You awaken to a rabid 8 year old viciously chewing on your husband’s neck. A dark army, more than a million strong, bears down upon you and your kingdom. A masked man breaks in during the night and throws you out a window. A giant samurai statue engages you in battle, all the while feathery, cartoon owls fly around you. You are in the strange and violent world of Zack Snyder. Hang on; you’re in for a wild ride.
Zack Snyder, the director of the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel, has had the strangest start to a career of any director in recent memory. Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and Sucker Punch are all unique and interesting films, but from one to the next, it is mind boggling that they were directed by the same man. On the surface, each film seems to have nothing in common with the rest, but when we dig a little deeper, we can find themes that connect them all to each other.
Much of Zack Snyder’s success can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time. Dawn of the Dead came out during America’s obsession with zombie movies. For every 28 Days Later, there seemed to be 30 Resident Evil's Dawn of the Dead, a remake of George A. Romero’s classic film of the same name, was one of the great ones though. It showed Hollywood that Snyder, a relative unknown at the time, could be trusted with strong source material and deliver a quality picture. In his second film 300, Zack was again part of a movie boom. This time is was the graphic novel. 300, adapted from the limited comic book series of the same name by Frank Miller, hit theatres on the heels of 2005’s Sin City. While Sin City managed only $75 million in domestic grosses, 300 did nearly that amount in its opening weekend, and grossed more than $450 million world wide. This film launched Snyder into mainstream culture as 300 was not only an immensely entertaining movie, but the style in which it was shot was genre-defining. This success brought him the daunting challenge of bringing the critically acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen, to the big screen. Alan Moore’s seminal work, proved an unwieldy piece of material and the movie premiered to a mixed reception. Ultimately, Snyder was not blamed for the film’s lack of success as most critics and fans of the novel believed the story didn’t translate well to the screen to begin with. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was an obvious departure from Snyder’s previous films. The impetus for doing the film more than likely came down to the fact that it was an adaptation of the most successful British children’s novel series not named Harry Potter or Hunger Games. The film earned a respectable $140 million worldwide. Snyder was a strong choice to direct this children’s movie because he gave the film a grit and emotional pain that is sorely lacking in most animated films. It was definitely not The Land Before Time.
Snyder uses violence the way a composer uses forte. A symphony would be nothing if all notes were played at the same volume. In the same way, no violence at all or wall to wall violence do not make a good film. While the violence may be what you remember about any of Snyder’s movies, upon re-watching you may be shocked at how little screen time is given to it. In each film, Snyder finds ways to contrast violence with the everyday, or the idyllic. The suburban setting in Dawn of the Dead, is the perfect backdrop for the gore and terror of the story. The mall where the characters seek refuge, gives the audience a sense of normalcy, even as the zombie apocalypse is happening. The green screen backdrop throughout 300 and the slow-motion, artful way in which each battle scene is depicted allows the viewer to take in each bloody moment without feeling overwhelmed. In Legend of the Guardian and Sucker Punch the characters, fluffy, cute owls and beautiful, skinny women, are themselves the contrast for the violence they commit. Yes, the owls kick ass.