What do you do when you find out you are extremely unlikely to like a movie you are watching now? Do you switch it off? Do you persevere? Do you bear it with clenched fists and a slapped-on grin, murmuring to yourself it would all be over soon and that you must slug it out because turning it off would be tantamount to desertion?
This is a situation I found myself in while watching Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead. Make no mistake, this isn’t a good movie. Not by a long shot. What’s more, it isn’t even bad enough to incite enough rage in me to write a proper takedown, not that anyone would care. It’s just a mediocre mess which is exactly one hour too long for its own good and which for some reason looks like the cinematographer’s lens bag got nicked at the airport on the way to the set and the entire production had to be shot using his only remaining 600mm telephoto lens. Don’t get me wrong: there is a time and place for everything and there are situations calling for and/or benefitting from using shallow depth-of-field photography, but I am pretty sure it is not always.
So, in a nutshell, Snyder’s latest effort very quickly outed itself as at best inadequate when I sat down to watch it, which wouldn’t have been the end of the world, had it not been for the fact that I came to this realization while being fully cognizant of the fact the movie would go on for at least two more hours. I was presented with that age-old question: do I continue? And if so, how do I make sure this isn’t a total waste of time, life’s most precious resource whose finite nature I have been ever more acutely aware of ever since I realized I was no longer in my mid-thirties, but rather in my late thirties? After all, there wasn’t much in the movie I could hang onto as it is at best a stencilled and poorly written festival of weirdly mistimed comedy and hyper-stylized action set pieces that in a vacuum would never stand a chance of raising my pulse by one iota.
This may be controversial to some folks identifying as bona fide film critics because you should interact with what’s there on the screen, not with what isn’t there, or with what you wish were on the screen instead. Thankfully, I am not a bona fide critic, and I shall hold onto any lifelines I find, which is exactly what I ended up doing. Now, this isn’t exactly rocket science and it has been pointed out before, as a cursory Google search has just taught me, but Army of the Dead is a gold mine of movie references and little fun Easter eggs. In fact, there are dozens of sub-reddits and blog posts filled with fan theories about many aspects of the primary lore injected into the film, some of which relate to the genesis of the intelligent undead, their place in the world at large, whether there are supernatural components innate to the story, or even some pertaining to theories blurted out by the characters themselves, such as a possibility that they are stuck in an infinite time loop or maybe that somewhere somehow extra-terrestrial beings are involved in all this. These details aside, however, Snyder’s movie is also saturated with references to one specific film – James Cameron’s Aliens.
In fact, it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots here and there to see that the red bandana on one of the character’s head is a decisive wink towards the character of Vasquez, or that the key piece of suspense in the film’s climax coming from the fact the characters thinking their pilot abandoned them at the roof only for her to show up immediately to save the day is a not to what the android Bishop did in Cameron’s classic. But the symmetry with Aliens is not limited to occasional referencing meant for diehard fans to pick out and have a little smile over. No. If you look at Army of the Dead the right way, you will realize it could easily function as a stealth remake of Aliens in general, because it is built on its narrative template. From start to finish.
If you substitute zombies for xenomorphs, you will immediately see how closely matched these two movies are, even conceptually. The way Snyder delineates it, zombies require and actively pursue fresh human ‘hosts’ to turn into zombies as they have done with the city of Las Vegas during the massively protracted opening credits sequence. They have effectively taken care of the settlers of Hadley’s Hope, a settlement on the newly terraformed LV426. A team of boisterous machos is then sent in (their reasons notwithstanding) and they also happen to be led by a coyote who knows what’s what (Nora Arnedezer), who is at least temporarily a stand-in for Ripley’s character in Aliens. She’s tough and lore-knowledgeable enough to function in this role. Funnily enough, to keep the movie from becoming a wholesale reimagining of Cameron’s film (only with zombies), the symmetry to Ripley jumps between various characters every now and again whenever the story calls for it. And so, to facilitate the film’s final act, Kate (Ella Purnell) becomes Ripley as she heads back to the nest of those pesky alpha zombies to recover the film’s Newt. This makes Bautista’s character to slot into the archetype of Corporal Hicks and everything makes sense altogether.
Again, this cannot be sheer coincidence as after a while the mountain of evidence becomes overwhelming. Army of the Dead has its equivalent of Burke, a double-crossing villain willing to betray the team to serve his corporate master, Bishop, Gorman, Apone and others. Granted, some characters in Snyder’s film tend to form overlapping composites borrowed from Aliens, e.g. Tig Notaro’s character who slots into at least three archetypal traits as the movie goes along and becomes Bishop, Apone and Ferro the dropship pilot, but these instances never consciously undermine the symmetry between these movies. In fact, they galvanize it.
Thus, Army of the Dead becomes a festival of ‘spot which scene from Aliens they are reinventing now’, which is both way more fun than you’d honestly believe it would be and way more fun than following the movie ‘as it is’. As the characters make their way through a building crowded with hibernating zombies, it becomes inescapable to compare this suspenseful sequence with the now iconic set piece in which Space Marines make their way into the xenomorph nest to find both the residents of the settlement and camouflaging aliens embedded in walls. The resulting carnage is comparable too. We get to see the main zombie villain Zeus become a stand-in for the alien queen as he gives chase after the characters and even assaults them in a helicopter, which is naturally too small to fit this movie’s equivalent of the power loader. And to top it all off, as the climactic encounter is taking place, the government nukes Las Vegas. From orbit. It’s the only way to be sure, right?
All in all, it is simply uncanny how close Army of the Dead is to Aliens and – more importantly – how instrumental this symmetry was to me to extract tangible amounts of enjoyment out of this otherwise tawdry experience. Let’s be clear here: Snyder’s movie is not great as it is, but at least I had some fun trying to fit it into the narrative template (archetypal as it is in its own right) left behind by James Cameron’s sequel to arguably one of the greatest movies ever made. I know, I could have just stopped watching Army of the Dead and put on Aliens instead, which would have been a solid choice, I won’t deny. But I think it may serve as a useful experiment to other film lovers to see what can be done to turn an otherwise mediocre movie into something fun and fundamentally engaging.
I remain fully aware of the fact Zack Snyder was actively making these choices and it is not an accident of chance these elements of symmetry are there to be picked out by over-zealous film fans like yours truly. And it doesn’t change the fact that what Army of the Dead has to offer in the primary sphere of its narrative and character-building falls well short of what anyone would deem acceptable these days. But it’s fun to think that Aliens could essentially be remade as a zombie thriller, even if Zack Snyder could not hold the candle to James Cameron in terms of the aspirations of his set pieces and the grandeur of his directorial vision.