The Snowpiercer has come a long road to get to where we are today.
Here is the background context to the development of Snowpiercer before I give my thoughts on the pilot. It was announced back in the winter of 2016, a year after Marty Adelstein’s Tomorrow Studios acquired the rights to develop a television series adaptation based on the 2013 film by Bong Joon-ho, which in itself is an adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, that the TNT network had picked up the project and gave it a pilot order. Things seemed to be moving smoothly several months later, with Josh Friedman brought onboard to write the pilot and Scott Derrickson attached to direct. Once the TNT network decided to give the project a series order in 2018, that’s when things started to change. A few weeks after the series pickup, Josh Friedman departed the project due to creative differences with the network, leading to Graeme Manson brought onboard to replace him a month later. A few months later, Scott Derrickson would depart the project due to the creative differences with Manson over the course direction of the reshoots, stating at the time:
The 72-page Snowpiercer TV pilot script by [Josh Friedman] is the best I’ve ever read. The feature-length pilot I made from that script may be my best work. The new showrunner has a radically different vision for the show. I am forgoing my option to direct the extreme reshoots.
A few weeks later, James Hawes was brought onboard to direct the reshoots of the pilot and would also serve as co-executive producer on the series. As the series jumped from network to network (initially moving from TNT to TBS, then the network reversed that decision), Manson and Hawes would reshoot the pilot and develop the series that is far and away removed from what Friedman and Derrickson initially intent it to be, with Manson stated at the Television Critics Association press tour, at the start of the year, that the show was almost completely redeveloped and that almost none of the original pilot from Friedman/Derrickson appears in the final version and some media outlets are reporting of complete changes of characters for the actors. What he said was:
I think there’s a little piece of a sort of a special effects set piece. But it was a full rebirth of the series when I came on. I pitched a different world. I can’t speak much to the original project because I really wasn’t involved in it at all, but I was I just loved the movie. I loved that tone, I loved the energy, and I loved that it was the weirdest action movie I’ve ever seen. I wanted, above all else, for it to be exciting like that.
So now, finally after a length development, we arrive to 25th May 2020, where Snowpiercer has premiered its pilot on Netflix for those outside of the US (it debuted the week prior there on TNT and aired its second episode last night, which will now come out on Netflix here the following Monday and so on and so forth). Set in the not too distant future, Earth has reached the pivotal point of no return in regards to global warming, resulting in governments and scientists hatching a plan to cool the Earth slightly, resulting in the drastic error of cooling the world down into becoming a frozen wasteland. This leads to the last percentage of humanity being placed on a train called Snowpiercer, 1,001 cars long, that’s structured like society, divided into three classes and is a perpetually moving train that circles the snowy/ice planet on a worldwide track. Several years later after the beginning of its seemingly endless journey, we follow Andre Layton, who resides in The Tail, viewed as the lowest of the low as they contain people that didn’t pay to board Snowpiercer and fought their way into staying onboard. While Andre and other key members of The Tail plot a revolution to move forward in the other cars, Melanie Cavill, the head of hospitality at the front of the train and also the liaison to the trains founder Mr. Wilford, who learns of a man that has been brutally dispatched, with his limbs ad penis cut off. Knowing that Andre Layton was a homicide detective in his life before Snowpiercer, she has her officers, Bess Till, John Osweiller and Mike O’Malley, bring Layton out of The Tail and assist in their investigation.
From the pilot episode, the aspect that stood out to me the most was the production design work from Barry Robison and Stephen Geaghan as they give the different cars that we see in this episode their own distinct look and feel, from the vibrant use of colour palette for the car that contains the strawberry plantation to another car that contains an aquarium, there’s definitely a lot of idea going on and there’s lots of potential to keep each episode feeling fresh with the number of cars we’ve still to see going forward. The cinematography in this episode from John Grillo is good as well, I particularly liked the scene in which he captures that moment of Layton seeing sunlight for the first time in years, trying to readjust his eyesight to it. The score is also good as well from veteran ace composer Bear McCreary.
While there is some interesting stories that are exposition dumped on the audience, as the majority of this episode is, there is a few that make me wonder if the series going forward will provide some flashback episodes to previous events on board the train, particularly when the key members of The Tail mention the year three rebellion that failed, resulting in numerous losses as well as the arms of thirteen people as punishment for such an act. We get some explanation into what the Drawers are and in the long-term that could prove pivotal, as the final scene suggests, as Layton looks set to play the long game of leading the murder investigation, whilst secretly gathering vital intel for the rebellion. While the ensemble has a lot of talented actors and actresses on the project, for this pilot episode we only have Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly to latch onto with any built up intrigue. Bar a brief line or two of each character, Diggs’ Andre Layton is the audience going through the train, experiencing everything for the first time as he becomes our eyes and ears, while Connelly’s Melanie Cavill has an air of mystery around her that engages you whenever she’s on screen. There is other characters with the brief screen time they have that make an impression too, from Steven Ogg’s Pike to Mickey Sumner’s Bess Till and Timothy V. Murphy as Commander Grey.
Being in the current era of the streaming wars and binge culture when it comes to television shows, watching a show like Snowpiercer on a weekly basis already feels like an oddity in itself and while the first episode isn’t firing on all cylinders, it’s a fine pilot that sets some pieces up as the series plays the long game, hoping that the audience will follow.