David Fincher sets the bar high at the beginning of Zodiac. His sepia-tinted colour photography (shot in high definition) carries an idealized view of America. Idyllic images of suburbia and fireworks for the Fourth of July are followed by a trip to a burger joint and a young couple driving into the country to "park." Then a killer strikes, and these touchstones of '60s youth and pop culture are violently ended.
The real-life case of the unsolved California killings is approached from the angle of media and police trying to uncover the truth. Fincher has a meticulous eye for period detail and investigative procedurals, but the tragic impact of the murders is removed from Zodiac altogether.
Missing the operatic sense of doom that helped characterize his Seven (1995), Zodiac's effort to avoid sensationalism conversely becomes disrespectfully unemotive. San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the most obsessed with the case. But he's not motivated by any sense of justice or righteousness: he just likes puzzles. Fincher constructs a movie about the access to, and elusiveness of, information in the modern world—a theme that extends to the staredown of the movie's final shot.
Because the Zodiac killer (who went years before claiming another life) isn't that interesting a story, it's important the characters carry the film. But important players, such as Robert Downey Jr.'s reporter Paul Avery and Anthony Edwards' Det. William Armstrong, abruptly drop out of the film by the third act. The focus on Graysmith paints his home life scenes as a warmed-over variation of Jim Garrison's in JFK—his obsession isn't motivated from wanting restorative justice, or to uncover the truth of a crime that profoundly affected him. It's a hobby that led him to write the book on which the film is based but it began as a way to keep himself occupied. And with its repetitive talk about handwriting matches, that's what the movie is too. Fincher replicates the scope, and occasionally matches the spectacle, of a '70s crime epic. It's underwhelming because it keeps anticipating greatness.
The difference between the function of movies and comics is made clear in 300. Bringing the Frank Miller and Lynn Varley graphic novel to the screen, the movie finds its unique look by replicating the source's water colour images in a mostly live-action universe. The visual novelty wears off quickly. From there, the unbalanced pacing and shallow emotional textures are cornball political rallying.
What works in the leisure and solitude of reading a comic book hasn't the same effect on screen over two hours. Director Zack Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake) tells Miller's story in which King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler) leads his army of 300 against the Persians, but never allows the movie a chance to breathe. The odd effect of a historically set movie bearing a futuristic appearance is an incidental anachronism of Snyder's loyalty. The high-tech artificiality also allows the battle scenes to incorporate digital pans and slow motion effects; it has the aesthetics of a video game.
There's enough weird stuff in 300—a goat-headed man, a giant rhino, people with designer deformities—to indicate what a bizarre kick the film might have been had it gone further down this path. As it is, nothing that happens in 300 bears impact. Trying to repackage the comic in another medium, the drama is lost through a veil of poor translation.
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