Sunday, June 23, 2013

Avoiding the Horde in World War Z

      If you're a fan of Max Brooks' 2006 novel (I thought it was decent), and you've been waiting in anticipation for a big-budget screen adaptation of the sprawling narrative, you should leave your excitement at the door. Because World War Z the film is an entirely different story about the zombie war, where the infected move and think like a colony of quick-moving ants and hop, skip and spring like cheetahs injected with adrenaline. It's way more Left for Dead than Night of the Living Dead. It's also much less contemplative on the social and political issues of the war and focuses much more on the world-wide carnage and cool action set pieces full of CGI and Brad Pitt running for his life. And that's okay: World War Z is a satisfying summer blockbuster that exchanges the book's slower-paced story format with non-stop tension-slathered situations, a film that's well made and entertaining yet doesn't quite cross the threshold of being great.
     After the opening credits, showing the typical quick newsreel footage of different places around the world, thing's start off with a loud Bang. Literally, as Gerry (Brad Pitt), his wife (Mireille Enos, who's so great in AMC's The Killing), and two young daughters are stuck in traffic in Philadelphia when a loud explosion occurs and people start running for their lives. Not ten minutes into the film, and we have our first action set piece: Gerry and his fam witness the insanity first hand, as the Olympic sprinter zombies smash through windows and windshields as they speed their way through gridlocked city streets. It's quickly very certain that this isn't your parent's zombie movie; everything happens with a blink of an eye: the "turn" after being bitten is only 12 seconds before you're fully zombified, twitching like your neighborhood crack addict.
     In one similarity to the book, scenes change from one world location to another, showcasing just how widespread the panic and devastation is. Gerry used to work for the U.N., so conveniently he gets chosen to travel from country to country to find where the "virus" originated. One location generally provides a clue that propels Gerry to the next location, and each country and city--whether it be South Korea, Jerusalem, or anywhere in America--generally shows us an exciting scene of Zombie action. Two come to mind the easiest: as seen in the previews, the horde that forms a living tower, crawling and jumping over each other to reach the top of a massive barrier wall, is frightening because you realize--like flies and maggots on a rotting corpse--that nothing stops these damn things. Another scene that takes place on a passenger jet is full-on intensity, rivaling last year's The Grey in showing why it's realistic to have a fear of flying.
     World War Z is directed by Marc Forster, who consistently makes good (but not great films): Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, one of the best Will Ferrell films, Stranger than Fiction, and the worst of the Daniel Craig Bond films, Quantum of Solace--these cinematic experiences all have a common thread. They are all worth your time, yet are missing just a little something, like a Zombie that can't quite reach its victim through the metal bars of a prison cell. This film showcases some solid aspects of his direction though: the world-wide tale is ambitious, full of fun zombie action, and there are plenty of quiet moments where you wonder what is lurking around the next corner. Brad Pitt has always been an actor that's totally under-appreciated. To me--look at Seven, Fight Club, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or Moneyball--he's one of our best actors. Always in control in every situation, his quiet performance isn't showy or over-the-top. It's realistic and, especially in the final third of the film, powerful.
      World War Z is a film that is told in three distinct acts, and the last portion of the film is a complete departure from the apocalyptic action of what came before it: it's slower and more thoughtful, and it actually works as a much more intimate look at the zombies and how they operate. It's also not the original ending of the film. Much has been said about the production woes on the set of World War Z: the budget ballooning from $125 million to $200 million (or more), a huge battle that was cut entirely from the film, seven additional weeks of re-shoots months after the filming was already concluded, and script re-writes including a brand new ending from the always-in-demand Lost writers--these things all spell major trouble.
     And sure, the film has some issues. Sometimes it can be over-ambitious--jumping from place to place, it's easy to get viewer jetlag (and hard to connect with characters we barely meet). The scenes between Gerry and his family have minimal impact, because we barely know them before flesh starts getting torn. And--my biggest problem--its PG-13 rating. Obviously, a $200 million dollar summer blockbuster has to make money, so an R rating would have made it tough to get a good return on investment. But this is a movie about zombies, so when the camera cuts away from teeth gnashing into necks, knives cutting off limbs, or bullets to a zombie's cranium, something gets lost in translation. The fear of the living dead is a primal sort of terror, a fear of being brutally eaten alive or violently transforming into one of the horde. With World War Z, we settle for an ambitious but neutered zombie story, an admirable attempt at a mega budget undead summer movie that sacrifices true terror with just enough tension.     (B)

No comments:

Post a Comment