Without trying to sound dramatic, movies like Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead might pose something of an existential threat to cinema as we know it.
There is plenty of room in cinema for mediocrity. Brainless fun, too — almost endless room, actually. Films that are poorly acted and poorly written are inevitable. Bloated, drawn-out narratives that run an hour past their rightful runtime? It happens!
Cinema can take any of these things and survive just fine. Thrive, in fact. We need bad movies, to give something for the good ones to contrast against. There should be an element of risk in going to the cinema: you might see something great, or it might underwhelm. Bad films can make the great ones seem more exceptional.
Snyder’s cinematic vision is something different. It’s as if he sees cinema as a medium to create bloated television, with little need for structure and pacing, but more money to pay the CGI team (and actors like Dave Bautista). He also doesn’t appear to see a need to set movies apart from television in the way they are shot. It’s a shallow focus and shot/reverse shot extravaganza.
A kind of bad taste, or lazy artistic decision making, runs through the movie on many levels, and extends to bad soundtrack selections — which are quite hard to make when picking ready-made songs off the shelf from a practically infinite pool of options.
At times we are in what should be visually impressive locations, but the characters seek out a generic grey brickwalled room to exchange obvious lines of dialogue in. Probably, the CGI team ate up too much of the budget to give set design a real look.
The CGI is what you’d expect: as good as things get, meeting the same standards other big budget films do in 2021. Artistically, though, I’d nit-pick here as well. It’s amazing how CGI artists can’t help making their monsters show-offs, posers, and over-actors. The zombie tiger stops in the middle of devouring its prey, for example, to intermittently roar. It would be nice to see this kind of CGI aim for a believable fear factor instead of dialling everything up to 11, and then amping it up from there a bit further, every time.
Snyder has an approach to filmmaking that, if it caught on, would make movies seem like redundant, expensive, bloated television series that produce one episode then quit. They would start to be pretty hard to justify making. Especially when they debut streaming for free on Netflix, like Army of the Dead.
He either misses the point of cinema, or doesn’t think it matters. “A movie is a movie is a movie” could be his motto. Or “put lots of expensive things on the screen and that's a wrap.”
Here he has made a movie in runtime only. It plays like a never-ending episode of a big budget zombie TV series. And the fact we almost reach two and a half hours before the credits roll feels like a crazy achievement. How did they manage to stretch it out that long?
It will be interesting to see if Army of the Dead ends up serving the function of a pilot episode for a television series Netflix go on to make. That’s what it feels like, and honestly, maybe that's what it actually is.
It’s a movie with a formula that feels made to be watched on Netflix, at home, rather than on the big screen. A diluted form of cinema, or maybe cross-bred with television to produce a new species.
Is there fun to be had in there? Well yeah, there could be: seen as a kind of bloated, ridiculously extended zombie TV episode. But if you sit down to watch this expecting to see real cinema, or a zombie film in the traditional sense of the word, you will be disappointed.
James Lanternman writes movie reviews, fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected].