In 1982 a very peculiar train was leaving for what was going to be a long, long journey. Starting from a French graphic novel, it made its first major stop in 2013, when it was transported on the big screen by Bong Joon-ho. In 2020, it took an unexpected turn, reaching a new station: a tv show.
Take a breath before we start thinking about season 2 and join us for a little recap on what makes both adaptations brilliant and much needed, in their own way.
“I can’t remember.”
“If you can’t remember, then it’s better to forget”
Snowpiercer (2013) takes place after 17 years living on the train. The atmosphere of the movie can only be described as surreal, even bizarre. You can smell madness, the madness of a proper dystopian fairytale. The characters have completely lost touch with reality and not just in terms of memories. They surely struggle to remember, draw each other’s pictures as best as they can, with many so young they have never seen the real world in the first place. And yet, perhaps even more than that, they have lost touch with the morals and boundaries of society as we know it.
I love when you do not have the time or budget to show every single bit of a backstory, and yet, you use this ellipsis as an opportunity. There are no didascalic moments that sound forced or crafted for the audience. Instead, we find many little details to mark the passing of time – think of the mimicking of a part of the Sacred Engine, a gesture mostly repeated by Mason (Tilda Swinton).
All the information we receive is organically embedded in the plot and, whenever the characters refer to a certain historical event, a practice or a person we know nothing about without giving an explanation, it doesn’t feel like they’re depriving us of a part of the story. It is their story, their world, and it makes perfect sense that we, as external viewers, will never know all they know.
Power comes from mastering the resources they have left right now – the Sacred Engine. None of the characters – perhaps only Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) – seem to be concerned about the future outside the train. Their Snowpiercer is not a means to an end – a tool to preserve humanity waiting for a better world – it is the final stop.
“We take the engine and we control the world.”
The struggle is literally to remember how to be human. Being human is painful, because there is loss, there are feelings, desires, longing. But then again, after almost two decades, the passengers need to do something more than survive; they need to find a reason beyond hunger and pain, because right now, regardless of the Freeze, there is simply no humanity left to be saved.
For Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), the reluctant leader, every step is forced, every moment of leadership feels like a burden. His revolution is simultaneously incredibly personal and very much impersonal: Curtis is the train – every aspect of his character is also a distinctive trait of the world he lives in – but he has completely lost himself in that merger. His will is the will of the people; he has survived to protect others and he fights until the end to allow others to carry on.
Just like the train, Curtis cannot seem to die. His survival instinct keeps him whole (literally) and strong, and he hates himself for it: it is almost as if his ability to survive sets him apart from the ‘normal people’ dying around him. And, just like the train, he is doomed to carry inside himself all the mistakes, the atrocities, and those choices that might have been necessary to survive, but that will leave a permanent scar on one’s soul. Curtis has to tear his own body apart and the train has to do the same so that for humanity will have a chance to be reborn through their only hope – two ‘train babies’ . The children must leave behind both the train and people like Curtis, whose work is done.
But how did we get to that ending?
Snowpiercer (2020) comes in to fill some gaps. It takes place 7 years into the Freeze, so our favourite dystopian train is about a decade younger. You can feel it in every storyline, in every character.
The show maintains a strong grip on reality and so do the passengers. They miss what they left behind, but even the young ones (at least most of them) remember. The mood is very nostalgic, but that nostalgia is only possible because their past is still close. They have pictures, objects, all sorts of memorabilia from that life. It does not matter whether the rich have a room to hang said picture and the ‘Taillies’ have a rusty ring: you can touch the past and, as long it is tangible, it still exists.
In the movie, the inability to remember even the simplest things is inevitably linked to the desire to let go. In the show, what people were before the Freeze does matter, even for the plot – Layton’s job is what sets everything in motion.
“Calm Hospitality, calm train.”
The staff is almost entirely focused on keeping up with the appearances. Hospitality maintains the same role they would have on a pleasure cruise: they inspire calm. I found this attitude very much connected to the undercurrent of denial coming from First Class passengers. There is definitely a part of them that still wishes to go through this event – the literal end of civilization – as if nothing has happened and then return to their normal life. Aboard 2020 Snowpiercer, power means living a life which is as close as possible to the past world and calling the shots for survival until the end of the Freeze.
This is where I saw a profound, fascinating difference from the movie: the ‘until’ part. There is no more ‘until’ in the movie, only the train. If you control the engine, you control the world, because the train is the world. While on the tv show, you want to control the engine to get a chance to return to the world.
The impossibility to accept the idea they might never get off Snowpiercer hit different characters in different moments throughout the show. The biggest challenge is to renounce your humanity in order to make those devastating yet unavoidable choices that will keep the train going. And we know from the movie that this will turn into a problem near the end, closing a full circle.
Our new leader, Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), is nothing but pure human empathy, from head to toe. He embraces the idea of an alliance between lower classes, he doesn’t hesitate to forgive, to convert, to see the good intentions of those who have been his enemies for years. Never during the series we perceive him as naïve: Layton is capable, smart, strong-willed and on top of that, emotionally intelligent. His empathy is a skill. Nobody could be more of an anti-Curtis to underline how different their worlds are: Curtis was ‘the man with the knife’, and Layton literally killed that man.
This is why Leyton cannot comprehend the lack of humanity he has been witnessing from the people in charge. The idea there is not a more compassionate solution is alien to him. He believes in the motto ‘one train’. Leyton saves a guard who had been less than horrible to him. Curtis leaves the person he loves the most, Edgar (Jamie Bell), to die for their cause.
“What made you like this?”
It is Josie (Katie McGuinness) who comes up with that question when facing the worst side of Snowpiercer’s true leader Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), but it might as well have been Leyton. Which steps did you take to become capable of sacrificing so many lives for a greater purpose? Wasn’t there any other way? It is only after Layton had to face his first terrible decision to save the train that we – the audience and him – are beginning to see Melanie’s path and everybody else’s with it. When Layton and Melanie face each other right after cutting 7 carriages, only a few words are spoken, because the answer suddenly becomes simple. That path doesn’t seem so far away, now.
That is what I found beautiful and incredibly smart about this show: its story forms a bridge that should lead the viewer from ‘us’ – the people living in a normal world – to ‘them’ – the Tailies from the movie, the ones that feel more distant from us. The choice of setting up the show in a different timeline allows both stories to be unique and fundamental. The continuity will never be a perfect fit in terms of plot points – that is not why it was created throughout and yet, the show has definitely started on the right track (pun intended) to explore the psychological evolution of the various époques in the post-Freeze world.
Each story is meant to be self-sufficient and you do not need to watch both to have a complete picture. You do have the privilege to do so, though, and to never stop exploring the myriad of ‘what ifs’ Snowpiercer carries with it.