Alternate Title: Dancers in the Dark
One sentence synopsis: A traumatized girl imagines herself into various fictional worlds with her friends while concocting a plan to escape their imprisonment.
Things Havoc liked: I was not going to see this movie at all, as I thought it looked stupid. The previews and the "Behind the scenes" look I saw at various other films I've gone to see were all idiotic. Zack Snyder is obsessed at the best of times with his own style, and it's one that gets old pretty damn fast. In my own defense, I will simply say that I was talked into seeing it by a combination of an entreaty from a friend of mine, and the fact that I simply couldn't find any other damn thing to see. After Tron and Kill the Irishman, I was very much not looking forward to this, but I sucked it up and sat down.
... so I'm just gonna come out and say it. This is the best movie I've seen all year.
No, this is not a joke.
Trust me, I'm as stunned by this as anyone reading this review. I sat through the entire credits of this film in a daze, not because I wanted to see them, but because I could not believe what had just happened. This movie, which looked so terrible in the previews, which has gotten excoriated by largely every major reviewer I know of, which should have been godawful in every way, this movie, was awesome.
Zach Snyder is known for over-the-top stylized action sequences. See 300 for details. It gets old after a while watching him speed up and slow down and speed up some more as his invincible heroes slaughter defenseless mooks. Or at least that's what I thought. Snyder here presents action scenes that simply boil over with energy and life. No shakycam, no camera obscura, no bullshit. This is a man who knows how to create gorgeous action spectacles, and presents them to you relentlessly and with verve and vigor. Every single action sequence in this film could easily serve as the centerpiece of any major big budget action movie, and yet they just keep coming. We go from steampunk WWI to Robo-Samurai duels to a fire-breathing dragon chasing a B-17 through the air and on and on and on it goes. You'd think that after a while, battle fatigue would set in, and yet, for me at least, it never does (okay the last one did go on a bit long, but still). The surreal style of the action, which is not something I'm usually fond of (Sky Captain anyone?) fits here so well, and the fighting never seems sterile or uninteresting, the way that a lot of effects-laden action sequences often are (Star Wars Prequels anyone?)
On the level of a stupid action film, this movie works and works brilliantly, and yet to my surprise that's not the only level it works on. The acting is, even in the non-surreal sequences, almost entirely excellent, with the lion's share of the props going to the villain, played by Guatamalan actor Oscar Isaac. I've seen him before in a thing or two, but I've never been impressed before. Here he delivers a performance that's just spectacular. He's menacing and witty, erudite and slimy, incredibly threatening and also wormlike and toadish when he needs to be. The girls are generally very good, particularly Abbie Cornish, another actor I've seen before but never really noticed, and Carla Gugino, who seems to be doing a sendup to Nathasha Fatale. Scott Glenn, who is always a pleasure to watch, is plainly having fun this time around, and does a terrific (if not terribly demanding) job.
The soundtrack rocks. I don't notice that sort of thing usually, but it was done so brilliantly well this time. The entire opening scene of the film is told with no dialogue or words at all, just the music and the pictures. It remains uniformly kick ass throughout the entire film. Who would have thought that Bjork goes well with swordfighting?
The plot is perhaps nothing to write home about, it's a fairly simple story, after all, but told with great care and skill by the director. Moreover, for those who think they've seen the entire film in the previews, you could not be more wrong. This movie managed to surprise me more than once. It's not Inception, but it does have some twists to take you on, more than one might expect from a movie of this sort. I was impressed.
Things Havoc disliked: Sadly, the only weak link in the cast is Emily Browning, who unfortunately plays the main character. She's not terrible certainly, she sells the action scenes perfectly well, and it's actually her music on the aforementioned rocking soundtrack more than once. But her acting is too wooden for this part, and frankly, her makeup is ridiculous. Her character's name is Babydoll, and she is made to look the part, complete with too much blush and pigtails. It just looks absurd on a girl her age. Compared to the other actors, especially Isaac, she just doesn't have the firepower to compete in the tense or dramatic scenes. Still, one can't have everything.
Everything else I could object to is nothing but nitpicks. The last action scene does drag on a bit, and is probably the least inventive of all four, which is a great shame. The color palate is all browns and sepias in the fighting scenes, though that is much less of an issue in this film because the scenes in reality are usually in vibrant color, providing an effective contrast. The plot is fairly simple and the some of the characters aren't terribly... well... characterized, but not enough to be really offputting. The movie is not perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. But I would be lying if I said that there was more than ten seconds where I was consciously aware of any flaws while I was watching it.
Final thoughts: I'm at a loss for words here. This movie should have been terrible. In fact, I have a sneaky suspicion that it was terrible, and that I am insane. Every single major film critic I know, every one without exception, hated this film. I've seen it called "The Last Airbender with Bustiers". I read these reviews and I question what movie it was that these reviewers saw. This movie is a triumph of style and directorial skill, gorgeous and satisfying and astonishingly competent, not merely in action, but in acting and dramatic tension. It is badass when it needs to be, coy when it needs to be, tense when it needs to be, and completely off-the-wall when it needs to be.
I am not a man who indulges in stupid action flicks by and large, unless they are done with wit and skill (or are from the 80s). I hated Shoot Em Up, loathed the Blade films (other than the first one), and despised Tron Legacy (as you all know). Yet this movie sold me in a way that I did not believe I could be sold. The closest comparison I have for it is the Kill Bill films, movies I loved, and yet others who are aficionados of the genre hated.
There is no more defense that I can make here. I do not know what else to say. Every critic in the country who saw this film hated it. Many of them are erudite film scholars who can and do defend their opinion at length. I cannot ask you in good conscience to believe that all of them are crazy, and that I am right, and yet it is what I am ultimately saying. The year is still young, but this movie is the best one I have seen so far, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.
God help us all.
Final Score: 8/10