Over the course of the past nearly two decades, Zack Snyder has made quite the name for himself as a maximalist auteur who utilizes the cinematic art form to its fullest potential, taking original concepts and exploring them in brilliant ways while also building on the lore of characters from famous properties and crafting his own unique perception of their ideals and construction. His interpretation of the DC Comics universe (beginning with 2013’s Man of Steel and leading into 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the subsequent Justice League) is one of the most finely formulated trilogies in recent memory, an expansive magnum opus of truly heroic proportions.
He returns to the screen with Army of the Dead, an unsurprisingly chaotic movie that allows Snyder full rein to revel in all of his glorious insanity. Right from the get-go, it’s clear the exact film Army of the Dead is (and was always going to be). From a fantastic opening scene that sets up the film’s primary conflict to a credits montage of zombie-slaying that feels brilliantly tongue-in-cheek (soundtracked to the fitting “Viva Las Vegas”, no less), Snyder makes no effort to paint this as anything less than a deliriously fun romp filled with all the hilariously awesome undead brutality one could want from one of these things. Once those credits draw to a close, however, Army of the Dead slowly and disappointingly falls apart.
If there’s one thing Snyder purists (and even those who loathe him) have come to expect and appreciate from the renowned director, it’s that of his visual flourishes, which, regardless of one’s opinion on the films themselves, generally receive exceptionally high praise (and deservedly so). Snyder‘s work as a visual formalist has gradually evolved over the span of his extensive career but with Army of the Dead, Snyder serves not just as director and co-writer, but as cinematographer too, allowing for even more nuanced auteurist capabilities behind the camera.
Army of the Dead is just as stylish as Snyder‘s other outings, taking his remarkable awareness of space and movement within the cinematic medium and translating them to a new landscape of environments and characters. His visual and auditory sensibilities are on full display as he channels a sizable amount of stylistic compositions that work wonders as lenses into the film’s framework.
While Snyder‘s overtly bombastic frequencies are more visible here than ever, he also plays with a lot of different elements from a visual standpoint that work as stable fragments of the overarching whole. There’s nothing here that viewers won’t expect, per se, but the language of focus that he toys around with is unique and serves as a nice departure from some of the more rigid camerawork of previous films of his.
While Army of the Dead is a visual stunner from start to finish, other elements leave more than a bit to be desired. Snyder brings a definite amount of originality to an otherwise tired subgenre, but the film simply cannot solely function from a conceptual standpoint and, disappointingly, there are numerous areas where Snyder‘s vision stumbles. The script often feels like it’s reaching for something that was never there to begin with, and while Snyder‘s ability to recontextualize superheroes and place them within the confines of a modern era is admirable, any attempts to bring the same effect to this story are lost in translation.
Characterization normally isn’t a problem for Snyder, which is why it’s honestly kind of baffling how disjointed so much of it is here. With his DC movies, Snyder reinterpreted our ideas of superheroes within a world of gods and men, providing distinct but difficult questions of morality for them to face, but Army of the Dead fails to furnish a similar development. The film frequently jumps between characters but rarely gives us a reason to care about them outside of Dave Bautista‘s Scott Ward, who thankfully does get a decent compilation of emotional moments.
Outside of its paper-thin thematic heart, Army of the Dead has enough illustrious action to satisfy audiences (including a particularly gruesome bit involving a zombified tiger), which is why it’s a real shame the film isn’t shorter. This isn’t a rarity amongst the titles in Snyder‘s filmography, with Justice League clocking in at four hours and Batman v Superman at three, but the difference here is that Army of the Dead is much more weightless than those films, lumbering from one scene to the next in moments where it should be sprinting. While the runtime goes by relatively quickly, there are zero reasons that a solid amount of the movie couldn’t have been trimmed to give it a tighter coherency. It simply doesn’t flow as well as it should.
Ultimately, Army of the Dead‘s narrative is just too directionless to perform on the level it’s aiming for. Its deliberate pacing would function on a greater level if there was more meat to the bone, but it’s deathly thin at the times it shouldn’t be. It’s not a bad film by any means, but it’s dreadfully uneven and the overindulgent runtime really drags it down. Snyder has absolutely shown himself to be a capable filmmaker and the most recent entries in his oeuvre have proven that. Sadly, his latest outing is a tonally muddled misfire that does its best to pull a frequently disengaging story together, but in the end, can’t satisfactorily assemble the sporadic pieces.
Fans of Snyder will undoubtedly find value in Army of the Dead and there are unquestionably plenty of moments where the director is allowed to play to his strengths, but they’re far and few between. Characters are by and large incredibly hollow, and while the film’s atmosphere is terrifically structured, it’s too robust for a story as thin as this, and as a result, the movie falls flat during moments where it should be soaring.
Army of the Dead is now playing in select theaters and will release on May 21, 2021, on Netflix.
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