Wednesday, June 26, 2013
World War Z
Its been a good long while since I've seen an adaptation as "in name only" as "World War Z" - the only true rivals to this sort of complete disregard to the source material can be found in the awful video game films of Uwe Boll. What exactly did "The House of the Dead" have to do with teenagers stuck on an island full zombies? What does the Max Brooks novel, "World War Z" have to do with the film, "World War Z"? I'll sum it up: zombies attack, there's one Israeli character who probably is the same character from the books, and... um... that's really all I got. The studio behind this generally stupid Hollywood blockbuster, leading man Brad Pitt's own Plan B Productions, claims that this the story of the unnamed reporter who interviews the survivors of the zombie war in the book. However, in terms of tone, content, and even basic factual points - in order to placate the Chinese the outbreak apparently started in Korea now rather than Inner Mongolia - the movie gets it all wrong. To be fair of course, "World War Z" is not an easy topic to cover in a two hour film, but to be less fair, its obvious they just bought the brand title in order to market their own big-budget PG-13 zombie schlock.
Of course, they couldn't actually adapt the original "World War Z" because that shares a passing resemblance to classic George A. Romero zombie films, and this blockbuster really doesn't want to be a zombie film. It wants to be a huge Roland Emmerich disaster thriller. Brad Pitt and his family fleeing across cities full of literal tidal waves of undead zombies has about equal thematic meaning as John Cusack's equally vapid adventure against a melting Earth in "2012". It takes this film right up until the very last act to actually show a zombie up-close, when before the ghoulish armies were just CG creations without personality or spark. Brook's and Romero's satirical veins have been excised to make room for several truly lousy action sequences - the Jerusalem attack might rank as being one of the most dispiriting moments I've ever had the displeasure to witness in a film. Its very rare that one hundred million dollars in computer power could make my brain so fascinated by the all-too-slow rhythmic twitches of my watch's second hand.
"World War Z" is at best tolerable as a Redbox rental on a slow Thursday night, or perhaps as a high-budget SciFi Channel original film. The production values might be absurd in their complexity, but they can't bring any spark to this rather boring movie. Even Brad Pitt seems bored, reacting mainly to the hordes of a zombified populace with glazed eyelids and a completely perfunctory expression. He spent millions of dollars of his own money to make "World War Z" happen, you'd think he could've shown some interest, right? Ironically, "World War Z" does have several tense and interesting moments, but they only occur once the CG artists go home and we have simple tense scenes with small groups of zombies. Because the zombie film concept is still an interesting idea, its only a shame that "World War Z" couldn't be more true to its roots.
The original Max Brooks novel was a major bestseller and an extremely popular work of zombie fiction. Which makes me wonder why the filmmakers even bothered keep the title, when so little of this film has anything to do with that original. "World War Z" wasn't about Brad Pitt traveling from city to city trying to find a cure, it was a compilation of short stories about individual survivors making it through the zombie plague. This included everything from South African Apartheid engineers reusing a racial segregation strategy to create a defense against the zombies, to a huge naval zombie battle in a floating refugee city in the Pacific, to a Japanese otaku running into a blind samurai in the forest and fighting zombies with a katana. Unfortunately Max Brooks' style is well, unique and at times - oh my god - perhaps insulting to various groups. Like Max Brooks insults President Bush, he calls China's government totalitarian, he actually says some things about the world we live in now. This is unacceptable in the modern Hollywood mentality, when every major film market must be pandered to for every production, especially China. (Book readers would note that the zombie virus originated in Inner Mongolia, in the film its said to start in Korea.) Would it be unfair to say that we're now living in the totalitarian age of blockbusters? Everything that made "World War Z" an interesting and at times hilarious read had to be removed from the film, which seems to have no further ambition than to be as unrelentingly bland as possible.
Maybe in a few years HBO or somebody could make a miniseries based off the real "World War Z". Though considering that they're talking of a "World War Z 2"* already, I really doubt we're gonna see that.
The new central gimmick of "World War Z" is that the undead now run around at eighty miles per hour in massive floods of human flesh, and apparently can climb over walls like ants. I really don't want to get into the whole "fast zombies vs. slow zombies" debate, since I don't even notice in movies like "28 Days Later" that the living dead are now able to sprint**, and it doesn't really matter to me. What does matter to me though is that the zombies in "World War Z" are massively stupid. This whole, ant colony behavior, it comes off more completely ridiculous than scary. The fact this special effect looks so bad they only use it once probably tells you all you need to know. (Also, I hate to go back to Max Brooks again, but nothing about the zombie behavior in this film is even remotely similar to that of the zombies in the book.) The problem is that when the zombies become nothing but formless masses of various pixels and graphics, they cease to have any personality. They're just tidal waves of flesh. I'm not interesting in how much detail you can slam into your processor, Hollywood, I'm interested in scares, tension, and characters.
Of course, the best moments of "World War Z", as I said before, are not the ones where zombies are spilling over a giant wall in Jerusalem and devouring Israelites. The best moments are the low key dark scenes. Such as Brad Pitt and his family simply walking up a dark hallway in the midsts of infected Newark, or the finest moment, being the conclusion of the movie, where Brad Pitt and some scientists must sneak around a World Health Organization compound that is filled with revenants. The latter sequence is the first time all movie that you actually get to see a zombie and apparently the only time that real make-up was applied to a real actor. Which makes all the difference! These zombies are silly, chopping their teeth and hamming it up. But they're still a real thing, you can actually be afraid of them. Because for these very brief moments, we're watching a ZOMBIE MOVIE, not a big-budget disaster movie that just so happens to have zombies in it.
And if you're wondering why all of a sudden in the last act they actually let you see a zombie, its because the third act of "World War Z" was massively rewritten in post-production and completely re-filmed. What originally was going to finish the movie was another massive big-budget battle against zombies, this time in Moscow. And thank god we didn't have that, because more ant zombies and I probably would have considered abandoning humanity to travel the countryside in rotting cloths, rabidly eating brains myself. (And of course, nothing about how they manage to fight zombies has anything to do with anything in the novel.)
To give "World War Z" some credit, they did manage to have one character from the book actually repeat some lines written by Max Brooks. He's a Mossad agent who convinced Israel to build a massive wall in preparation for the zombie invaders. This is one of the rare interesting twists that "World War Z" brings, perhaps setting us up to see a war between humans and zombies. A moment later Jerusalem gets eaten, and that one bright point is lost. Much like "28 Weeks Later" which became horrifically boring the moment zombies actually showed up, "World War Z" crashes upon a zombie attack. The story my cellphone digital clock was telling was more interesting than what Brad Pitt's Plan B cooked up. I think the book character got eaten by a zombie too, just to completely decapitate any continuity.
Here's my final point: "World War Z" is not a good movie. But its not bad because it ignores the book, there have been plenty of good zombie movies made that had nothing to do with any author. Its also not bad because it had a PG-13 rating, though that didn't help. Its bad because its bland, it had no characters that even began to be memorable***, and it was simply flat. It fundamentally misunderstood what a zombie movie was supposed to be. I'd say rent it, if you must see it. Nothing more.
* I really hope they use that title, because "World War Z 2" is about as awkward of a title as you could ever imagine.
** And if anybody says anything like "oh, but the infected in '28 Days Later' aren't really zombies, hyuck hyuck yuck" I will scalp you with a chopper blade.
*** Wow, Brad Pitt was dull in this movie. Imagine an alternate universe where "World War Z" was actually Tyler Durden vs. ZOMBIES. FIGHT CLUB OF THE DEAD. Tell me I'm not a genius.