Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #19 - Zack Snyder

photo by Ellen Nivrae

-Dawn of the Dead

-Sucker Punch


There are very few directors that can move their story with such precise energy as Zack Snyder.  When you see one of his movies, you know that you've witnessed someone with a unique visual style.

The first Snyder movie I ever saw was Dawn of the Dead.  Let me preface this by saying that I do not like horror movies.  I used to think that they were great, but I've lost my taste for them over the years.  So it was only with a morbid curiosity that I caught this movie on television.  It is hard to describe how good this film is, partly because I never want to see it again.

I know that sounds like a contradiction, but you don't have to enjoy a movie to know that it is good.  There are many people I know who will never see Schindler's List again because of the violence, but they acknowledge its genius.  While the subject of Dawn of the Dead is nowhere near as important, the same principle can be applied to this movie as well.

Snyder made a movie that was terrifying, but it had a different energy than most horror movies.  It moved with the speed of an action movie without losing any of its essential terror.  And while doing this he created 3-dimmensional characters, something atypical in the average horror and action movie.  The movie is not only gut-wrenching, it is heart-wrenching as well.  The last shot is so full of sadness, nobility, and despair that I'm surprised something so poiginant was found in a zombie movie.

But his real masterpiece is 300.  The story is very basic and has been told in so many different ways: a small fighting group must face an overwhelming force.  But what sets that movie apart is the visual spectacle that is 100% Snyder.

First there was the decision to film all on green screen rather than on location.  That was a very risky move, considering how it makes the world feel much less real.  But with his a simple trick of color correcting the whole movie to highlight sepias and reds, it takes on a ethereal quality that makes you accept the hyper-reality of the world.

Second, he knows how to manipulate time.  He did the same thing in Dawn of the Dead, where he would play between slow motion and fast motion, almost like switching tempos in music, to create an arresting image on the screen.

He takes this very ugly Spartan world (and make no mistake that there are several morally problematic things with that society), but he does not sugar coat it.  He presents them, warts and all, but still highlights that which makes them noble.

Even looking past all of the exaggerated characters, the strong themes of courage and sacrifice shine through in the end.  He touches upon the truth that civilization is something that must be paid for, often with the blood of patriots.  What could have been just another action film became a unique and moving film experience.

His attempt to tackle Watchmen was less successful.  I believe this was less due to his directing ability and more to his slavish devotion to the structure of the graphic novel.  Now, in the end it is the director's responsibility to shape the story, so this does fall on his shoulders.  Nevertheless, he once again brings his frenetic energy to this project, with an eye-popping color palate.  In the format of a feature film, I don't think another director could have done better.

Sucker Punch was his last film and it is probably his worst.  It is not a terrible film, but it is very flimsy. The story appears to be an excuse to engage in wildly imaginative fantasy sequences, which are a lot of fun to look at.  But Sucker Punch lacks any of the depth found in Watchmen, 300, or even Dawn of the Dead.  And yet even here Snyder still shows he has the power to mesmerize with the visuals.

He is finishing the Superman reboot Man of Steel.  It is a given that this movie will look great.  But we'll see if he can summon his unique vision to show us the depth of this great character.

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