Monday, June 24, 2013

WORLD WAR Z Has Impressive Action, But Not Enough Brains


- It became pretty clear, well before the release of WORLD WAR Z, that the movie would have virtually nothing in common with the book on which it is based, save for the eye-grabbing title. As a fan of the book, I couldn't help but be disappointed. Sure, it made sense that the book's structure would have to be changed for a film adaptation - given that the book is comprised of a series of anthologized chapters detailing the course of the war against zombies, told from the perspective of a journalist looking back on the war's key events. But I still thought that the spirit of the book might remain intact - that being the idea of taking the classic, Romero-style, archetypal zombie, and posing the question of "what would *really* happen?" - on a global, big-picture scale, in the event of a full-on zombie apocalypse. Shows like The Walking Dead tend to tell their zombie stories on a smaller scale - following isolated bands of survivors as they traverse the post-apocalyptic wasteland. But Max Brooks' idea of approaching zombies with dead-on seriousness - looking as realistically as possible at how politicians, the military, the U.N., and others from across the globe would deal with this unimaginable threat - made for some great reading and intriguing scenarios. Here's the thing though: Max Brook's book practically bleeds with love for zombies and the zombie genre. It works so well because it is a perfect hybridization of classic zombie lore with a new type of approach to zombie storytelling - telling this huge, epic story on a global scale. In the new movie version, that is all pretty much tossed out the window.

WORLD WAR Z is actually a pretty entertaining movie, taken wholly on its own merits. But it seems almost embarrassed that it's about zombies at all. The trailers showed zombies only as an amorphous blob of undead humanity. And that's true for most of the film. The film never has fun with the concept of zombies. And I think it's sort of a shame that the movie didn't adhere more to the book's use of "classic" zombie archetypes, instead going for zombies that resemble the fast-moving "infected" creatures we've seen in movies like 28 Days Later. I say this not because I'm some hardcore zombie purist or anything, only because I think it makes the premise of the film less fun when you take away the iconic elements of its monsters. The zombies of World War Z are not really that monstrous. They're just crazy-people who run and bite and swarm like locusts. There's a generic element to them, and that generic-ness infects (pun intended) the whole movie to an extent.

One problem is that the film focuses on Bradd Pitt's character to the exclusion of all else. Pitt makes the most of it, bringing his usual slightly off-kilter likability to the role of former U.N. operative Gerry Lane. Lane quit his gig - going into global problem areas to help with crisis-management - to spend more time with his wife and two daughters as a stay-at-home dad. But when the zombie crisis kicks in, Gerry agrees to go back to work for the U.N., in exchange for the safety of his family, who will receive shelter on an oceanic military base. Gerry's assignment is to travel to various global hot spots and gather any info he can about what's causing the zombie plague, and what might be able to stop it. The mission includes trips to South Korea in search of a potential "Patient Zero," an excursion to Israel to see why it is that they built an anti-zombie wall prior to the first known outbreak, and a fateful stop at a World Health Organization compound in Europe. Like I said though, Pitt's character is always front and center, and the details of the global zombie response take somewhat of a backseat. It's frustrating, because we're teased with tantalizing hints about the aftermath of the zombie outbreak, but we never see any of the really big stuff go down. The movie mostly takes place in an in-between time, a time following the initial outbreak but prior to when the actual "war" starts. We hear about the effect of the zombie outbreak on Washington, we are told about the plan that led to the Israeli's preventative measures, and we see brief flashbacks that hint at what happened to the South Korean Patient Zero. But we never seen any of it. We only see what Bradd Pitt sees, which means we miss a lot of the good stuff (except for the good stuff that happens to happen precisely as Bradd Pitt arrives - which in its own right feels a bit contrived).

Director Marc Forster does a pretty decent job of making the movie chug along at a nice clip, and he orchestrates some impressive set piece action scenes. During the movie's more frantic moments, things at times get a little *too* frantic, meaning it becomes difficult to tell exactly what's going on. There's some rapid-fire editing that distorts a lot of the action to the point of overkill. Forster walks a fine line. At times, as in the movie's thrilling opening where a wave-one zombie attack causes chaos on an urban street, Forster effectively crafts scenes of large-scale mayhem and panic. Other times, the chaos overwhelms the story being told, and the action is just plain hard to follow. In the movie's final act, the scope narrows considerably, and the pace becomes more methodical. It is in this section that Forster really shines - he seems more comfortable with more traditional horror - Pitt and his compatriots skulking in confined hallways, trying to avoid lurking zombies - than with the all-out action of previous sections.

And that leads me to the other thing about this movie ... even if you haven't heard about the film's production problems - its scrapped third act, cut-out subplots, numerous re-writes, etc. - you may still come away from the film feeling like it had a disjointed, scraped-together feel to it. What works about the movie's structure is Bradd Pitt's central drive to return safely to his wife and kids. What doesn't work is almost everything else. The movie starts on a great, moody note - with a montage of actual news footage depicting a world already on-the-brink ... even before zombies entered into the picture. And like I said, that first scene of urban chaos, of people realizing that something's gone horribly, horribly wrong - it's very effective, and sets a great tone for the rest of the film. But from there, nothing quite seems to happen in an organic fashion. As mentioned, we seem to skip over major events, and everything begins to feel loosely-sketched. Things are happening - we see destruction and devastation, but the whys and hows are glossed over. After all, what could be more important than Bradd Pitt getting back to his two little girls? This same sketchiness is true of the film's characters. If they're not Bradd Pitt, then we don't need to know about 'em. Exhibit A is Daniella Kertesz as a badass Israeli soldier named Segen. Kertesz does a great job of making us root for this character, but she does it in spite of the fact that the script gives her nothing to work with. No back-story, no history, nothing to make us care for her except for Kertesz's expressive eyes.

The movie also resorts to having Pitt's character be the prototypical "chosen one." Instead of telling a story about humanity's collective resistance against the zombie threat, this is a scenario where Bradd Pitt plays the Will Smith role and does it all himself. It just feels like the movie was afraid to tackle the big themes or big scale of the book, and so it took the easy way out and transformed into Bradd Pitt Saves The World From Zombies. Speaking of politics, there are almost none in the movie, save for some winks at things like the North Korea / South Korea and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. But the movie pays only lip service to addressing how a single, worldwide threat of this magnitude might realistically affect geopolitical realities. I don't think it's any coincidence that perhaps the most intriguing scene in the movie - where we get a glimpse of the Israeli thought-process in planning for the attack - is one of the few that really dares to put some intelligent thought into the hows and whys of the narrative.

I think that's what my overall "meh" feeling towards this movie boils down to. While it's an at-times impressive ride, there's no stand-out characters, and no real twist or angle that really captured my imagination. The promise of that great title - "World War Z" - is never fulfilled as it is in the book.

To its credit, the movie does have some truly excellent action sequences. There's a chase scene through the Old City of Jerusalem that's super cool, even if just for the novelty of "holy crap, zombies running around Jerusalem!" There's a riveting airplane sequence, in which Gerry and Segen rather ingeniously pull out all the stops to survive a zombie attack at 20,000 ft. And there are some really well-done, edge-of-your-seat stealth survival-horror sequences set at the World Health Organization building. Those three or four pretty-damn-good sequences make the movie worth seeing, and keep it moving along briskly and in an entertaining fashion.

And hey, a couple of kickass man vs. zombie action sequences is plenty to make for a fun popcorn movie ... at least in my mind. But still, there is that lingering feeling that the movie could have been much, much more had it actually delivered on its title, and really embraced its premise in any meaningful way. As is, it feels like an effort to salvage something that was sort of inherently broken to begin with - a movie that had a hard time deciding what, exactly, it wanted to be. The best zombie stories make you think about what you would do if faced with the zombie apocalypse. What choices would you make? What dangers would you have to be mindful of? How would you survive? In the world of World War Z, the answer is frustratingly simple: be Bradd Pitt.

My Grade: B

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