Wednesday, July 3, 2013

World War Z

World War Z is a movie that by all intents and purposes should not work. I’ll explain why:

- First of all it’s a zombie movie and its rated PG-13. There’s a certain expectation when it comes to movies involving the undead - violence and gore. These creatures crave flesh and naturally that leads to a lot of bloodshed. World War Z is about as dry a movie as you could possibly imagine. One character has her hand cut off and not a drop of the red stuff is spilt, not even on the field dressing applied to cover the stump.

- The zombies don’t crave human flesh and only exist to spread the infection. Basically they swarm, attack, bite once and move on to the next victim. This is contrary to the rules established not only by every zombie film ever, but even the novel this movie is based on.
- The movie only barely follows Max Brooks’ novel of the same name. There are maybe two references to the source material, one being a Korean doctor who was attacked by an infected patient and the mentioning of Russia going dark. Two major references were cut from the film entirely (the original ending). Fans of the book cried foul upon learning this.

- All the trouble behind-the-scenes should have resulted in something akin to Battlefield Earth. Virtually every movie you hear of having turmoil on the scale of World War Z’s production issues (escalating budget, massive rewrites and reshoots, constantly shifting release dates) is predicted to be a complete disaster (Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Terminator: Salvation), but some of the time that turns out to not be the case (The Abyss, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Jaws).

- The fact that Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, championed the making of this movie as a vehicle to showcase its founding member proves that the motive behind its existence comes from a purely egotistical standpoint.
All of these issues should have combined into an unwatchable mess. Strangely enough… the movie ended up being pretty cool.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), an ex-UN Investigator, and his family are caught up in a rapidly spreading epidemic of “rabies” that is passed through being bitten from one person to another in seconds. In order to keep his family out of harm’s way he agrees to travel abroad to piece together the clues to find the cause and cure of what is being called the “zombie apocalypse”.

I had my doubts about this movie from the moment I heard that the book was being adapted into a film. I’m not exactly a Brad Pitt fan, I wasn’t as keen on the novel as everyone else seemed to be, I was definitely not a fan of director Marc Forster’s previous work (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace) and the idea of sanitizing the concept of a zombie epidemic for a PG-13 rating was just a horrid, horrid decision. Once I started to read reviews and hear feedback from die hard horror fan friends that the resulting film was pretty damn good I decided to check it out.
World War Z is a fast, fun and genuinely suspenseful horror film. Brad Pitt never became an action hero as I had feared he would, the lack of gore was not missed due to the quick pacing and amount of scary situations presented and the script smartly decided to keep the focus on one character instead of multiple ones like in the book.

First off, as I mentioned in my Man of Steel review, I don’t like to compare a movie to its source material be it a novel, comic book or television show. I want the movie to entertain me. If I wanted the source material I’d go back and read/watch the source material instead. Separating myself from the book by Max Brooks wasn’t that hard due to the fact that I didn’t think it was all that great to begin with. I found it somewhat repetitive, cliché and slow. I much preferred his previous novel “The Zombie Survival Guide”. So the fact that the movie uses barely 1% of the original material had zero effect on me.
Brad Pitt turns in a nice performance as the lead and never makes him feel like an invulnerable superman. He comes off as an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation reacting in realistic ways. The script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard with doctoring by Damon Lindelof and additional story input from J. Michael Straczynski, has Gerry written as one of the most decent human beings I’ve seen in a movie recently. When a Mexican family offers food and shelter to his kin and are subsequently killed, Gerry doesn’t even bat an eye to decide if he should adopt their lone surviving child as one of his own. He just does. It was at that moment I realized that the movie had won me over.

The flood of zombies seen in the trailers looked absolutely ridiculous to me as I am more of a fan of the traditional slow shuffling variety established by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead. When seen on screen and in the context of the movie it is extremely effective in projecting a feeling of helplessness and panic. I put myself in Gerry’s shoes a few times and I know that I would be freaking the fuck out if I saw this wall of undead racing my way with nowhere to turn. There are so many of them that they seem to move as one with a purpose, like a colony of ants that you are unable to squash with your foot. The scene on the airplane is a perfect example of how successful the filmmakers manage to get across the dread and fear since the characters are in a virtually hopeless situation 30,000 feet in the air. It worked brilliantly.
Seeing the effect the zombie plague has on civilization is also one of the best aspects of the flick. Some people turn to savages (Gerry’s wife almost getting raped in a supermarket) while others find it brings out the best in them (the Mexican family that I mentioned earlier). The global effect is awesome as well with some nations choosing to just nuke the problem away while others decide that the best way to save humanity is to offer as much help as possible to those that can’t fend for themselves. It made for a more interesting film and gave hope that we are not all selfish little assholes.

Marc Forster, while still not being a great director in my eyes, got lucky with all the shit that went down behind the scenes. Apparently it all was for the best because the movie turned out to be head and shoulders from what I was expecting it to be - just a dumb action movie with some zombies in it. His decisions in the acting department are top notch, his visual flare is perfect on this epic scale and the new ending is exactly what the movie needed to make it look like there is hope for humanity (I read what the original ending was and it was the exact wrong direction to take). He pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
There is some stupid crap going on, so it’s not all good. There are times when Gerry comes off as a little too squeaky clean for someone who used to do some questionable things for the United Nations. People who are mortally wounded make treks across entire countries on foot, smart people make dumb decisions and some of the details about the undead are contradictory in certain areas (one person becomes a zombie in twelve seconds while another takes a couple of hours). You can definitely tell when the rewrites took hold because the tone shifts radically from a fast paced scare-a-thon to a subdued thriller. The ending is also wrapped up too neatly and happily for my tastes. These are not fatal flaws, just minor annoyances.

World War Z is not the end all be all of zombie movies. To be honest I can name at least fifteen to twenty that are better. What it is is a new and definitely effective take on the tired subject matter of the walking dead that took me by surprise and has me counting the days until the sequel arrives. I want to see the next chapter in Gerry Lane’s journey and if humanity can be saved, and there’s the greatest endorsement I can possibly give this movie – I want more.

4 out of 5

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