A train called Snowpiercer loops the planet after a global disaster, as an onboard mystery keeps the plot of this TV show rolling, says Emily Wilson
8 July 2020
Jennifer Connolly, Mike O’Malley and Daveed Diggs in Snowpiercer (left to right)
Streaming on Netflix
This review is designed to be as spoiler-free as possible. It was written based on the first five episodes
SNOWPIERCER is set in a nearish future in which some last fragments of humanity live on a train powered by an “eternal engine”. This 1001-carriage-long ark endlessly circles a frozen Earth made uninhabitable by bungling geoengineers who had been trying to fix climate change.
If you can accept the central premise for what it is, asking no awkward science questions about eternal engines or how a rail track can circumnavigate the globe, then there is plenty to enjoy on board Snowpiercer.
The plot, based on a film by Bong Joon-ho (now of Parasite fame) and before that a French graphic novel, imagines the train as a “fortress to class”.
Up front, a few privileged families live a life of luxury, the decor a cross between a Wes Anderson movie and an Agatha Christie novel.
Next, you get second class (not quite as nice, more economy lodge) and third class (a bit Blade Runner, loud music, steam punk vibe).
Finally, right at the back, you get the filthy wagons occupied by “tailees” who got on the train without a ticket and have subsequently been treated very poorly indeed.
Our two lead characters hail from opposite ends of the train. From the front, we get the leader of train hospitality, Melanie Cavill, played by Jennifer Connolly. Her job is to ensure perfect order on the train or, as she puts it, she “wears many hats”. Connolly, very elegant in her gorgeously cut turquoise uniform, is a mysterious and queenly, yet very human, presence.
Then, from the back of the train, we get a former homicide detective called Andre Layton, played by Daveed Diggs. He has spent the seven years since the train set off living in conditions of horrific squalor, scrabbling to make ends meet, endlessly working towards the revolution that the tailees long for.
“Right at the back, you get the filthy wagons occupied by ‘tailees’ who got on the train without a ticket”
The two leads meet when Layton – as the only murder-solving police officer left on the planet – is scrubbed clean and then dragged forwards from the tail to solve a killing “up train”.
The police procedural is a bit of a clunky addition to a show about a dystopian future on a train cutting through avalanches, but the advantage of it, of course, is that we get to explore the train properly as our cop pokes around, looking for the killer.
We get to see carriages devoted to agriculture and even a lovely aquarium, as well as the various living quarters of our new Snowpiercer friends and a secondary rail system sitting under the carriages that takes workers hither and thither.
As well as piecing together the main murder story, we get to piece together clues about a different background puzzle: the underlying mystery of Mr Wilford. He is said to be the owner and inventor of the train, and to be on board, although the ticket holders don’t see him.
I can’t quite work out yet how this story can keep going beyond its initial 10 episodes, given how tiny this closed world is – will they meet other people, get off the train?
Either way, season 2 has already been commissioned, so it looks like this eternal engine will keep rolling for some time to come, if not for eternity.
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