June 26, 2013

WORLD WAR Z Circles The Globe But Goes Nowhere (Spoilers)


"Movement is life."

You know that something has gone wrong when you walk out of a movie asking yourself, "What was the point of all that?" 

When it comes to World War Z, I guess the point was to give Brad Pitt a new franchise.

The book by Max Brooks is an oral history of a zombie apocalypse that has already happened, documenting past events and how different people and countries dealt with the crisis, some more successfully than others.  I started the book ages ago but never finished, although my understanding from those who have read it is that Marc Forster's film bears almost no resemblance to its supposed source material. Here we see a global zombie outbreak occur in real time, with Brad Pitt's UN investigator Gerry Lane immediately sent on a globetrotting mission to find "Patient Zero" in order to discover the source and perhaps even a cure for this worldwide calamity.

He doesn't.

Pitt certainly does travel to a number of exotic locales, following a trail of breadcrumbs that takes him from Philadelphia to South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales all in a few days.  Each of these set pieces is individually entertaining but only on a surface level.  David Morse tells us that North Korea's solution was to extract the teeth of everyone in the country, thus stopping the viral spread by preventing bites.  That sounds awesome!  Too bad we don't get to actually see it.  Israel intercepted some early intelligence reports describing zombies in India and, thanks to a completely absurd decision making process, ended up constructing a giant wall around the capital city.  And rather than turn people away, they've decided to turn the city into a haven for survivors, asserting that, "Every human we save is one we don't have to fight."  That got me curious: what kind of society would that become?  Surely they're bringing in people of different faiths and nationalities that weren't exactly getting along before the zombies showed up.  Will they all suddenly play nice and band together against the larger threat?  And what about scarcity of resources like food and clean water?  They are in the middle of the fucking desert after all.  That sound like a city with all sorts of interesting opportunities for drama, both large and small.  Too bad as soon as Brad Pitt shows up, a horde of zombies scales the wall and overruns the city.  Look, I understand the reason for shifting the time frame from the past to the present - theoretically it gives the proceedings a sense of immediacy.  But World War Z seems more interested in teasing us with provocative zombie scenarios than actually showing those scenarios play out on the screen.  Instead Forster seems content to mention something cool in passing before dropping us into another hectic zombie swarm. 

By now, everyone has an opinion about fast vs. slow zombies, and while my tastes tend to run more towards the slower side I will admit that the concept of zombies as a massive swarm actually feels pretty novel. But the cinematic zombie landscape is not what it once was.  In a world where one of the most popular shows on television is chock full of some of the goriest, most violent zombie attacks I've ever seen, audiences should demand more from their big screen tales of the undead. With a final budget hovering somewhere in the vicinity of $200 million, World War Z is without question the most ambitious and expensive zombie film ever made, but rather than try and compete with the likes of The Walking Dead, the film opts for a startlingly bloodless approach.  The zombies quickly overtake people but they never really chow down on human flesh.  Instead they just bite down and move on to the next sucker, thus eschewing gruesome death scenes and replacing the familiar rotting corpses covered in festering wounds with a grey-faced collection of contorted limbs.  After a while, the (mostly digital) creatures all sort of run together and become boring, which is pretty much the cardinal sin of zombie design.  

But there are also some serious narrative problems plaguing World War Z.  First and foremost, Brad Pitt is the only fully formed character in the whole movie, which means that whenever he gets tangled up in a zombie attack it's obvious that Pitt will survive and everyone else will die around him.  And poor Matthew Fox strangely shows up for literally 27 seconds of screen time as a faceless helicopter pilot with one line of dialogue. What a waste!  He's got a wife and daughters, but he shepherds them out of harm's way fairly quickly and then they're just sitting safe on a boat waiting for him to come home from his mission.  But therein lies the other narrative problem: about 3/4 of the way through the film, Pitt drops his search for Patient Zero when he develops a theory for a way to biologically camouflage people from the zombies.  After surviving a zombie attack on a commercial plane, he staggers off to a W.H.O. facility in Wales to test his hypothesis.  The film then slows down as Pitt stops jetting around the planet and spends the rest of the movie working his way through the Zeke-infested lab to get all the materials he needs.  It's some of the best stuff in the whole movie but it also feels terrifically disjointed from everything that's come before.  That's not surprising, considering that the studio ordered not just extensive reshooting, but also a complete rewrite of the film's third act by Lost writer Damon Lindelof and Cabin In The Woods writer/director Drew Goddard.*  

Taken on its own, the Welsh segment is top notch stuff, well conceived and smartly staged, but it feels like a completely different movie from the previous ninety minutes. What's more, the film's final montage makes it clear that Pitt's camouflage method is only a temporary stop-gap measure.  It's not a cure or a vaccine, its just a tool for survival.  And in case you're unclear whether Paramount was hoping for a sequel, (it's already in development) I'm pretty sure the last line of the movie is, "Our war is just beginning."  While this film is a jumbled mess of action and fractured storytelling, I actually feel as if there's some incredible franchise potential here if you hand over the reigns to someone totally nuts and really start exploring the weirder corners of this new world, like a whole country full of people with NO FUCKING TEETH.  

Hell, they might even be able to use something from the actual book.



*Apparently most of Matthew Fox's scenes were in the 40-odd minutes of footage excised from the end of the movie.

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Title: World War Z
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Fana Mokoena
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere