Review of Snowpiercer (2020-2021, TV)
Hawes, James and Graeme Manson, producers. Snowpiercer. Netflix, 2020-2021.
There is a strange dissonance about watching fictional depictions of the end of the world when the world we live in feels about to end. As the Covid-19 virus devastated many parts of the globe, the gratuitous pleasure and morbid intrigue offered by on-screen catastrophes felt like a confirmation of the adage that it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.
I was thus reluctant to give Snowpiercer (2020-2021) a go when it was pulled onto the Netflix platform. At first glance, the TV series is just another story about Humanity’s struggle to survive on an inhospitable planet, joining the many post-earth TV series on their catalogue, such as The 100 (2018-2020), The Rain (2020) and Into the Night (2020). The eponymous Snowpiercer is a train that circles an uninhabitable earth. The apocalyptic event that precedes the story is triggered by the release of synthetic coolant CW-7 into the atmosphere in an attempt to reverse global warming. Now on its seventh revolution through the earth’s unforgiving whiteness, the train struggles to stay on track as a rebellion from its tail end threatens its delicate socio-ecological balance. Consisting of unticketed passengers that have been forced into the last carriages with limited space, food, and water, the Tailies seek to rearrange the social order of the rain. The fragility of the closed container of Snowpiercer is jeopardized by an external temperature that is announced to be -119.6 degrees in the first episode. Used to execute dissidents by freezing off entire limbs in a matter of seconds, the cold makes even the smallest breach a grave threat. Snowpiercer thus becomes (for the most part) the last container of life on earth, a near-biblical ark brought to fruition by human ingenuity and technological prowess.
The TV series first premiered on TNT in the US and is based loosely on the French graphic novel series created in 1984 by Jacques Lob and illustrator Jean-Marc Rochette. The second and third volumes of the original comic were released by Benjamin Legrand and Rochette in 1999 and 2000 respectively, with Olivier Bocquet and Rochette wrapping things up with the fourth volume in 2015. Bong Joon-Ho’s esteemed direction of the Snowpiercer film in 2013, based mostly on the first and second French volumes, was produced in English. Boosted by widely recognised faces such as Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, the narrative assumed an international reach that triggered the translation of the original French comic series into English in 2014 and 2016, re-distributed into three volumes instead of four by Titan Comics. Titan Comics also produced a two-volume prequel comic to the Snowpiercer universe in September 2019 and November 2020, written by Matz and illustrated by Rochette.
Amidst this vibrant intertextual history, Graeme Manson and co-producer James Hawes have done well with the TV series. Their version of the end of the world rejects an essentialised, undifferentiated notion of Humanity (with a capital H). It reinserts the complex material and cultural struggles surrounding resource scarcity into the dominant technocratic narrative of climate breakdown, a narrative that has long presented green technology as the main solution to the present climatological condition. The consequences of climate breakdown, they insist, will always be experienced unevenly, the blame most heavily falling on the Global North, and the consequences most greatly borne by the Global South.
As is typical of works in the post-apocalypse and cli-fi genre, energy scarcity forms a key concern, managed through human technology and ingenuity. Indeed, across all Snowpiercer’s permutations, humanity’s last vanguard of defence against a frozen death is the old energy myth of sf: the perpetual motion engine. In Lob’s graphic novel, the engine assumes a pseudo-sentient status, requiring human companionship. Although it loosely gestures towards notions of sentient AI, the comic series never really develops this, eventually choosing to take its plot off-train. In the TV series, on the other hand, as with Bong’s film, the eternal engine is completely inanimate and thoroughly engineered by human design: specifically, by Wilford Industries. Mr. Wilford, as the creator of the engine, assumes a god-like status in both film and series, something that Manson and Hawes magnify in the latter. The man is even afforded an altar in the Snowpiercer’s Tea Room, a spiritual car. In a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the Catholic practice of drawing the sign of the cross, his supporters draw a W across their chest. Wilford’s deification in the TV series most vibrantly articulates the faith in the progress of Humanity’s technological expertise that has become so characteristic of the Capitalocene. This technocratic faith is also encapsulated by the admittance of protagonist Layton’s adopted son, Miles, into the ranks of the train’s engineers, a highly esteemed role. As the brightest new mind to continue this essential work of balancing the train’s energy inputs and outputs, his full name, Miles and Miles, is a hopeful prayer for an engine truly eternal.
Keeping the carrying capacity of the train’s biosphere on track is thus a major plot engine within the TV series, involving the neo-Malthusian balancing act of limiting population size and creating food supplies. Yet, while scientists and engineers hold great esteem within the series for their ability to keep this delicate mathematical balance in check, the show makes it clear that it is not just about the math. Indeed, the TV series’ main success is its ability to strike a fine balance between the histrionic ecological emergencies that threaten to derail the train (always soothed by the hospitality team, dressed in an inoffensive faux-calm shade of teal) and the other very human, social issues that the series explores.
Manson’s Snowpiercer sheds the brutalist aesthetics of the original cramped, Soviet-like train in Lob’s comic (Bocquet). It more closely resembles the luxury liner designed within Bong’s film, by production designer Ondrej Nekvasil. Masterminded by Barry Robinson, the beauty of animal and plant life in the TV series is given space to shine around the human dramas of the train, acting as an elegy to the complex ecosystems wiped out by the manmade apocalypse. The mathematical problem of sustaining life is thus given a highly sensuous quality. Furthermore, by avoiding chrome finishes for the train’s interior and utilising copper instead (Grebey), the TV series distracts from the train’s apocalyptic dieselpunk exterior and eschews a minimalist end-of-earth aesthetic.
The material and cultural issues that accompany the end of the world are also given ample space to play out around the ecological and technological crises in Manson’s series. Indeed, it is in the articulation of socio-economic inequality where the series sets itself apart from the 2013 film. In the latter, Bong’s critique of capitalist inequality is couched in allegory and absurdity. Who could forget Minister Mason’s (Tilda Swinton) speech as the limb of a Tail member gets frozen off? Resting a shoe on his head, their theatrical rhetoric is at once laughable and deeply unsettling: “Would you wear a shoe on your head?” The film gestures towards the cyclical and inherently chaotic nature of capitalist progress, as Mr. Wilford is revealed to work in tandem with ex-leader of the tail, Gilliam, to spark periodic revolts. Through such rebellions, the tail population is systematically pruned by 74%, thus restoring ecological balance. Unfortunately, the momentum of Bong’s plot loses steam after Curtis successfully reaches the engine. The lengthy dialogue he has with Wilford on capitalism and its cycles of instability is an anti-climactic finish to his rebellion—saved only by the final explosion of the entire train. The derailment of the train and the emergence of the last two surviving humans into the snow (Korean girl, Yona, and 5-year-old Afro-American boy, Timmy) suggests that destroying the train is a more viable option than rehauling its existing capitalist system.
Conversely, the serialised medium of television offers Manson and Hawes more space to explore the intricacies of resource struggles. The caloric distribution of food is the most visible manifestation of such inequalities in a post-apocalyptic world. Both the graphic novel and film imagine radical changes in our food future. In the comic, rabbits are bred as meat for the most privileged, while the rest of the train’s population feed on something called the mother, the quasi-sentient blob that resembles a yeast culture. The artificial supply of meat is grotesque despite its miraculous proliferation and certain supply, disturbing in the same way as Margaret Atwood’s chickienobs in her novel Oryx and Crake. Bong’s film similarly invokes a sense of grotesque when depicting the food of the Tail section, even exploring the trope of cannibalism. Furthermore, the dark, gelatinous slabs of protein that the Tail eats are ground from insects (roaches), an ingredient that has now received serious scientific consideration in technofixing the worlds’ shrinking food supplies.
In this, Manson’s latest reincarnation of the tale is perhaps the least original. Yet, in part because of this, it most poignantly critiques the realities of the current world food system. Synthetic and miraculous gustatory concoctions are completely missing from the TV series. The train’s food system is instead supported by greenhouses and aquariums as well as feedlots in the cars loosely grouped together as Ag-Sec. While slabs identical to those in Bong’s film are served up, their origin is not mentioned, suggesting a perhaps more open-minded attitude to non-animal protein alternatives. Despite the (just) sufficient volume of calories being produced for the entire train population, the richest eat in quality and excess, while the poorest starve. The highly familiar food system of the microcosmic train thus provides a no-frills critique of food distribution in reality, mirroring it closely.
Building on the film’s abstract critique of capitalist inequality, the TV series also more fully explores its unsustainable contradictions through its rebellion. Manson’s chosen hero, Layton, stages a more convincing revolution than Curtis in Bong’s film, with information networks and diplomatic tactics. Significantly, he forms an alliance between the Tail and Third Class section, unfolding a complex picture of class politics and the value of unionising labour as underground networks unfurl amongst janitors, caterers, and brakemen. As Miss Audrey, a key ally from Third, threatens, “Third touches every system on this train. We will be heard.”
The diverse and inclusive world of the Tailies and Third Class that displaces the wealthy population of the First Class section in the series is a key tenet of its success. The distinct rejection of a white-centric picture of Humanity’s survival, engineered through wealthy technocrats, is reflected through Manson’s and Hawes’ casting choices, containing a deliberate diversity that is absent from the graphic novels and film. Unlike a largely white, cisgendered heterosexual cast of the film, led by the face of Chris Evans, with the token black and Asian actors, the TV series features African American actor Daveed Diggs, playing Layton’s character, as its hero.
The mix of characters in the series is also far more inclusive along the lines of gender and sexuality. Unlike the film, in which Curtis stops the young female Yona from engaging in combat, the series stars strong women in the frontlines of political and military confrontation. Strikingly, the brightest engineer and character behind Mr. Wilson’s fictional persona in the first season is Melanie Cavill. She is joined by a whole host of other female characters who play key roles in the revolution: Miss Audrey (the Madonna of the Nightcar who performs the train’s healing and emotional salvation); Josie (Layton’s revolutionary partner-in-crime) and Bess Till (another frontliner in the revolution who convinces the brakemen to join the movement). The series also features several queer characters such as train detective Bess Till, chef Jinju, civilian Zarah and brakeman Osweiller.
Overall, I am surprised by the nuance of the TV series, given the limited mileage offered by the ‘last train on earth’ premise. Despite being strongly rooted within a hard sf tradition where math is critical in ensuring survival, the TV series asserts that it can only get us so far in understanding the end of the world. Beyond the abstract margins of scientists and engineers, climate breakdown and resource scarcity are experienced in highly material and uneven terms. If climate breakdown is not just a technological problem but also a cultural and imaginative one, the series offers a bold vision of what it would be like to radically re-imagine our existing socio-political structures of inequality. With the production for season 3 now in train, I am excited to see where the next season alights.
Bocquet, Olivier and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. Terminus. Casterman, 2015.
Halperin, Moze. “We Talked to Snowpiercer’s Production Designer About Building A World Inside A Train”. Vice, 2014. https://www.vice.com/en/article/mgpvba/we-talked-to-snowpiercers-production-designer-about-building-a-world-inside-a-train
Grebey, James. “Make it a little more Ridley Scott’: How Snowpiercer’s 1,001-car train got built IRL”. SyfyWire, 2020. https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/snowpiercer-1001-car-train-inspiration.
Joon-Ho, Bong, director. Snowpiercer. CJ Entertainment, 2013.
Lob, Jacques and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. Le Transperceneige. Casterman, 1982.
Legrand, Benjamin and Jean-Marc Rochette, creators. The Explorers. Casterman, 1999.
—–, creators. The Crossing. Casterman, 2000.
Ada Cheong is a PhD candidate at the Department of English in the University of Exeter. Her thesis examines contemporary sf of the Americas and the ways in which such fictions help us to navigate the late-capitalist food ecology. Sitting loosely within the field of the Energy Humanities, her interdisciplinary research looks at a variety of sf tropes such as terraformation, post-apocalyptic biospheres, zombies, etc. to illuminate the intersections between food, technology and ecology in the Capitalocene. Beyond her academic teaching and research, Ada also takes an active interest in local foodways, and is a home fermenter and baker.