Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Cinema File #211: “World War Z” Review

In just about every technical sense, independent of its larger cultural context or the various creative issues surrounding its development, World War Z is in and of itself perfectly okay. Even by the standards of zombie movies in particular, assuming you aren't too much of a purist to extend the genre to these rabid ant-like Olympians, there isn't really anything disastrously wrong with the film. It's entertaining enough, tense and action packed, and about as thrilling as one could expect from a PG-13 zombie apocalypse movie, and yet, through no fault of the film's albeit somewhat boilerplate story, I found myself wanting more. Beyond the larger budget and the resulting global scope, World War Z lacks that spark of innovation this movie monster sorely needs to rise above a pop culture landscape already over saturated with zombie fiction, and this opportunity cost is felt even more profoundly in light of the much more clever source material upon which the film is based.

World War Z the film follows Brad Pitt as an ex-U.N. Officer forced back into active duty and tasked with discovering the origins of a sudden zombie outbreak in the hopes of finding a cure before the armies of the undead can overtake the world. I've not read the original book, though I have had it lovingly described to me by many of its effusive fans, and if you are among them, you'll know that the story of the novel takes place long after the “war” has ended, presented as a series of interviews making up an oral history of a long past zombie age, recorded for posterity. Apparently the script was at first intended to follow this structure more closely with an original draft written by J Michael Strazcynski of Babylon Five fame, but this was eventually scrapped in favor of a script better suited to running and explosions that from what I gather is World War Z in name only.

I am instantly reminded of another adaptation from some years ago, Timur Bekmambetov's Wanted, which took a story about amoral comic book super villains and turned it into a much less interesting one about assassins and looms of fate. In both cases, its not just that the story is changed to something almost unrecognizable, its that it is done so despite there being a very clear blueprint in the source material for how to adapt it right. As in Wanted, which literally cast its main leads with characters drawn to resemble actors, the book World War Z, from what I'm told anyway, lends itself perfectly to a mockumentary in the style of Ken Burn's baseball, but with zombies. This kind of thing can and has been done in film, most recently that I can recall in Spike Lee's brilliant Confederate States Of America, and there's really no argument for not doing it here save concerns over mainstream marketability, and no argument for not changing the name to something else so a more authentic adaptation could be made in the future, save a desire to crassly exploit the book's fan base.

And even if they weren't going to go with the unique take on a zombie-centric story as told in the book, the movie seems to go out of its way to avoid any sort of twist or interesting complication outside of the sheer mass of marauding creatures. Nowadays, most zombie movies seem to be stuck in a cycle of gimmicks, usually involving the undead transposed to some new location for the sake of novelty (Zombies in a school!, Zombies on a plane!, etc). World War Z applies an oddly repetitive structure that almost mimics the rut of zombie films in general as its main character travels from one slightly different locale to the next, waiting for each temporarily safe respite to become overrun, and then moving on, learning little bits of vague exposition at each stop. Its well done for what it is and never quite boring, but there's no unifying theme to bring it all together and make it feel any different from what we've seen before aside from the CGI polish.

I'll try not to go into spoilers, but another flaw in the film that builds over the course of the story kind of sneaks up on you by the end, and that's the abject stupidity of many of the movie's characters and situations. I may have imagined it, but I'm pretty sure a character's location was given away to the zombies by another character calling them on the phone not once, but twice, and the first time it happened, a different character didn't even have time to get eaten, because in the course of running away, he tripped and fell into his own face and killed himself. All of this pales in comparison to a moment towards the middle of the adventure, where a place at once safe from the apocalypse thanks to the intelligent pre-planning of its leaders loses its sanctuary status in perhaps the most moronic way possible. And even that's not as bad as what happens shortly after this, where we meet the one person living in a zombie apocalypse who somehow never learned not to open a door when something behind it starts banging like an animal.

Thankfully, the movie is largely saved by the third act, where it stops trying to show off how extreme they can portray various zombie related disasters and switches over to a more cramped indoor environment and a much more personal and gripping tone. When the movie stops looking for the next set piece and settles on a clearly defined goal, it becomes easier to invest in the plight of these people, to the point where a new group only introduced in the last half hour is more engaging then any of the more prominent ones introduced earlier, including the main character's own family. Ironically enough, it is only when the movie abandons the wide scope that only just barely sets it apart, and instead goes for a more traditional zombie thriller, that it finally gets good. The ending is a bit more hopeful than is typical for this genre, and a bit silly, granting the zombies an instinctual complexity that might arguably be more controversial than the whole Slow vs. Fast debate, but given the set up, it would have have taken a respectable level of spite and cynicism to heap even more failure on top of what is already a pretty sad state of affairs.

Again, all of my gripes aside, World War Z is entirely watchable and in its constituent parts, very well made and more entertaining that it maybe should be. If you don't much care about things like fealty to the source material and have no problem watching a series of well worn cliches executed with style and precision, than chances are you won't be disappointed. If you loved the book, or are just too sick of zombie movies that you need more than more of the same, best to stay away. Personally, I straddle that line pretty much squarely in the middle, not a fan of the book, but also desperately in search of something new and different in my zombie movie. I ended up enjoying what was there in World War Z more than I expected, even as I recognized how evident it was that it could have so much more. 

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