      Hard to make that work longer than 2 hours

      1. That was my impression of the movie. A lot of people were telling me how great it was. I was very much so not impressed.

        I didn’t get any of what was happening though. I did not understand why the train had to keep moving. I did not understand why we had to have such huge disparities on the train. I did not even understand how that could possibly be sustainable. Particularly when the fate of all of humanity was at stake.

        So, somebody who loved this movie please explain it to me. What the heck was going on? Because to me it was as he said, nothing more than a video game with a crawl towards the boss fight.

        1. I can’t say I love the movie Snowpiercer because, it has plenty of holes in it that will unravel the whole movie if you pick at them. However, I did enjoy watching it once I realized that it is a stunningly accurate critique of socialism and parts of the “Climate Change” religion.

          The world of the movie was created when people trying to prevent global warming tried to geo-engineer a “solution” by blocking sunlight, only to throw the planet into the worst ice-age ever (a snowball Earth).

          The train itself is just a euphemism for socialism: a freezing, starving gulag at the back, with people reduced to eating insects; a world of comfort for the “Party Members” at the front, with good food, good booze and all the things necessary to make their lives enjoyable. This is all led by the Top Man at the very front of the train, living a life of luxury (unimaginable to those at the back of the train), all the while deciding the fates of everyone aboard with callous disregard.

          The director of this film did a good job skewering the evil that is socialism, even if that wasn’t his intention. I’d be willing to bet the TV show will be more like “Capitalism Bad; Not at all fault of socialists who fucked up our world”. As has been said, it’s not a good plot for a TV show.

          1. I would’ve disagreed that you’re projecting except for the symbolism of the train. It’s too idiotically perfect.

            You could build a big isotopic thermal generator underground (or several small ones) and keep more people warmer longer or you could build a shittier, smaller generator and bleed the heat off of it unnecessarily by putting it on rails in the open because… you really love trains.

            No shits given that bad decision making at the highest levels from the get go has effectively doomed the human race, as long as the trains run on time.

          2. Ugh…

            The original story is a critique not specifically of capitalism, but a certain ideological approach to capitalism — the one that many saw G.W. Bush as supporting when he told people to go out to shopping malls after the 9/11 attacks, where being a good consumer is being a good human being, and “what’s good for GM is good for America.” Because when people stop buying crap they don’t need, then the economy crashes —i.e the train stops — and “WE ALL FREEZE AND DIE.”

            Its a reduction of human life to being cogs in an economic system. Represented by the small child being used to replace a mechanical part.

            Its not specifically about capitalism, and neither is it specifically about socialism.

        2. Missing the point, the story is an allegory. You might as well be criticizing The Prisoner and argue how it doesn’t make sense how the white balloon can stop him from going off the island and make a big fuss over how stupid and absurd that is.

          I think even allegorical sci-fi needs some level suspension of disbelief, but I don’t think the its bad from that POV. There’s a lot of questions you can ask about why things work a certain way, but instead of trying to explain them all with hokey explanations, they’re just left unexplained.

          As I mentioned in a comment bellow, the train is an allegory not specifically for capitalism, but a certain conception of capitalism — as an engine that needs constant growth, and where any downturn in the market is seen as bad, because you can’t let the market fail. Like when 9/11 happened, GW Bush encouraged people to go out to malls and buy things, because if people stopped buying things they don’t need, the economy might crash (the train would stop), and WE ALL FREEZE AND DIE. The people on the train worship the eternal engine — the laws of capitalism in abstract — while human beings are reduced to being cogs in the engine.

          Its is an approach to capitalism that many libertarians disagree with, and should sympathize with the critique, since they think the market should be let to fail if there’s a problem instead of propping it up with a central bank — and generally consider human rights more important than the market. On the other hand, its not specifically about socialism, because if it reflects any type of politics, its more of a sketch of neo-conservative/neo-liberal approaches to economics than anything else.

  4. Why don’t they just tunnel deeper into the earth where it would be warmer.

    1. “Just repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show. I should really just relax.'”

      Except it won’t be that humorous and intelligently/irreverently self-aware so you should really just watch something else.

  5. Lena Hall has a part in this as Miss Audrey. I was hoping it would do well. I guess not. One of the best female rock singers in NYC. Most Broadway actors can’t sing rock to save their lives.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBuZWTrxr-Y

  6. Snowpiercer is the sequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as definitively explained on youtube.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEX52h1TvuA

    1. This is brilliant. 10 times better than the movie.

      1. I concur.
        Well done

    2. I like this a lot, almost makes having watched Snowpiercer worth it.

  7. Does anyone get the 7-minute armsicle in the series? Cause that was a cool scene in the film.

    And, in the film, the reason the guards don’t shoot the rebels suddenly takes on timely symbolism with our COVID fueled stay-at-home orders (“know your place, keep your place”) and those who are now calling the bluff of our betters.

    an existential threat to the train’s carefully balanced ecosystem…something more than its obvious eat-the-rich pretensions…a slyly subversive attack on planned economies?

    It’s no coincidence there are many similar themes between Snowpiercer and Parasite since Bong Joon-ho directed both. Maybe this series is up to that once you get past the preposterous setup.

    So it is.

    1. They show flashes of it in some of the promos, but enough to get the idea.

  8. I think a series on a WWII-era armored train would be kick-ass in an ass-kicking way.

  9. So its – 120C and the steel rails are still intact? They haven’t shattered when the weight of the train hits them? The ground under the tracks hasn’t frost-heaved and broken the tracks either?

    Come on, at least try to make it work.

  10. Amash drops out of the race and this turd of a movie gets turned into a show. Worst year ever.

  11. I agree the plot of the Snowpiercer Movie and Series are absurd. What is interesting is that we accept equally absurd ideas for other science fiction. You can not really go faster than the speed of light and you can not travel back in time. Yet we can accept stories that violate these rules. Snowpiercer does really violate these large rules yet it seems like a really dumb idea. I am guessing that when you want to make science fiction go big with the ideas (hyperdrive, warp speed) or go home.

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