Saturday, October 24, 2009

Movie Review: Zombieland

It is impossible to coherently discuss the movie Zombieland without spoilers; therefore this review will be entirely incoherent.

Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead are inevitable, as that has set the bar for contemporary zombie-comedy films.  Indeed, we will come back to Shaun in time, but it is not where we intend to start.

Zombies aside, we detected a hint of Fight Club in the first third of this movie.  In addition to the use of text digitally embedded in the world, the two main characters here were more than a little reminiscent of Tyler Durden and the narrator in Fight Club.

This isn't a criticism, by the way, merely an observation.  Both Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg were hilarious, and we found their characters intrinsically likeable.  But aspects were certainly familiar.

You should also be aware that this movie does not shy away from gore.  These are not a breed of sanitary, dry undead: these are viral zombies, seemingly alive.  Their wounds bleed, they vomit, and they tear into the living like starved animals.  This may be a comedy at heart, but it isn't afraid to rip that heart out and hold it up to the camera, so long as it's in a lighthearted way.

We have heard that the concept behind Zombieland was originally intended for television.  Despite the violence and language, we have no problem believing this: ultimately, Zombieland felt more like the first three episodes of a very good TV show than it did a full movie.

It also felt like each of those episodes was written and directed by someone different.  This isn't to say any of the movie was bad - as a point of fact, the opposite was true - it was simply inconsistent.  This may require a bit of clarification, as Shaun of the Dead utilized dramatically different tones at different points, as well.  But Shaun of the Dead used an evolving tone to gradually move the genre from comedy to horror, before snapping back at the last minute.  It was intentional and methodical.

Zombieland doesn't feel so thought out.  It's as though there were separate visions for different parts of the movie, and these were never integrated or reconciled.  This doesn't ruin the experience, though it does give the movie less weight than it otherwise could have had.

The ending also feels more TV than film, lacking gravitas or effect.  When all is said and done, the theme is more or less that of a kid's movie, and its attempts to develop any kind of existential point are undermined by a lack of consistency.

We must also pause to discuss a scene that, due to it's nature, can't be discussed.  It is a scene featuring an actor playing a character.  To describe this in more depth, apparently, would be to spoil the movie.  Every review or article we've seen has implied this to be the spoiler of the century and, while we don't personally feel it's quite that significant, far be it from us to break the embargo.

The scene in question, which we cannot discuss, occurs around the center of the movie.  We've seen it referred to as a cameo, though it feels more like a guest star: again, more TV than film.

The odd thing is, from the standpoint of narrative, the scene should not be in the movie.  It completely erodes the already faltering tone, and the behavior of the characters is completely irrational.  From a logical perspective, it shouldn't be here.  However, it's doubtlessly the high point of the film.  On some level, that encapsulates our opinion of this movie: the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, but at least the parts are a hell of a lot of fun.

If you're already at the theater and are trying to choose a movie to see, Zombieland is certainly a good option; not as good as Where the Wild Things Are, but then few movies are.  But we would hesitate to recommend going out of your way to see it.  This is the kind of movie that seems like it was destined to be a DVD.  We have high hopes for the extras, and we suspect it will hold up to repeat viewings.  But at an hour and a half with only seven credited cast members, it feels light for the big screen.

We considered holding this movie against Fight Club or Shaun of the Dead, but Zombieland chose its own muse.  We can't actually tell you what we're rating this against - that would be a spoiler - but we can tell you it scores three and a half stars against the epitome of what it's trying to be.  It owes a lot to that film, actually.  Kudos to Zombieland for finding an opportunity to thank it directly.

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