Rogue of the Week: Zack Snyder

Wednesday, 30 March 2011 18:30 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Rogue of the Week: Zack Snyder

Last weekend, the lavish action-fantasy Sucker Punch was bested at the box office by a kid-friendly sequel about a wimpy kid.  Some folks probably got a kick out of pointing and laughing, but even if everyone is already declaring Sucker Punch a commercial failure, it's a noble failure from director and co-writer Zack Snyder.  While he has arguably not yet directed a film with emotional substance to match his stunning technical virtuosity, Snyder has proven to be a distinctive visual stylist and, more importantly, a cat who is willing to take risks that are not simply substantial, they're downright roguish. 

The established director of super slick commercials for brands including Nike, Audi, BMW, Reebok, and Gatorade was offered his first directorial feature with 2003's S.W.A.T., which revived the 1970's television series as a big budget action film released smack dab in the middle of summer.  Snyder declined, however, because the studio was not willing to commit to an expensive R rated action film and Snyder believed the desired PG-13 would not have served the material.  As we established with previous Rogue of the Week Guillermo del Toro, sometimes what directors decline is reflective of what makes them interesting.

Snyder's first feature ended up being 2004's Dawn of the Dead, a remake of the George Romero classic.  The venerated material had audiences pre-emptively pissed, but Snyder's film had an appropriately assaultive style and a surprisingly nimble wit.  It lacked the allegorical subtext of Romero's original, but it was damn good fun.  It also caught on enough that it helped kickstart the current proliferation of zombie movies, television series, and comic books.

It was with his sophomore effort that, an adaptation of the Frank Miller comic 300, that Snyder delivered a surprise hit made on a modest budget.  And here's where I want to make an aesthetic point.  Because of his extreme, recognizable style, Snyder is frequently compared to his contemporary Michael Bay; the two were actually classmates at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.  Bay's style is defined by bombast and dizzingly rapid editing, (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that), but Snyder's approach to action is surprisingly elegant, with an attention to motion, detail, and geography.  To support this assertion, I ask that you compare two pieces of evidence: Exhibit A is an uninterrupted  minute-long slice-and-dice rampage by Gerard Butler's King Leonidas in 300; Exhibit B is any scene from either Transformers film where robots frenetically – often disorientingly – fight one another.  I'm not arguing that one is superior to the other, but am instead pointing out that the comparison is far less apt than it might superficially seem.

The success of 300 earned Snyder an unprecedented amount of clout with Warner Bros, and he pushed his chips to the center of the table on Watchmen, an adaptation of Alan Moore's dense, freakishly intelligent twelve-issue comic series.  When Snyder accepted the job, he said essentially that the studio was intent on making the film, and if someone was going to screw it up, he wanted it to be him, because at least his version would be faithful.  And faithful it was.  Along with his wife and producing partner Deborah Snyder, the director admirably burned through his 300 clout convincing the studio to spend a mess of money on a violent, R rated superhero satire and supplementary material that adapted a staggering amount of Moore's illustrious text.  It was a daring move, and one indicative of a commitment to the material.

The Snyders very well could have churned out generic, testosterone-fueled action films for the rest of their days, but for their next effort, they made animated family film with exclusively owl characters.  Seriously, owls.  Whatever the failings of The Guardians of Ga'Hoole, audacity isn't one of them.

Which brings us to Sucker Punch.  It's the first Snyder film not adapted from an existing text; he co-wrote with Steve Shibuya.  With Sucker Punch, the director made a film that wholly and unapologetically his own.  It's a film with which he attempts to say a great many things, while simultaneously depicting young women in skimpy outfits fighting masked armies, deadly robots, and, of course, a fire-breathing dragon.  As expected, the action is impressively executed, and though the film isn't always successful in expressing its ideas, you can feel Snyder's ambition exceeding his narrative and thematic abilities.  With Sucker Punch, an auteur is expanding upon his unique stylistic strengths, but he's also attempting to grow as a film maker and a storyteller.  He's gambling big, and when you gamble big, you inevitably lose sometimes.  But let's all take a moment to respect the chutzpah involved.  It's cause enough to get psyched to see where Snyder will go from here, how he'll continue to challenge himself, and what surprises he has up his sleeve.

Zack Snyder will next endeavor to update the most iconic superhero for modern audiences, with a Superman reboot starring Henry Cavill, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, and Amy Adams

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