Remember February? I know, it feels like that was 20 years ago, but it’s been only a few months since terms like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” entered the vernacular. And the longer the pandemic goes on—through 2020 and perhaps beyond—the more it seems like Parasite’s history-making performance at the 2020 Oscars in February will be remembered as a pleasant outlier from a terrible year.
Parasite’s big night—it captured four Oscars, and became the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture—is perhaps the last event widely celebrated by anyone who doesn’t have an agenda against reading subtitles. It was also a long-overdue victory lap for cowriter and director Bong Joon-ho, one of the most talented filmmakers on the planet, who finally got the attention of the very “local” Academy. While the entire film industry is on pause indefinitely thanks to COVID-19, it’s safe to assume that Bong’s next feature will be a momentous event in and of itself: a great director looking to follow up on an all-time great film.
But the considerable hype around all things Bong Joon-ho is also finding its way onto the small screen. In January, HBO announced that Adam McKay will adapt and executive-produce (along with Bong) an English-language Parasite miniseries for the network—the kind of prestige play that will be met with a lot of interest and scrutiny. (I think it’s a bad idea, especially since an English-language adaptation could move the story away from its Korean roots.) The fact that HBO green-lit this series a month before Parasite won Best Picture certainly speaks to the appeal of (ugh) a potential Bong Joon-ho Extended Universe. But as anticipated as the Parasite miniseries already is, it won’t be the first litmus test for Bong-related world-building on television.
That honor belongs to Snowpiercer, the new TNT series based on the director’s 2013 film of the same name—which itself was based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Your relationship to the Snowpiercer show will probably depend on your familiarity with Bong’s film, an allegorical ride through a frozen dystopia where the last remnants of humanity live aboard an ever-moving train with an “eternal engine,” divided into class systems where the rich live closest to the engine and the impoverished survive off gelatinous protein blocks in the back. The film is centered on the latest uprising by the lower class—led by Captain America himself, Chris Evans—as they slowly make their way up the train; our experience as viewers mirrors theirs. The characters’ discoveries include learning what’s in their protein blocks—you will genuinely hate to see it—and an incredible heat check from Alison Pill as a pregnant teacher spewing pro-rich, train-centric propaganda to the next generation of passengers.
Bong’s Snowpiercer was an impressive achievement for its world-building alone; putting a giant goddamn train at the center of the universe gave it a unique premise in the crowded field of dystopian science fiction. (Mortal Engines chased the movie’s steampunk high, but it ramped things up a bit too high to MOVING CITIES.) But what makes Snowpiercer really resonate—and certify the film’s status as, no pun intended, an elite Bong joint—was its potent exploration of class warfare, greed, and the cyclical nature with which humankind destroys itself. In Snowpiercer, it is humanity, after all, that accidentally birthed a new Ice Age through a futile effort to reverse the effects of global warming. If Snowpiercer wasn’t already relevant when it came out seven years ago, as the earth continues to warm and income inequality becomes worse and more prevalent, it now seems more germane than ever. In Bong we trust.
But should you trust TNT to take the reins of a small-screen adaptation? The network doesn’t have much of a track record for prestige vehicles—and while every series should be given the benefit of the doubt regardless of where it’s airing, TNT didn’t exactly inspire hope with Snowpiercier’s tumultuous journey to television. The show went through multiple showrunners, shot multiple pilots, was tossed around by WarnerMedia so much that at one point it was going to air on the sitcom-heavy TBS (??), and spent enough time in development hell that the fact that the show is actually airing feels like a minor miracle. Most shows that deal with this type of creative turnover and behind-the-scenes drama are doomed to fail, and yet TNT flexed on us by already renewing Snowpiercer for a second season, which will add Sean Bean. (Can I place a bet on his character dying?) But the cherry on the TNT schadenfreude sundae was the show’s uninspiring trailer, which looked like a bland and at-times shot-for-shot remake of Bong’s film.
It’s to the credit of … whatever happened on this series’ development during the past five years that Snowpiercer isn’t the total (heh) train wreck that it long seemed it would be. Having watched the entire season, I can tell you that while Bong’s movie is the show’s clear narrative and aesthetic reference point, it isn’t as imitative as its trailers would lead you to believe. One crucial difference is that throughout the show, Snowpiercer allows viewers to see what life is like on both ends of the eponymous train. (Spending several episodes in the damp, dark confines at the end of the train would’ve probably been an easy way to get people to cut Snowpiercer from their viewing rotation.) On the one end, we have Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), who lives in the “Tail” and is preparing to lead a revolt; on the other there’s Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), who runs day-to-day operations at the front with the demeanor of an increasingly exhausted flight attendant. The unknown whereabouts of Snowpiercer’s messianic architect—Mr. Wilford, who was memorably portrayed by Ed Harris in Bong’s film—is among the show’s early bits of intrigue.
Though class warfare will inevitably bubble to the surface, Snowpiercer begins with, of all things, a murder mystery. A killer is on the loose, leaving behind frozen bodies with severed penises—between Snowpiercer and The Alienist, TNT has really cornered the market on phallus mutilation. A former detective in the age of BT (Before Train; don’t worry I made this term up), Layton is plucked from the Tail by Melanie to work on the investigation, promising him a promotion to third class—the show’s equivalent to a blue-collar workforce—if he agrees to become what she calls Train Detective. (Everyone calls him Train Detective with a straight face, but I can’t get over how silly it sounds.)
While it’s commendable that Snowpiercer opens with a vastly different approach than Bong’s film, the new creative choices serve to highlight the series’ shortcomings in comparison to its predecessor. TNT’s Snowpiercer may not be the disaster that its messy, yearslong development process suggested it would be, but basic cable mediocrity ensures the show will be an unmemorable footnote in this crowded TV landscape.
Why was it necessary to mess with something that wasn’t broken, and why bother trying to warp something so eccentric and visually stunning into a conventional TV drama package? (Murder on the Snowpiercer Express, anyone?) Hopefully everyone at HBO is asking these questions before getting to work on the Parasite miniseries.
If there is one thing Snowpiercer should’ve finessed from the movie, it’s the bleak yet playful sense of humor Bong injected into the work—from Tilda Swinton’s vague and ridiculous Margaret Thatcher cosplay to, well, just watch that Alison Pill scene if you haven’t already. TNT’s Snowpiercer is tragically deprived of that chaotic energy, the real eternal engine of this universe. When there are laughs to be had on the show, it’s usually at unintentionally funny moments—like heavy-handed monologues about class struggle and characters using “eat the rich” as a password to sneak through train compartments.
Perhaps, when viewed through the lens of TNT’s original programming—where sneaky hits like Claws and The Alienist are few and far between—Snowpiercer wouldn’t seem like such an underwhelming experience. But that is the plight of a project trying to live up to expectations set by a modern sci-fi masterpiece, the fervent BongHive, and a filmmaker operating at the height of his powers (and some golden statuettes on his shelf). TNT’s Snowpiercer had a lot to live up to, and this extension of the Bong Joon-ho Universe failed to meet the hype. Of course, the impossibility of this Snowpiercer adaptation replicating Bong’s success is the sort of thing you could’ve predicted long before this train left the station.