Somewhere along the line, the makers of The Snowman must have thought that they were launching a long-running blockbuster franchise. It’s adapted from a Scandi-noir novel which is part of a bestselling series by Jo Nesbø, and the cast and crew are stocked with A-listers: the director is Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), the producer is Martin Scorsese, and Michael Fassbender plays the hero, Harry Hole. But even with all of these big names in the credits, will The Snowman be successful enough to justify a sequel, or even a slew of sequels? The film is so preposterous, yet so drab, that it has a snowball’s chance in hell.

The most obvious flaw is its main character. Harry is a revered Norwegian police inspector, but instead of having a personality he has a vinyl record collection and a supposedly severe drinking problem. Just to prove how severe it is, he is first shown waking up one morning in a hut in an Oslo park, and he nods off in a snowdrift outside a bar a few scenes later. Unfortunately, hard-drinking detectives are such a cliché that his alcoholism isn’t fascinating in and of itself. Worse, it has absolutely no impact on his behaviour or his police work.

Snowmen just don’t look very sinister, and their repeated appearances in the film are more likely to elicit giggles than gasps

Indeed, once the plot gets underway, he doesn’t even think about touching a drop of alcohol, a whimsical representation of addiction which might have been acceptable when Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes an on-off cocaine and morphine habit, but which seems stupid today. Alfredson tries to make his hero more appealing by including one moodily lit shot of a topless Fassbender, demonstrating that Harry is in remarkably good shape for a middle-aged man who drinks and smokes so much, but he still isn’t charismatic or distinctive enough to encourage you to see any more of his adventures. Ironically for a character named Hole, he is the hole in the centre of the film.

The next major flaw is that the villain isn’t all that interesting, either. Harry and his young sidekick (Rebecca Ferguson), who has even less of a personality than he does, are on the trail of a serial killer, but his only distinguishing feature is that he builds snowmen at the scene of the crime. Why does he do that, you may ask. A prologue introduces him as a boy whose mother died because of the cruelty of a sadistic provincial policeman, so there is some reason for his anger at the world. But the snowman business remains a far-fetched gimmick. Perhaps he is a fan of Olaf from Frozen, or has cherished memories of the classic Raymond Briggs book and cartoon. All we can say for certain is that, despite the best efforts of the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special, snowmen just don’t look very sinister, and their repeated appearances in the film are more likely to elicit giggles than gasps.

Without his snowy trademark, though, the villain wouldn’t just be a standard-issue psycho, he would barely be on screen at all. There is one tense cat-and-mouse sequence which shows off Alfredson’s mood-setting skills at their eerie best. And there is one unintentionally risible sequence in which the killer threatens a pair of chicken-beheading identical twins played by Chloë Sevigny. But for most of The Snowman, the villain is absent, and so the film has to wander off on long, convoluted and ever more confusing detours. In particular, it’s astounding how much time it devotes to Oslo’s bid to host the Winter Olympics – or the Winter Sports World Cup as they are renamed, presumably because the Olympics quite sensibly wanted to keep their distance. I know that pickled herring is a Norwegian staple, but there’s no excuse for The Snowman to be so packed with red herrings.

Val Kilmer now looks disturbingly as if he’s wearing an ill-fitting Kurt Russell mask

There’s little excuse, either, for the convention of setting the events in and around Oslo, but having the actors speak English in more-or-less British accents. (The exception is Val Kilmer, who cameos as another detective, and who now looks disturbingly as if he’s wearing an ill-fitting Kurt Russell mask. I’ve no idea what accent he was going for.) This convention was upheld by David Fincher’s film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as the BBC’s Wallander television series, but it’s a distracting one. If you really have to have actors speaking English in a Scandinavian story, why not relocate it to somewhere English-speaking, but similarly chilly? This approach worked stunningly well for Christopher Nolan’s Alaska-set remake of Insomnia.

But maybe Alfredson and his team knew that the Nordic setting was all that separated their film from any other generic, post-Silence of the Lambs exploitation thriller. Take away all of the Scandi-noir signifiers – patterned woolly jumpers, Volvos, frozen fjords, and (for fans of The Bridge) lots and lots of bridges – and The Snowman melts away, leaving nothing but a puddle.


If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.