World War Z
Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 21 Jun 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 21 Jun 2013 (General release); 2013)
For many, it’s everything the summer movie season was made for. It’s got a high profile star (Brad Pitt), a high concept premise (a global zombie pandemic), a high level of spectacle (these creatures are fast and capable of mass destruction), and apparently, such sentiments are shared with many both within and outside the horror demo. With an estimated $66 million at the box office over the 21 June weekend (and little competition coming from the likes of The Heat and White House Down), World War Z seems ready to beat the odds, to prove the pundits wrong, and walk out of 2013 a sizeable hit.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s a good film. Far from it. But commerciality has never been about quality. It’s about tapping into a zeitgeist ripe for reciprocating and milking said market until it cannot bleed another drop of green, and so far, it looks like Z might succeed. Granted, with all the awful buzz surrounding the troubled production and the massive media push behind the project (Pitt actually made dozens of personal appearances at preview screenings during the month before opening), there was destined to be some stragglers and gawkers. The real test will be in the coming weeks, when Johnny Depp and The Lone Ranger arrive in theaters, or worse, when Pacific Rim and its equally elephantine style shows up to try and dominate the Cineplex.
If a profit can be parsed out of the seemingly impossible financial stakes involved (how much did the movie cost to make again?) and the planned sequels see the light of day, everyone will be crowing and demanding critics eat same. But there is still a lesson that can be learned here, one that future films in this franchise (or any copycat, for that matter) can take away and apply. The notion of taking a zombie uprising and turning it global is nothing new. Danny Boyle did it with 28 Days Later (I know, I know, they’re NOT ZOMBIES! Shut up!), and George Romero had planned his Day of the Dead to be something akin to the final battle between the living and the undead. Heck, AMC is getting raves for sticking with its far gory and much scary soap opera version of the concept - The Walking Dead.
But World War Z is not that. It’s not a film about survival or trying to outsmart the primal and instinctual. Instead, it’s an excuse for CG, a way for director Marc Foster to, once again, prove his passive aggressive addled auteurism while giving those unfamiliar with the elements of fear a slick, safe PG-13 experience. Pitt tries, but his character is so poorly sketched out and given so little to do except reacte and regress that it’s hard to call him a hero, and the rest of the film is fleshed out with names no one but the most obsessive media maven would instantly recall. It’s safe to say that World War Z is the first Hollywood film truly made for moviegoers outside of North America. It’s visuals easily translate and the sequences in between don’t carry enough expositional weight to warrant non-English speaking sentience.
So where did they do wrong? Where did Brad Pitt (who spearheaded this adaptation of Max Brooks’ book) screw up? Well, the truth is that our superstar had little say in what eventually happened. Instead, he let a fretful studio which saw a ballooning budget dictate what the film should and should not be. Gone was the episodic, Ken Burns’ Civil War style approach. Gone was the various political subtexts Brooks put into the book. Gone was any semblance of real seriousness. Instead, the hive mentality of the New Age monsters was amplified, the supercomputers were cranked up, and a proposed epic zombie effort was turned into two hours of F/X and Messageboard fodder. Had it stayed with the book, the movie would have been much less commercial, and that’s clearly one reason why the tome’s take was axed.
But by getting rid of what Brooks begat, World War Z—the movie—made a major mistake. It literally removed the zombie threat from a film about same. Let’s say, for a moment, that the very idea of the undead unnerves you. You have no tolerance for even the suggestion of reanimated corpses. Will World War Z bother you? Will it get under your skin and crawl around? Absolutely. After all, this is ‘horror’ for novices, frights that only tweak, not terrify. Better still, since we never really learn what the creatures are up to until the very end—they don’t eat people, they only live to bite and infect, and when a healthy host is unavailable, they become passive and dormant—we never feel afraid. In the original treatment of the script, cold was the factor that could be used against the horde. In the rewrites, it was Pitt’s character finding a cure, of sorts.
Since they tossed out Brooks’ book and reduced the ‘zombies’ to a collection of convenient plot devices, it makes sense the movie would aggravate established fans. But how can even the most non-critical viewer not wonder about the various dead ends and logic leaps present. Pitt’s Gerry Lane, whose not a scientist, sees two people not getting attacked by the toothsome terrors and he jumps to the conclusion: terminal disease. Or at the very least, diseased. Does that mean the zombie wouldn’t bite you if you had a cold? The flu? Diabetes? All snark aside, it seems surreal that something as simple as a cancer cell would keep a mindless monster from doing what it does instinctually.
Then there is where Pitt finds the solution. The WHO facility is so poorly mapped out, with research on one side and the vials of potential plagues on the other, that it seems created for one reason and one reason only - to offer up a suspense filled passage to a possible “cure” for some kind of creepshow. It’s the typical scenario: something a character wants is not easily accessible, and thus they must risk their lives to save many others. But here’s a kicker, why does Lane do it by himself? Why not call in the military (who already know where he is, since he PHONES them and tells them), get an elite team of soldiers out to Wales, and then systematically walk through the 80 or so members of the undead still hanging about the labs and get to the disease vault. Makes sense, but it also makes Pitt less of a hero. Taking the sacrificial shot is one thing. Doing it after you’ve already risked your life to see the idea through to its end makes it even more memorable.
In fact, it’s safe to say that World War Z is nothing but a way for Pitt to play savior without having to resort to religious hieroglyphics. If his plan works—and one imagines having to wait for World War Z 2 to find that out—it will be interesting to see how the franchise gets this foot out of the fire. Shoot people up with illness, send them out into the streets to kill as many monsters as possible, and wait for the moment when either (a) the zombie virus mutates, or (b) the real source of the scare is discovered. If all this was just a set up for some sequels, the individuals behind the scenes sure did an incredibly sloppy job. If not, then we can see how completely cobbled together and random the entire film really is. World War Z may be a crowd pleaser, but it’s far from what it could have been. That distance will only grow over time, turning a pleasing popcorn experience now into a genre-defying dud a few years from now.