There’s been a Murder on the Disoriented Express.
Fortunately, there’s a trained detective onboard, and he’s been called upon to solve the case. Wait, what’s that? Oh, he’s a TRAIN detective. That’s what everyone’s calling him: “a train detective.” I’m not sure how that distinguishes him from being a regular detective, but there you have it. Climb aboard the pulpy and involving and occasionally flat-out nutso sci-fi series “Snowpiercer,” and we’ll get to the bottom of this.
Based on and inspired by the 1982 French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” and the 2013 film by Bong Joon-ho (“Parasite”), TNT’s “Snowpiercer” is set some eight years before the events of the feature film but also takes place in a New Ice Age that was created when an attempt to reverse global warming went horribly wrong. The Earth has frozen solid, with temperatures so brutal you’d be instantly killed just by stepping into the atmosphere, and the last 3,000 survivors are aboard Snowpiercer, a perpetually running, 1,001-car train that literally circles the planet and has its own ecosystem that provides a steady supply of water, food, fuel and other essentials to keep on chugging.
Snowpiercer is divided into four sections. First class is reserved for the one-percenters, who paid a fortune for the privilege of residing in opulent suites, dining on gourmet meals and living a life of pampered luxury. In second class you’ll find the scientists and teachers and other professionals, all living quite comfortably. The janitors and restaurant servers and security personnel are in the decidedly downscale third class — but third class is still light years better than the prison-camp conditions of the “tailies,” who stormed the train without tickets just before it pulled out of Chicago and are forced to do slave labor and live in cars with no sunlight, no beds and just enough food and water to keep them alive.
Gee, with a class system like that in a perpetually moving modern-day ark no one can ever leave, what could possibly go wrong?
Jennifer Connelly gives one of the most impressive and complex performances of her career as Melanie Cavill, the head of hospitality and the de facto leader of the Snowpiercer community, who is always impeccably outfitted in a teal ensemble and has a demeanor icier than the outside temperatures. Melanie rules every section of the train with an iron fist as she carries out the orders of the mysterious and all-powerful Mr. Wilford, who built the train and is worshiped by his minions as a deity, though he remains holed up in his quarters at the front of the train and hasn’t been seen “in public” for years.
When a corpse is discovered on the train, its limbs and genitalia severed, Melanie summons one Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) from the bowels of the tailie car, because Layton was a real-world police detective and is uniquely qualified to investigate the case. From that point on, everyone talks about Layton being a “train detective,” and I swear at first thought I they were saying he was a “trained detective.” Why they call him a train detective is beyond me. It’s not like they call the teachers “train teachers” or the engineers “train engineers” or the doctors “train doctors.”
The murder investigation is the backdrop for a wide-ranging series of subplots, some of which eventually come to the forefront, as we meet various characters in different sections of the train, including a wealthy and grotesquely smug family in first class; Layton’s wife, who betrayed the tailies for a better life upfront; a head janitor turned drug dealer; a lesbian couple deeply in love but with conflicting interests, and a brilliant young “tailie” boy being groomed to become an engineer.
“Snowpiercer” the series isn’t nearly as rough and violent as the 2013 film, but it’s still a brutal affair, filled with brawls that leave the survivors covered in blood — not to mention the numerous scenes of accused traitors having an arm cut off, the standard punishment for acts of insubordination. (If you REALLY cross the line, they’ll just stick your head out the window and it’ll freeze right off, or they’ll pump the icy air straight into your lungs and you’ll turn blue in seconds.) This is a great-looking series, with just enough CGI shots taken from outside the train to remind us of the ludicrously spectacular nature of this rolling experiment, and nifty camerawork taking us from the colorful decadence of first class through the “Night Car,” a club dripping with opportunities to explore the sins of the flesh, through the “Ocean Car,” with its tanks of fish, to the dark and hopeless and suffocating world of the tailies.
Daveed Diggs gives a powerful performance as Layton, who organizes the inevitable rebellion against the ruling class even as he’s charged with investigating the murder, which turns out to be murders plural. In the process, he discovers just about everyone aboard Snowpiercer isn’t what they appear to be. This train will have to make at least a few more runs around the world before all the secrets are uncovered.