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Snowpiercer 1.01 Review – ‘First, the Weather Changed’

May 17, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Snowpiercer
6.5
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Snowpiercer 1.01 Review – ‘First, the Weather Changed’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Sunday’s series premiere of Snowpiercer.]

Snowpiercer was an interesting piece of cinema when it released in 2014. The Bong Joon-ho-directed adaptation of Jacques Lob’s French graphic novel Le Transperceneige was a critically lauded look at class structure in a science fiction setting, though it fared slightly worse with fans as a whole. The film was successful but not a blockbuster hit and provided a bit of variety in Chris Evans’ resume between Marvel Cinematic Universe films, ending its run as a film that seemed destined for life on cable as a film that people would watch, appreciate, and move on.

What I’m saying is, while I and many other people are fans of Snowpiercer, it didn’t ever seem to be a film with such a devoted following that more of the franchise was destined to be. And yet, TNT found an interest in 2017 and the property began a long, tortured road to the big screen.

In the past three years, a lot has changed. Bong Joon-ho is now a director with Best Picture and Best Director wins under his belt thanks to Parasite. And the Snowpiercer TV project has found itself morphed from a more direct reboot to something all its own. Judging by the first episode, “First, the Weather Changed,” the end result is a show that seems to ease back on the social issues in favor of a mystery thriller, buoyed by the strength of its stars.

Snowpiercer Layton

To be clear, it is not necessarily a bad thing that the show is letting its mystery-thriller aspects take the main stage right now while the class issue plays a supporting role. We’re only on the first episode after all, and there are a lot of masters that this episode has to serve to get the series off the ground. Le Transperceneige has a lot of concepts that the story depends on, and they all need to be quickly introduced to the audience. Ratcheting up the deeper themes is something that can potentially wait until the hook is there to get the TNT crowd reeled into watching.

Thus, “First, the Weather Changed” does what a lot of genre television pilots do: it spreads itself just a bit thin trying to lay the situation out. But it’s not done without style, as director James Hawes takes the opening monologue and sets it to an animated sequence that befits the graphic novel source. We learn about how the world became a frozen wasteland, and how what’s left of humanity ended up on the titular perpetual motion plane, it fairly short order. We also learn how many people didn’t get on despite their best efforts as they couldn’t afford it.

This is all stuff that those who have seen the film will be familiar with, although we were told the origins there instead of being shown it. TNT has more time to tell the story, and the characters this story is focusing on needs us to see it. Hawes does a nice, seamless transition from animated style to live-action, bringing the brutality of the situation as the Wilford Company’s security violently deals with the desperate as they fight literally for their lives in order to get on the train.

Snowpiercer Tailies

Hawes provides a gripping opener, allowing our lead character in Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) to make his introduction. Diggs is an actor who’s been waiting for a role with which to make his transition from Hamilton Broadway star to screen A-lister complete. He’s been stellar in films like Blindspotting and Velvet Buzzsaw, so it’s absolutely no surprise that what we see of him in the premiere as Layton is fantastic. Layton was a homicide detective before the world came to an end and as we flash to the “present” of the series, almost seven years after the train began its travel, he’s a leader among the hated lowest class on the Snowpiercer – the “Tailies,” as they’re referred to with disdain by those further up the train.

Layton is a POV character perfectly tailored to television, particularly on TNT. He’s the rational and level-headed member of the oppressed class, but he also has some pretty strong opinions on his own about the situation on the train. He supports and even leads the plans for an uprising by the Tailies, mostly because there is no choice but to do so if they don’t want to starve. But he also knows that they can’t be rash about this, lest they are destroyed much like a disastrous uprising attempt in Year Three that we’re told about. It’s a dangerous position that pits him against the more extreme and desperate of the Tailies like Pike, who’s ready to act yesterday. Even those who are sympathetic to Layton’s stance acknowledge that they don’t have time to wait much longer. It’s a difficult spot, one that Layton needs to find a reason to be jolted out of.

Fortunately, Layton also just so happens to have skills that those in charge need, which leads to his collision with the upper class. Just as the uprising is about to begin (too soon for Layton’s comfort), he is pulled out of the Tail against his will and dragged to meet with Melanie (Jennifer Connelly), the head of the train’s Hospitality department. There’s been a murder, and one with some concerning implications for the only other murder (that we know of) to have taken place among the non-Tail classes. Melanie needs Layton to solve the murder and maintain the train’s fragile balance, and Layton needs an opportunity to make more allies in the upper classes, so his revolution doesn’t die right at the start.

Snowpiercer Melanie

It’s absolutely no surprise that Melanie and Layton start off as the most interesting characters here, as they not only get the massive bulk of screen time, but also the most backstory to start. Layton’s is largely explicitly laid out; he had a relationship with third class member Zarah for example, who resents him for getting them on the train and left him behind as she managed to get out of the Tail. Melanie’s is more implied; there is a sense that she has far more understanding and empathy of the Tailies than most of the first through third class folks, though that doesn’t stop her from maintaining a balance that keeps them on a razor’s edge.

All of this is to say that this first episode’s heavy narrative lifting feels like a lot of work being done for an hour-long episode, and that’s because it is. In fact, it’s arguably too much. The episode wants to move along quickly to establish its many plot points, and in doing so it sells its central mystery short. We get a few enticing tidbits here; grisly details about the body, and a prisoner convicted of the previous, identical murder being thawed out so Layton and company can learn what she saw before. But it doesn’t get much chance to breathe, because we have to see Pike and the Tailies attempt their riot so that Layton can agree to take the case in order to save them.

One might argue (and I’m going to) that the latter sequence would have been better served being pushed out to the second episode. Pilot episodes are notoriously heavy-handed by necessity, as they need to present all the information to their audience to keep them watching in week two. That makes me willing to give this episode a bit of leeway, even as its hard to remember the rush of names thrown at us and moved on quicker than we can process. TNT has latched onto a nice set-up here and as long as they can deliver moving forward, I’m game even with the flaws that were baked into this first hour.

Snowpiercer Melanie Layton

Some Final Thoughts:

• Welcome to our Snowpiercer season one coverage! TNT has provided screeners for the full season, though I’m holding off and watching an episode at a time so I’m coming at reviews in the same perspective that you are. I hope that you enjoy the show and, barring that, enjoy having a place to complain about the show.

• One of the biggest switches from the film isn’t a story one, but a visual one. Understandably due to the lower budget of TV, this Snowpiercer is a bit roomier than the one in the film which doesn’t quite sell the desperate claustrophobia of the Tailies as well as the film did.

• So that ending implied that Melanie is either “Mr. Wilford” herself, or that “Mr. Wilford” is one of a number of people. I’m not sure which of those is true (I’m leaning toward the former), but I find both possibilities intriguing.

• Shout-out to Mike O’Malley, who is great in every TV character actor role he’s ever been in, rocking a serious bit of facial hair as Lead Brakeman Roche. Looking forward to seeing more of him and his attitude in the weeks to come.

• A portion of Third Class have turned themselves into a polyamorous community, which both the Tailies (represented by Layton) and the upper classers (represented by Roche) predictably look on with disdain. Seems legit.

• Poor Ivan. Not only does he kill himself; he has to utter the rather awkward line, “Resistance is never futile, but Wilford’s train is a fortress to class. Maybe it is perpetual.”

6.5
The final score: review Average
The 411
The first episode of Snowpiercer is a bit of a mixed bag, thanks to its attempts to tell too much story over its hour-long runtime and underselling most of the plot as a result. However, despite those flaws it's a start that glimmers with lot of potential. Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly are leading a talented cast, and there are elements here that writer/showrunner Graeme Manson can expand on. That will be essential as they advance the story throughout the first season and into season two.
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Snowpiercer, Jeremy Thomas