Thursday, July 11, 2013

In Theatres: World War Z

“a bland, kind of gutless, neutered movie” -

I generally don’t include quotes from somebody else in my reviews, but after leaving the theatre not sure how to describe what I just saw, I think the above quote from popular web-based entertainer Brad Jones pretty much sums up how I was feeling.  World War Z was intended to capitalize on Max Brooks’ popular novel, and in the author’s own words is “World War Z in name only”.

This film is a mess.  It’s a PG-13 zombie film that consciously cultivates a PG-13 audience while not consciously cultivating the idea of what a zombie is.  It blatantly throws out the mythology of Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, opting instead for something as high-octane as the dead can be.  It is also a suspenseful action movie with a likable protagonist doing his best to get back to his family.

The film stars Brad Pitt as Gerry , a former member of UNIT.  The United Nations independent military force with its own members that are not drawn from other militaries does not actually exist, and as such has no name.  Since the film does not name it, I am making use of Doctor Who’s name for such a force: The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, which is deployed against enemies that threaten the entire world and are generally outside of the traditional human understanding of the world.  As such, I don’t particularly disagree with UNIT being deployed against them, but I imagine I don’t have to go into detail as to why relying on a completely unrelated setting that I just happen to know about in order for me to reach that conclusion is necessary.

Gerry has retired for the sake of being a father to his two girls, which will be hereafter referred to as “the quiet one” and “the crying one”, if I refer to them again.  The opening is a day in the life - rather, a birthday in the life - of the family, interrupted all of a sudden by everything going off the walls crazy.  I wish I could describe it better, but I can’t.  This begins a sequence of choppy editing, shaky cameras, and altogether the film doing its best to substitute unnerving the audience with rapid cuts in place of any sort of tension, suspense or even gore.  The film is intentionally avoiding the latter, which works, but it does so by blatantly cutting away in obvious and painful ways, which doesn’t.  There was one scene where I was certain that Brad Pitt didn’t have any more of an idea where he was than I was; forget the zombies, the editor is the true danger here.

Still, there were some good things to this scene.  The sound is carefully crafted, creating the illusion that a car crash in the film was so powerful as to physically impact the audience and leave their heads ringing.  At the time, I thought that this was going to lead into the injury or death of one of the characters - in fact, this would have been an ideal time to kill off one of the girls, giving the remaining family members something to connect over and fight for, not to mention that this is the point where I stopped being able to tell the girls apart.  Instead, this is the part where it becomes clear that the Law of Main characters has been applied to everyone in the car.  The film is “safe” from this point on, and never again is there any reason to actually believe that Gerry, his wife or his children are actually going to be at risk of death in apocalypse.  Sure, the characters believe that they are, but the events are telling an entirely different story.  The characters believe that they’re in something deep and serious, when in reality the film is entirely aware that it is a summer blockbuster.

The rest of the film becomes a cross between Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and The Da Vinci Code.  The “zombies” are very much in the modern mold, although the dead do not actually rise in this film.  They’re referred to as “zombies” (and as “rakshasa”) and referred to as being dead, but the only method of conversion is by passing the infection along through a bite.  None of the zombies shown are in any way rotting, although I do have to give a lot of credits to the actors portraying them in many scenes.

Gerry spends the film traveling the world, finding clues as to where the plague came from and how to stop it.  In the meantime he witnesses zombies overrun several strongholds.  He’s fairly creative while finding clues, if so far behind the audience that it almost seems as though the solutions are so simple as to be clearly false.  The cast picks up new characters from time to time, but spends so little time on them that it’s barely worth remarking that the only person Gerry’s family meets in the Projects who knows English is the only person the film deems worthy of surviving.  He never has a scene worth keeping him alive for again, so from a narrative standpoint he died along with his family.

When the editing settles on a scene long enough for you to actually see it, the sets are gorgeous.  The walls around Israel are spectacular and give a clue as to how an adaptation of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy might look.  Despite the fact that many of the effects are the result of allegedly mindless zombies partaking in clearly intentional plans to murder and destroy, that doesn’t stop them from being brilliant in their own right.

Unfortunately, there are just as many scenes of stupidity for the sake of suspense to balance things out.  The entire climax of the film hinges on the fact that a roomful of smart people - scientists, veterans and administrators - wouldn’t think to ask or answer a very simple and important question prior to undertaking a mission where the knowledge is clearly necessary.  Which is a perfect example of what this film is like.  The acting is excellent, but you feel little for the characters when you can tell the ending twenty minutes in.  The effects are beautiful, but either the cinematographer had cerebral palsy, the editor has the attention span of a six year old Robin Williams, or both.  The result is an average film that was rewritten and reshot too much for its own good, a film that seems to intentionally sacrifice quality for a rating with the only excuse being that it couldn’t possibly profit on its ridiculous budget with an R rated film.

World War Z doesn’t know what makes a good PG-13 zombie movie, nor does it do much to earn its title other than a very basic premise - and I can tell that without having read the book.  It’s the story of an audience stand-in character that the military loves despite being solid not military in any way, who is never at risk of death, while multi-million dollar effects that only generally mesh with the plot play out around him, cutting away from all the violent parts that might accidentally immerse the audience in what was happening.  In short, it’s a very good way to see everything that is wrong with remake and adaptation culture as it currently exists in the film industry.


Jessica ( frellathon ) said...

Everyone I know who's seen it loved it but I'm apprehensive about watching this one for some reason.

Charles Gramlich said...

I kinda had a feeling this might be the kind of thing the movie would turn out to be. said...

Most of it worked, and most of it didn’t. Especially that piss-poor ending. Nice review William.