This will be the first of, what I am hoping will be, at least a monthly series focusing on the first three films in a director’s career. The focus will be on their feature film work and how I decide who and when I don’t really know. Maybe I will coordinate it with director’s upcoming releases or maybe when I just get the feeling of digging into someone’s roots. The series will allow me to review some older films and maybe even see how far some directors have come over the years. So with out further ado…and SPOILER WARNING for all three films…
Three Film In…Zack Snyder: Dawn of the Dead (2004) – 300 – Watchmen
Snyder is a rather young director with only five films under his belt but he has done so in a mere 7 years. His latest features, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Sucker Punch, continue to show off his amazing visual sensibility as he has etched out his style so well that you can tell if a movie is made by from a couple quick clips. He is next taking his action and visual sensibilities to the Christopher Nolan reboot of Superman and I for one can’t wait to see what he does with the property.
But speculating Snyder’s future isn’t the point of this article, we are looking at his beginnings of becoming a filmmaker. Starting off as a commercial and video director for a number of years it was in 2004 that he released his first feature film:
Dawn of the Dead, like all three films in this feature, is based off an established film/property. George A. Romero’s original film, a follow up to Night of the Living Dead, is often in the argument as the best zombie movie ever made. Snyder had some big shoes to fill, but luckily, in 2004, zombies weren’t as prevalent as they have been in recent years in pop culture. What I mean is, outside 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil franchise, not a lot of Zombie material was out there in the main stream. This allowed for Snyder’s film to be innovative and different in the genre, action wise especially and in turn helped frame what the current zombie landscape looks like.
The film is a fun and refreshing entry into the genre delivering plenty of laughs and scares along the way. Working from a script by James Gunn, who did the excellent zombie/alien mash up film, Slither, a couple years later, Snyder had a guy who got the genre and knew how to play around with it. I will be the first to say that the film’s third act makes some ridiculous turns to get things moving out of the mall but beyond that contrived hic-up the film moves forward quite naturally for what would probably happen locked in a mall for the zombie apocalypse.
Snyder and Gunn decided to go with the fast, super strong, zombie of 28 Days Later and while the zombie action is lighter than you would imagine, it allows for some intense moments when they show up. The speed allows the filmmakers to create a greater threat and terror with far fewer zombies, making one a potential havoc on survivors. It also helps save on budget and make up cost since you don’t need massive groups, but luckily there are a couple of solid moments with hordes of zombies as well.
The film is enjoyable because it really gets to know the characters, the core first group especially. Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, and Jake Weber are the film’s three rocks and they all do admirable work, especially for a zombie horror film. Michael Kelly plays an asshole security guard who serves as the film’s first act villain, and even though they don’t ever give him an on screen turn, as he starts helping the survivors when the shit goes down you are instantly rooting for him; an subtle feat. Ty Burrell provides plenty of laughs as a dickish prick and he even makes a good zombie in the end too. There is a montage that really settles you in with these characters and provides lots of good humor in the films middle act, even connecting you with a character a quarter mile away from the mall with no dialogue.
The film even finds poignancy from time to time, the best moment being when Matt Frewer’s character is left to turn into a zombie as they figure out that getting bit is the key to turning. Frewer is in the film for a whole 5 minutes without any dialogue and we care about him and it’s a sad little beat before the fore mentioned comedy/good time’s montage.
It is the shaky thought process behind a couple decisions in the third act that you can call to attention as the short comings of the film. First, the girl would never go for the dog and it is such a bone headed moment you can’t help but be taken out of things. On top of this, the fact that they were able to construct these pseudo-tanks out of buses is cool, but quite preposterous. I am glad to see that they threw in some self inflicted carnage among the survivors on the bus, but the fact that Snyder didn’t explore the violence between the survivors a bit more is a tad disappointing. Last thing that didn’t really work for me was the zombie baby; sorry fans of the zombie baby.
The action in the film is very well executed as well and Snyder starts things off with a bang as all hell breaks loose pretty quickly. Polley’s escape from her home is sad and terrifying and as she drives through the streets as the apocalypse begins the mayhem is everywhere. Snyder captures the confusion and panic of the moment perfectly. Once they get into the mall the action is sparse, as only a couple zombies are there to start with, and we don’t get any more until the film’s third act. The zombie’s are plentiful and the intensity stays high, but I think Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, also released in 2004, might have been more creative in both its zombie and survivor kills. The scene where the bus is overwhelmed is a visual treat, the exploding propane tank especially, but I do find it hard to believe they couldn’t have just plowed through the zombies. Why did they have to stop; another odd misstep that seems there only for a moment of action or the need to move plot.
The film is a light character piece that sticks mostly to the surface but is fun, gory, and has good action to go along with the easy to like characters. Snyder keeps the film moving along, gets the most out of his actors, and makes all the corners they have to cut go as smoothly as possible. It is a fine debut feature film, he made a horror film that I actually enjoyed and that is saying something, but it didn’t even begin to tap into what he is capable of if you ask me.
From 300 on, if you look at any of Zack Snyder’s films you could very easily pin it as a Zack Snyder film. Snyder’s visual as is unique and spectacular and this is where we get our first taste of it. Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, which is in turn a reimagined telling of the Battle of Thermopylae which is where 7.000 Greeks held off Xerxes Persian army of 100’s of thousands. Miller narrows his story down to 300 lone Spartan soldiers led by King Leonidas to defend The Hot Gates of Thermopylae. In history, the 300 Spartans were a line of last defense that stayed behind to defend the rear of the evacuating larger force after their rear flank was compromised by a traitor. If you have seen the film, most of these pieces make it in, but Miller and Snyder elevate the Spartans to demi-god like levels of heroes that must take on some nasty mythological like beasts in Xerxes army almost single handedly. The results are spectacular swords and sandals action fare that can’t be found anywhere else.
Before we get to those brilliant action scenes though, Snyder takes us into the head of King Leonidas and gradually builds the anticipation towards the battle at The Hot Gates. Many action directors would feel the need to give the audience little action beats sprinkled every few minutes or so but Snyder builds his characters and makes us fall for these bare chested beasts of Sparta as they march to almost certain doom. Once the action starts it doesn’t really relent, but the slow build up allows the film to build its own mythology and mystique around these 300 Spartans so that when the killing starts we believe every beat of it.
The character designs of the villains in the film are something to marvel at and the Spartans are left to ward off a number of interesting attackers. From elephants to rhinos, giants and immortal samurai types, or endless hordes of Persian slaves and warriors the variety is endless. Inside the camp of Xerxes reveals some of the strangest and most creative creatures, my particular nasty favorite being an executioner with bone saw arms from the elbow down; grotesquely awesome.
It is the look of the film that really made people stick their butts in the seats though. Hyper stylized and looking unlike anything thrown up on the screen, the film looks classic and new all at once. Utilizing the most modern of technology at the time, shot on blue screens and prominently using a filming technique called speed ramping, the film has a visual style that can’t be found in reality. Snyder concocts some amazing action beats and captures them beautifully on his camera in a number of extended single shots that have to be seen to believe. The film’s over the top nature never feels like too much and you feel the joy the Spartans take in slaughtering the hordes of attackers that fall at their feet.
Even the bits back in Sparta, away from the fighting, serve as a compelling narrative as Lena Headey stars as the Spartan Queen as she battles the politicians in an attempt to get them to support her King in hopes of her husbands return. Dominic West plays a fine and sleazy villain and is a nasty foil to Headey’s Queen. The cast as a whole is sharp in the few speaking roles for the Spartans with Gerard Butler turning in an iconic and star making turn as King Leonidas. Butler commands the screen and his men like a King should and we don’t hesitate to believe him for even the slightest of moments. David Wenham, Vincent Regan, and Michael Fassbender all get great moments as well as the main Spartan warriors we get to know behind Leonidas and the handle the physical and dramatic aspects of the role with ease. Lastly, Andrew Tiernan and Rodrigo Santoro both turn in some bizarre and odd performances that both work wonderfully and are characters unlike anything you have ever really seen in a picture before; great work all around.
The film’s ending is also a particularly brave one in that it kills off 299 of the film’s 300, including our hero, in a brave and triumphant last stand that feels entirely right for the film. Even though it is an exaggeration, the film serves as an impressive portrait of what a small force of skilled fighters accomplished in reality almost 2500 years ago.
300 is written off by many just a mere 5 years later as all flash and no substance but I beg those detractors to go back and look at the film again. Snyder’s patience to build the film’s world and characters is what made the action that much more thrilling and exciting and memorable. Snyder could have very easily sent us down an action packed adventure from start to finish but instead creates and action packed character piece around a man who has to make sacrifices for the greater good; even if that costs him his love and his life. There is a compelling and heartfelt through line here that a lot of people miss under all the swords and spears attacking. A huge step up from film one to film two visually, narrative wise, in ambition and just about any other category a filmmaker can have an affect on. But somehow Snyder improves even further in his next film.
“Superman doesn’t care about humanity, Batman can’t get an erection and the bad guy wants world peace.” – Zack Snyder on Watchmen
The story as a whole is an odd and subverted tale, spinning the classic comic tropes on their heads and Snyder understands this perfectly. Snyder’s quote above is the perfect summary of what Watchmen is all about and is as simple and perfect of a set up for what you are about to get into with this film. The quote itself is even interesting in that the only way you can understand Snyder’s meaning is if you understand the comic archetypes this film is playing with.
Snyder’s Watchmen is an epic and nearly impossible feat by adapting, spectacularly, one of the most unfilmable and highly acclaimed graphic novels of all-time. Writer Alan Moore disowned his involvement in any an all of his film adaptations but I would like to think, as does Snyder, that if he ever did sit down and watch Watchmen that he would be rather pleased.
Atmospherically, Snyder nails the look and feel that Watchmen needs to have, in that it is gritty, grounded, and dark. Sure there is a super powered blue guy walking around in the picture, but he was once a man, and has many a personality flaws of his own. But the alternate reality portrayed in Watchmen feels lived in and gels perfectly with its comic origins. The alternate reality presupposes that masked crime fighters, ala Batman, exist and the creation of Dr. Manhattan, an atomic superhero, further skews this alternate universe from our own. The right wing takes over the government, fear mongering is common place, Nixon is in his fourth term, and the Russians and the U.S. are on the verge of nuclear annihilation of the earth, but our story starts with the death of The Comedian.
Snyder is able to balance this film’s many characters and storylines with ease, slowly intertwining them into one grand conclusion that will decide the fate of the world. The film is one part film noir, one part sad romance, one part atomic age sci-fi, and one part comic book adventure that blends into a fine film to enjoy.
The element that most viewers enjoyed, even detractors of the film as a whole, is the noir story that follows the film’s anti-hero, Rorschach. Rorschach is played to demented excellence by Jackie Earl Haley as we root for him as he commits violent atrocities on the wicked. From his dead pan one liners, his shape shifting mask, and don’t fuck with me attitude, Haley nails the character as he investigates the murder of The Comedian, a fellow Watchmen, and warns his ex-partners in fighting crime. Rorschach is one of comics’ greatest characters and I think Haley and Snyder to the character justice. The characters fate is heartbreaking as well as he is a sacrifice for the good of the planet as he is bound to tell the truth. The film’s ending is a wonderfully open and ambiguous one as Rorschach’s journal, which we have been constantly hearing excerpts from, is revealed to be the masked vigilante’s last laugh on those around him.
The film’s characters are great and fully realized beyond Rorschach and Snyder is sure to give every character their due. The Comedian is wonderfully characterized in a series of flashback in the film’s first act surrounding the character’s funeral. The film is pulling write from the pages here and I can’t imagine the sequence could have been crafted any better.
Dr. Manhattan is showcased in one of my favorite sequences of all time in what serves as almost a mini film inside the film. We get to see Manhattan before he was a glowing blue god and nothing more than a simple scientist John Osterman. From the disassembling of John to the reassembling into Manhattan, the progression of his powers and integration into society the sequence catches us up on who Manhattan was and is in only a few minutes. We understand where he came from and how he has gotten to where he is now, eventually ending up on Mars. The Mars moments are also almost as equally great for Manhattan.
The technology behind the character, Manhattan, is also quite incredible as well as it is an entirely digital creation that is photo realistic; if you could take a picture of a glowing blue man. Billy Crudup paints such a sad, yet powerful, performance under all that CG and both he and the technical team deserve endless accolades for their work on the character.
While not an action film, the film excels at that medium when called upon with some brutal fights and beating dished out by our heroes. When the fisticuffs get going, we believe our heroes can do just about anything as they maul through their would be assailants. Watching Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter lure a gang into an ally way only to decimate them is another one of my favorite scenes in the film.
Snyder’s casting beyond the aforementioned individuals is nearly spot on as well, getting some great actors to fill the roles of the Watchmen. Jeffery Dean Morgan’s comedian is a nasty and exhilarating to watch as he doles out death and pain in the name of justice. From rape to murder, The Comedian does it all, and he is a hero in this twisted world; Morgan couldn’t have played the part any better. Dreiberg is played by the always great Patrick Wilson who captures the fragility and timid nature of the Nite Owl’s alter ego. It’s when Dreiberg gets in that suit that he comes alive and Wilson captures it perfectly, especially when with Laurie Jupiter. Laurie is played to fine affect by Malin Akerman but her character and performance is one of the more underdeveloped in the film. Physically, Akerman nails the part though and I think that is almost the most important as she proves, along with her on screen mother Carla Gugino, that women can kick ass too. Gugino doesn’t get much screen time but her moments are powerful, particularly the brutal scene with Morgan as a young Comedian attempts to rape Mrs. Jupiter. Rounding out the principle cast is Matthew Goode as the ex-Watchmen and villain that wants to save the world, Ozymandias. Smug and arrogant, Goode completely sells you on his “evil” plan, so much so that we believe why Manhattan would buy into it. Stephen McHattie also shines in his brief moments as Hollis Mason, especially getting his due in the additional scene mentioned below. A great ensemble gives this film’s characters life that we can believe in, most of them complex and three dimensional souls that are all equally as tortured.
Snyder’s film can’t also be fully appreciated until you have seen his definitive directors cut as well, which is a marvel that it even exists. The film underperformed in the box office but the director’s cut has some twenty-four minutes of added material that just enriches the proceedings. And if you even want to go further, Snyder adds in the allegory comic strip from the graphic novel in animated form edited in seamlessly in the Ultimate Cut. Some great additions include the Rorschach/Big Foot news footage, Hollis Mason fighting to the death, the extra bits in Manhattan’s Comedian flashback, and many other character bits that help flesh out the story and actually improve the film’s pacing a bit.
As an adaptation the film is about as faithful and sharp as it could be and when it comes to the ending I think it even greatly improves on it. I mean the squid is ridiculous, and it is supposed to be, and I feel by pinning the catastrophic events of the film on Dr. Manhattan it makes the story make far more sense and validates Manhattan’s decision to leave the planet in the end. The gallivanting of the human race against the god among them makes perfect sense and would rightly scare the shit out of everyone to fall in line. I can’t imagine there is a better adaptation of Watchmen to be made floating out there in someone’s mind.
The biggest problem with the film is that I think it might be the most least accessible 100 million dollar plus movies ever made. As a fan of the graphic novel, it is made for those like me, and while I know a few people that were Watchmen virgins that have enjoyed it, it is a tough cookie to crack for most. It isn’t a crowd pleaser, very violent, dark and pessimistic, and doesn’t pull any punches, Snyder’s film challenges viewers to dive into the world and I don’t think many are cut out for it. That said I am glad I made the cut and it is a film I find myself constantly wanting to revisit.
Watchmen is right up there with Sin City and The Dark Knight as greatest comic book films of all-time and I don’t even flinch when saying that. The film is a solid as an adaptation of the graphic novel could be while making the necessary adaptations to the medium. Snyder handles these changes beautifully with excellent world building and character development, his superb visual eye, and a source material that will always be heralded as one of the crown jewels of the comic medium. Watchmen is a near perfect melding of a director’s abilities and source material and I will cherish Snyder’s crowing achievement, so far, for a long time.
Zack Snyder is a polarizing filmmaker for many but I for one can see both sides. While I might not agree with the side that thinks he is only about speed ramping and pretty pictures, I think if you think that is all he is his films would still be worth checking out simply for the visuals. Outside Dawn of the Dead, all of Zack Snyder’s films have been utterly gorgeous to look at and there is no doubt he has an indelible eye for the medium. Beyond that, I think Snyder’s film are rich in character, ideas, and ripe for discussion, even if they are misunderstood on first glance. Three films in, Snyder was looking destined to be a visual star of the future and I still think he is hanging on that path. His last two entries have been a bit of a step back from his peak at Watchmen but both efforts, Legend of the Guardians and Sucker Punch, are films that I enjoyed and am greatly intrigued by, respectively. As we wait for his take on Superman to arrive Christmas 2012, I think a lot of people hope he fails miserably; I for one can’t wait to see what he does with such an iconic and powerful protagonist. One thing is for sure, Superman will have never looked so good.