It’s kind of happy-sad, like watching a kid you knew as a toddler graduate from high school: Chris Evans, seemingly destined to be a boy forever, is now officially a grown-up. In Bong Joon-ho’s futuristic snowbummer Snowpiercer, the Korean director’s first English-language film, Evans plays the leader of a group of have-nots who rebel against a bunch of haves, all stuck together on a high-speed train that perpetually circles the Earth, which a new Ice Age has rendered uninhabitable. Looking gaunt and bony beneath his drab, baggy threads, a knit cap pulled low on his brow, Edge-style, Evans is more like a cheerless hobo than an overgrown bro. Is that really a good thing?
Evans, a charming and rambunctious actor, should be allowed to grow up; no one can play Captain America or Johnny Storm forever. But Snowpiercer needlessly weighs Evans down, dragging us along with him. Even as dystopian dramas go, the picture is arid and lusterless in its more serious moments and unpleasantly kitschy when it tries to soar over the top. Not even Tilda Swinton, as a ruthless Margaret Thatcher stand-in with a prosthetic overbite, can keep it on the rails. She’s rendered in tight, wrinkle-intensifying close-ups that flash-fry any wit or foxiness she might have brought to the role.
Swinton’s outsized character, Mason, is a sort of prison warden in sensible woolen suits and enormous eyeglasses. She shows up early, a promise of more overkill to come. It’s been 17 years since a massive freeze-out, caused by an attempt to reverse global warning, has wiped out most of life on Earth. The few human survivors have been herded onto a climate-controlled train that protects them from the sub-zero temperatures outside, though there’s so much cruelty inside that some passengers must surely wonder if it’s worth it. The front of the train harbors society’s crème de la crème, people with plenty of food as well as access to beauty parlors, schooling for their piggy children, and a host of decadent nightclubby diversions that require them to writhe around in New Wavey outfits. In the back of the train languish the undesirables, a bedraggled bunch played by the likes of Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell, who are forced to gnaw on shiny black “protein bars” that, we learn, are made out of something you really wouldn’t want to eat. Quite a few of these underclass citizens, among them John Hurt’s wise and wizened Gilliam, are missing arms and legs, for reasons that will eventually become clear. Evans’s Curtis has had enough of this rich-vs.-poor divide: After enlisting the help of a drugged-out security specialist (played by Bong regular Song Kang-ho), he hopes to forge his way to the front and raise holy hell.
Snowpiercer is based on a 1982 graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, and even if you don’t know the source material, you can see how it plays right into Bong’s meticulousness as a director: He worked from detailed story boards, and it shows — the narrative moves from scene to scene with an almost defiant clarity, a welcome relief from the jumbled overload of so many mainstream movies based on comic books. His vision is a distinctly 1980s brand of futurism, carrying whiffs of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (Gilliam, presumably, inspired the name of Hurt’s character) and Michael Radford’s mostly forgotten George Orwell adaptation 1984 (in which, incidentally, Hurt starred). And the Snowpiercer itself, bullet-sleek but also marvelously articulated, like a jointed snake toy, is a nifty futuristic marvel: Bong comes up with some beautifully vertiginous point-of-view shots as the train, looking precariously lissome, zips along a track perched high above chilly, snow-covered valleys.
But the picture’s aggressive bleakness, not to mention its sociocultural theme with a capital T, becomes tiresome long before Ed Harris, as the mastermind behind this whole socially striated train thing, shows up in a silk bathrobe (though admittedly, he does look pretty rad in it). Like Bong’s previous movies, among them Mother and The Host, there’s a streak of nastiness running through Snowpiercer. The violence is humorless and blunt. The idea, maybe, is that watching the setup for a particularly brutal amputation is somehow supposed to be meaningful because it’s an accurate reflection of the depravity of humankind. But sometimes a limb whacking is just a limb whacking. Don’t try to tell us it’s good for us, like one of those protein bars made of — never mind.