Why Army of the Dead Should Not Be the Oscars Fan Favorite

Army of the Dead’s juvenile posturing is evident in its opening minutes when Indiana Jones references are framed with shots of a dude driving off from his Vegas wedding as he receives an en-route blowjob (“road-head,” the film clarifies). Dialogue and acting that seems to have been conceived by a fourteen-year-old prolong this opening with more movie references. They're what passes for creativity in a film as near to Aliens as plagiarism, yet its tastelessness and even its pitiless copying of Cameron’s lauded action screenplay are not its ugliest features since both tastelessness and Aliens are often fun. Even a good copy would be sporadically watchable since even trash can pass for enjoyment in the spectacle of its mistakes. The shriveled heart of the problem with Army of the Dead is that it was conceived and marketed as an exciting grindhouse funfest and has absolutely no inspiration, energy, or catharsis to make that intention tangible. It doesn't just steal from Aliens – stealing from Aliens is as far as its ambitions went. The rest of its "moviemaking process" is algorithmic. I have never seen a film deflect the concept of payoff so passionately, while also pretending to be paid off, as though it has done the audience a great favor. For it to win the first-ever Oscars Fan Favorite Award in the recent ceremony exemplifies how name-driven resales of familiar tropes, no matter how cynical and ugly, have taken over in the place that used to be occupied by the well-meaning blockbuster adventures we grew up on.

Anti-catharsis on this level usually has a comedic purpose, such as the self-aware denial of genre conventions in The Cabin in the Woods or Mars Attacks!, which eventually gives in to gory resolution. In comparison, Army of the Dead is an action heist film that never ventures from the most self-serious plot concepts, yet has the lack of catharsis of a satire. A character played by Omari Hardwick lumbers through the film carrying a badass circular saw with suggestive stenciling, which outside of a blurry opening he never uses to kill a zombie. It’s like picking a character in a fighting game for the weapon they have on the select screen and then not being able to use it; this film cannot even muster that minimum amount of pleasure. The film establishes that the rain can re-animate sleeping zombies, but instead of using it for a thunderous climax opts instead to also set up the nuclear bomb from Aliens. It never rains; every construct in the film is an example of its anesthetic attention span. Imagine Kill Bill if she kept her sword sheathed the whole film.

Characters point out the obvious payoffs (again with the tone of a satire) but even that concept, anti-catharsis as comedy, is not paid off because they still act surprised when the payoffs arrive. When the Garret Dillahunt character is introduced, the characters point out that he will obviously betray them in favor of the corporation that hired him (in Aliens, he’s the Burke character). But rather than deal with it in a moment of gory catharsis, rewarding the audience for its obviousness, the characters shrug it off and endure the betrayal anyway at the appointed time. They act shocked when he locks them behind a door so he can steal a piece of the monster for the corporation that hired them, even though they predicted it 90 minutes ago (the audience knew even sooner because they've seen Aliens – they can count down to him turning around and getting killed by the monster for the same reason). This is what occupies the time of an allegedly fun zombie action film that is longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey. The wild-eyed energy of its marketing never materializes in the finished slog, which feels like waiting to have a tooth pulled for 148 minutes until you no longer care if it happens. Even after making you sit there, the film sends you home with all your teeth.

Zack Snyder’s script has no emotional identity of its own. When the characters speak, they seem to be disguised as a dozen other movie characters who have said nearly the same dialogue in analogous situations, toned down to a dead-eyed drawl. Scott (Dave Bautista) carries so many reluctant hero tropes on his strong back, he can barely be bothered to resist them. His improbably ungrateful daughter (Ella Purnell) joins the team and brings with her every whining daughter trope in film history. The serious characters recruit each other in scenes so obvious that it almost warrants laughter; the funny characters, who are never more impressive than over-rehearsed impressions of other movies, never do. Every emotion in the film is a reference to emotion. Even the Fast & Furious scripts know that scenes like these are in good fun and can't be taken that seriously. Snyder writes them expecting his fans to put them on their fridges with gold stars (not wanting to disappoint him, they gave him an Oscar instead).

Of all the films that Army of the Dead borrows from, none comes close to the amount of loot pilfered from Aliens. Under normal circumstances, a movie borrowing from its genre would not be the focus of my review – genre filmmaking is basically high-minded thievery to begin with. But plagiarism is such a powerful influence over the plot of Army of the Dead that it even becomes predictive. For example, Guzman (Raul Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win) have that near-romantic relationship of the Gorman and Vasquez characters from Aliens (down to the red bandana). When Chambers dies early in Army of the Dead, it becomes impossible for the film to steal the scene in Aliens when these characters sacrifice themselves in the third act by holding a grenade in a horde of aliens. So instead, Guzman sacrifices himself in the third act by holding a grenade in a horde of zombies, just without Chambers. It’s that similar – Snyder wrote this with tracing paper. He's made the film equivalent of those AI websites that allow you to generate paintings by inputting parameters. Some things have to be moved around to suit his "changes," but nothing is more original than a change to an existing work. Matthias Schweighöfer, embodying every pants-peer in the history of big action movies, never says, “Game Over, man!” like Paxton did in Aliens, but Snyder must have been holding back his muscular hands from writing that like Dr. Strangelove restraining his robot parts from saluting the Fuhrer. He serves the movies he's seen before.

Snyder's reliance on Aliens drains any drama from Army of the Dead like a zombie drains out brains (in other zombie films). Scott’s daughter fights off the Spartan Zombie King to save a lady from the beginning of the film (he's not as fun as he sounds, though it may be the film's one new idea – he should have been the protagonist). As she's doing so, it's hard not to think of the comparatively epic struggle as Ripley pulled Newt from the Alien Queen’s lair. It’s hard to forget Ripley arriving at the rooftop with the monster clicking at her heels in the elevator to discover that her ride home is gone while watching Scott arrive at the rooftop with the monster clicking at his heels in the elevator to discover that his ride home is gone. The film advertises punkish energy but captures no spark it didn’t borrow (it snuffs the ones it does). All it adds is a sleepy string of half-functioning jokes and pop culture references while trumping them as brilliant genre filmmaking. It somehow sprints on broken feet, expecting to be praised for endurance.

Anything in Army of the Dead that was not in Aliens is reduced to an aside. The film interprets character development as “humor” so that it can be dismissed just as easily. For instance, Schweighöfer’s character reveals that he has never shot a gun so that his abler companions can laugh at him as he fails to convincingly hold one in several scenes of classic Snyderian towel-whipping. Yet, the film makes no attempt to continue or resolve this idea in dramatic terms since every bullet fired from a gun in this movie is a headshot kill with an accompanying explosion, even his. Nothing written allegedly for the purpose of character development translates to the action; once the talking scenes are done, they have no impact on the shooting ones. They’re in two different worlds, like the cut scenes between the gameplay of a first-person shooter.

The actors can hardly be blamed for the film's embarrassing display. They're just standing by while the film flexes. Bautista, whose powerful warmth brings low-key joy to the Guardians of the Galaxy films, like a clumsy but effective furnace, is the best part of this movie despite seeming groggy, like the charm is not so much an art this time as the side effect of a medication. Other characters – Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Nora Arnezeder – complete their mission as best they can with some of the worst dialogue ever written, though it’s easy to imagine several being combined to make a more coherent cast. Arnezeder particularly has a scene of torturously prolonged self-importance where she seduces and kneecaps a rapist, a scene presented with glee but used as little as an aside. It's a labor to watch, but it may be the single scene in the entire film that pays off a setup. The character deaths, like the lack of payoffs, have the lack of self-awareness of tragedy but the abruptness of comedy. The effect on the viewer is not a punch so much as an anesthetic. After a while, you couldn't feel the punch even if it happened.

Snyder is about as ill-equipped in filming the visuals as he is tracing the screenplay. You likely know that Tig Notaro was never on set with the other actors, hired to replace Chris D'Elia’s part in post-production to avoid associating the film with pending legal allegations. The result is that Notaro chimes in from another reality to deliver a joke in each scene to remind the viewer that she's "still there" (when she's in a scene at all). The visuals tirelessly work to match her lighting and position with that of the others. The effect is mostly seamless, but this is partly because none of the dramatic interactions have the energy of people talking in a real place to begin with – everyone might as well have been filmed separately. D'Elia's part might as well have been omitted rather than replaced. The cinematography alone turns the promise of spending 148 minutes enduring these characters monologue separately in allegedly the same room into a veiled threat before the script even gets going.

Army of the Dead may have the shallowest focus in any film not intended to be an artistic study of focus (see the works of Man Ray). The camera blurs in and out of focusing on the foreground and background, often switching as characters speak to each other for no discernible reason other than pure effect (the result is pure nausea). Shallow focus can be a purposeful device that helps the audience invest in a character’s inner world, to blur their surroundings and create a feeling of unease (look at how Paul Thomas Anderson used it to shoot his Phantom Thread, or even how Greig Fraser tried to make the audience uneasy in The Batman). Snyder never uses the technique for a dramatic purpose. The camera views objects with the lack of clarity normally reserved for the perspective of soldiers in war movies when flash grenades go off in their face but without that context – even people just talking to each other twist out of focus indiscriminately, like they're all constantly walking in and out of doors. Within the same scene, Snyder forces our eyes to adjust to different parts of the frame multiple times, flattening and blurring the colors into a blocky soup despite being filmed on the 8K Red Monstro, a $50,000 camera usually sitting on the table in front of him in supplemental materials for the film. He’s always ready to flex about it.

The way he stares down the film's flaws in behind-the-scenes footage is revealing context for the film's reception. Perhaps no director is better able to sell an incongruity as a gift to the audience. Consider his description of the cyborg in the film. During the casino firefight, a zombie sparks when it gets shot, revealing a metal skull, in a shot that is not visually significant or on the screen for more than a second. You may not have noticed (neither do the characters). Snyder assures the viewers who did (utilizing the benefits of a Netflix release to rewind and confirm) that it could be "government conspiracies" or "alien surveillance," part of an ongoing Army of the Dead "shared universe" that will only be made because audiences accepted the claim that it was for their benefit. This justification for a random aside in the film is not impressive, especially on the back of a $90 million rehash of someone else's screenplay. Yet, the news of the cyborg and the extended universe was received online with gleeful anticipation for the film's inevitable stream of related content, as it began to appear on every "10 Things You Didn't Know About Army of the Dead" list. As nice a guy as Snyder seems (that is, when he's not blackmailing major movie studios with pictures of Batman giving Catwoman cunnilingus), he has a fanbase more willing to take him at his word than any I have ever seen.

Despite the implication that the film has a too-cool-for-school attitude without really having one, Army of the Dead is not on the cutting edge of genre conventions, as though it's forgivable for its intent to cross lines and provide excessive thrills that might be further explored by future films. There's nothing remotely envelope-pushing in the film, nothing sexy or exciting or different. That money could have funded a dozen memorable set-pieces, with zombies behaving like the Vegas courtesans they played in life, a concept the film hints at with the Centurian General zombie. How about Arthurian knight zombies, servants of Anubis in an Egyptian-themed restaurant, gondolier zombies in the simulated moonlight of a Venetian hotel? How about an explosion of excessive style and fun, the head-spinning high life of Las Vegas in zombie form that the film only hints at in the opening credits? Nothing so pleasurable or different comes anywhere near this film, which can hardly be bothered to differentiate itself from Aliens beyond a decrease in craft and increase in road-head.

It exemplifies everything wrong with the modern content creation machine, which wins its audience with online anticipation supplements that pre-program expectations, pressuring viewers to stake their opinions on films before they even exist. When they come out, it feels wrong to say the film ended up being bad, like it's a self-betrayal somehow. But even the shallowest critique reveals that the kind of zonked-out genre homage this movie pretends to have has already been done effortlessly by Kill Bill, The Raid, The Night Comes for Us, and a dozen others. One Cut of the Dead (2017), to use a zombie example, was a brilliant micro-budget meta-horror film able to synergize a cast with comedic energy while subjecting them to enough tension to create the impression of a horror film. Or consider Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016), a non-stop downhill exhale that is as exciting, genuinely emotional, and colorful in each character’s combined role as Army of the Dead is the creative (and visual) equivalent of a Claritin commercial.

I have often defended Snyder's work, particularly his willingness to draw on dark mythology to reinterpret pop icons in attempts to make them more real. Even Sucker Punch, his most derided film, I advocate on the basis of the pure enjoyment of artistic excess. But with Army of the Dead, his aesthetic has progressed to the point that it perverts the whole premise of auteur filmmaking. Rather than unify the work of different artists under one vision, he's taking on their tasks regardless of his competency and selling the result as a labor of singular creativity that validates a fanbase regardless of the film's originality or quality. The film itself is not the prize they stand to win. The prize is consuming any product that bears his name, even if all he did to conceive it was find and replace "xenomorph" with "zombie." Army of the Dead sorely needed Larry Fong behind the camera, whose stark, hyper-colored visuals have given Snyder's best films their muscular charm. Goyer, Hayter, or even Terrio could have lent the script some originality, or at least some basic payoffs. Instead, Snyder's playing the auteur with the budget of blockbusters, an amount of money that could be used to make ten Train to Busans and still have enough left to make One Cut of the Dead (2017) two hundred times. That’s the competition. And it’s why an award like the Oscars Fan Favorite going to Army of the Dead is the perfect counterargument for the existence of such an award. Voting committees of industry veterans exist to prevent inept, self-satisfied plagiarizing from being not only profitable, which is inevitable, but artistically condoned as well. Had the award existed in 2007, no doubt it would have gone to Transmorphers.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Netflix/The Stone Quarry

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