THE WASHINGTON POST – One-thousand-and-one cars long …
It’s the line repeated at the beginning of each episode of TNT’s latest dystopian drama, Snowpiercer, based on the Bong Joon-ho cult classic film from 2013, itself based on the 1982 graphic novel series, Le Transperceneige.
Though the phrase hails from a made-up world in which Earth has frozen over and only 3,000 humans survive aboard a train that circumnavigates the globe in perpetuity, there is much about Snowpiercer that is relatable at the moment – not least of which being confined to a finite amount of space.
Graeme Manson, who was the showrunner on Orphan Black for its five-season run, was brought in as head conductor for Snowpiercer after the original pilot saw its executives and creatives part ways. This version of the TV show, which has already secured its second season, has been called a continuation of sorts from Bong’s film, though a more apt description might be a reimagining of it.
While the conceit is the same – the world has frozen because of climate change, most of its population has died, and a few people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds have made it onto the only vessel built for survival – the biggest change is in the story’s two lead characters, neither of whom was in the movie: Melanie Cavill, played by Jennifer Connelly, and Andre Layton, played by Daveed Diggs. And where Bong’s work was about a fight to the front with steerage overtaking first class, a TV show needed more to sustain itself over several episodes.
At the beginning of the series, both characters are at opposite ends of the survival spectrum, literally and figuratively; they believe their truth is the ultimate and worth fighting (or killing) for. As head of hospitality and the right hand of Mr Wilford – the train’s engineer and supreme leader, a godlike figure whom no one is actually allowed to see – Cavill represents the conservatives. However, by the end of the first episode, we find out she probably has much more to offer as she switches out her crisp teal-blue suit set for MIT sweats and sneakers and takes a seat in the engine room.
“She’s someone who is really complicated,” said Connelly, the Oscar-winning actress whose last turn at TV was 20 years ago with The Street. “She’s challenging at times; she’s surprising. Ultimately, I think she’s not who we think she is when we first meet her, (and) at a certain point, I think she realises she’s not the person that she always thought she was either.”
Layton, who lives in the “tail” with those who couldn’t afford a ticket onto Snowpiercer and forced their way in, was a homicide detective before the world froze over. This is what eventually gets him up-train, as Cavill summons him to help solve a second-class murder. Diggs, of Tony- and Grammy-winning Hamilton fame, connected with Layton’s moral code, idea of justice and demands for equality. But the Broadway actor is not impervious to the ways in which, both on the show and in real life, the dissemination or withholding of information can change our perception of reality.
As “you actually start to understand the system you’re trying to work around or within or against, it’s a lot more difficult to be as idealistic. Those are interesting conversations that are relevant (to today),” Diggs said. “And if a work of fiction can encourage that kind of thinking or discussion in our regular lives, maybe in the best-case scenario, (it) helps us figure out how to … understand the methods of people who seemingly have totally different ideological beliefs.”
While the Snowpiercer film kept audiences enthralled with its nonstop action, the 10-episode series enabled Manson to draw out the character development with a sizable ensemble cast, including Mickey Sumner, Lena Hall and Alison Wright, as they aim to tackle the big questions of right and wrong that plague humanity – even (or especially) when there are only a few thousand left. Connelly said that scenario resonates with the current state of the world, though hell hasn’t frozen over quite yet.
“To what extent do we sacrifice now for the long-term good of things and survival of everyone?” she posits.
The show’s messaging is eerily reminiscent of real life, especially as it pertains to climate change – a topic of concern that has been eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic. But the show’s confinement and loss are what Connelly feels ring most true right now.
“In the show versus the film, we’re set closer to the moment of departure,” she said. “The loss, the transition is that much newer. So, everyone on the train is dealing with the communities (and) the people that they left behind, the places on Earth that they long to go see that they miss, the lives that they had that are gone.”
Diggs said Snowpiercer is a way to examine class and the effect of capitalism on the environment – aspects of life that have always been present – but that now may take on more significance through the cultural lens with which audiences will be viewing it.
“I agree with Jen,” he adds. “The sense of loss is particularly palpable. … There’s a sort of loneliness that is persistent throughout the train and a longing for a world that (was).”
Indeed, it is difficult to remember the world that was, including the one where, only three months ago, Bong won Oscars for best director, best picture and best original screenplay for Parasite, a Korean independent film that made its way gingerly to the top. Bong didn’t direct any of TNT’s Snowpiercer episodes but was an executive producer and participated at times, according to Connelly.
Because of his recent successes, anything associated with him is sure to get some extra attention, an added benefit for a new series.