Sunday, July 7, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: World War Z

World War Z is Brad Pitt's latest and is based (very loosely) on the book by Max Brooks (son of comedian Mel Brooks!!!).

Pretty much everyone who's seen the film bemoans the fact that the movie has little or nothing to do with the book. To that I say a loud and hearty "Huzzah!"

I know I'm in the minority here, but I hate, hate, hated the book. In fact I hated it so much I couldn't even finish it. Rarely have I ever been so disappointed by a book.
It should have been right up my alley— a book about a world-wide zombie plague. So why all the hate from me? First of all it's not a conventional narrative. Instead the story is told through a series of interviews with survivors of the zombie war (very similar to The Good War by Studs Terkel). So from the very first page you know humans won the war. It's tough to create much tension when you know the outcome in advance.

Second, the book is far more concerned with the political fallout that would occur in such a war than with actual, you know, zombies. Pakistan and Iran destroy one another in a nuclear conflict. Israel builds an impenetrable wall around their country. America is overconfident, thinking their usual "shock and awe" tactics will work against the undead. China becomes a democracy as rebels take advantage of the war's chaos to overthrow the Communist government. Instead of a thrilling zombie story we get a lesson in theoretical political science.

There were a few interesting ideas, like Americans moving to the far north because zombies freeze in the cold, but by and large it was nothing but a bunch of politics punctuated by a few undead encounters whenever Brooks remembered the title of the book.

World War Z is actually a follow-up to Brooks first undead-themed book, The Zombie Survival Guide. Oddly enough I enjoyed that book quite a bit. Go figure.

The film was quite a troubled production, as many changes had to be made to the storyline (such as it was) in order to even make it filmable. Then there were massive last minute rewrites and reshoots, which is never a good sign.

Originally the third act was to feature a climactic battle scene between humans and zombies in Russia (which sounds pretty cool), but that was scrapped as a new ending was hurriedly written by Damon Lindelof, the writer who inflicted Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness upon the world.

With a history like that the film came out better than it had a right to, but it's still far from perfect. I liked it better than the book, which I admit is damning with faint praise.

Lastly why, oh why was this movie rated PG-13? It definitely needed bumped up to an R rating. Yes, I know that PG-13 films are more profitable, but a zombie movie needs some gore. By sticking with a PG-13 rating the filmmakers may have created the world's first blood-free zombie movie. Nary a drop to be seen in the entire film. There's far more blood and gore every week on The Walking Dead TV series. So why am I paying $7 to sit in the theater when I can see something better on TV?    


The Plot:  
Gerry Lane is a retired U.N. investigator who quits his job to spend more time with his wife and two daughters. One morning as he's driving the kids to school (I think), downtown Philadelphia is attacked by a horde of fast-moving zombies. Gerry and his family barely escape the chaos and he's called back into service to try and find a way to end the global zombie pandemic.

Gerry travels to Korea, Israel and Wales, dodging zombies while looking for answers. In Wales he finds a partial solution
 the zombies won't attack anyone with a fatal illness. A vaccine is developed which makes humans invisible to the zombies. Humanity now has a small advantage as the film abruptly ends and the ushers wander in to sweep up the theater.

• I liked the world-wide scope of the film (while it lasted). Usually in zombie movies the action is confined to a house or mall or a single city. I don't think we've ever seen a world-wide zombie infection on film before.

• The scenes of the outbreak in Philadelphia were very well done. It was pure chaos as the fast-moving zombies were leaping through the air and pouncing on their victims. You couldn't tell who was a zombie and who was human or which way you ought to run.

• I liked Gerry's make-shift zombie armor, which consisted of a rolled-up magazine duct taped to his forearm. Crude, but effective.

• Gerry's partial solution to the plague
 infecting humans with meningitis to "camouflage" them from the zombies— was an interesting idea and something I'd not seen before.

• We hear a report that there's no zombie outbreak in North Korea because the government ordered all citizens to have their teeth pulled! That way if anyone is infected they can't bite anyone else and spread the infection. Ingenious, and given how nusty cuckoo North Korea is these days, totally believable!

• Is there really a W.H.O. (World Health Organization) facility in Cardiff? I really hope so, because Cardiff is where Doctor Who is filmed! Com-O-Dee!

• For the hero of the piece, Gerry doesn't seem all that heroic. After he and his family narrowly make it to safety aboard an aircraft carrier, Gerry's old U.N. boss Thierry wants him to come back to work for him to help stop the zombie plague. When Gerry refuses, Thierry tells him if he doesn't help, he and his family will have to leave the safety of the ship. In effect Gerry has to be blackmailed into helping.

• During the fall of Philadelphia Gerry sees victims spasm, contort and turn into zombies in twelve seconds. That's an awfully short time for the virus to run its course. It takes about a minute for your blood to make one circuit through your body. That means the zombie virus is spreading faster than your blood moves. Now that's a virulent disease!

• Gerry and his family barely make it to a waiting helicopter as they flee Philly. In the confusion Gerry accidentally gets some zombie blood in his mouth and stops before entering the chopper. He counts down to twelve, fully expecting the virus in the blood to turn him. Miraculously it doesn't.

Seems like if a zombie's bite transfers the virus, its blood ought to as well. Luckily for Gerry it doesn't, and this particular subplot is promptly dropped.

• This movie features fast running zombies rather than the traditional slow, shuffling ones. Unlike others I don't have anything against fast zombies. Zombies that can run you down are definitely scarier than ones you can escape at a brisk walk.

That said, I think I prefer slow zombies. When I see a slow, shambling zombie it's much easier for me to believe it's a reanimated corpse. When I see a fast one I have a hard time remembering it's supposed to be dead. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of a dead person who can run like a cheetah.

• In Israel, Gerry's military escort Segen is bitten on the wrist by a zombie. Thinking fast, Gerry chops off her forearm with a machete that he apparently pulled out of his arse (I don't remember seeing him carrying any kind of weapon prior to this, but I could be wrong). At least I think that's what happened, as the anemic PG-13 rating kept all this conveniently and chastely offscreen. This is a part of the movie where that rating really bit them in the ass.

Several things here. First off, Gerry and Segen are attacked by zombies and quickly dispatch them. They then take a few seconds to catch their breath. Segen then looks down in horror to see the bite on her arm. It seemed like it took perilously close to twelve seconds for this all to happen, if not more. She should have been well on her way to spasming and turning into a zombie.

Amazingly after Gerry hacks off Segen's arm, he's not splattered with blood from the fountain-like arterial spray that should be pouring forth from her wound. She bleeds nary a drop from this grievous injury as she runs around with a small, nearly blood-free bandage wrapped around the end of her stump.

A few minutes later Gerry and Segen are running through the streets of Jerusalem trying to make it to the airport. Luckily for Segen none of this activity elevates her heart rate and causes her to bleed even more profusely from her makeshift surgery.

Later on the plane, Gerry has time to tend to Segen's wound with more care. He removes the first bandage, disinfects the stump with some booze and wraps it more securely. Again, no blood spurts from the wound. I guess she must have those self-sealing arteries I've heard so much about lately.

By the way, when Gerry asks her name, she says to call her "Segen." It's unlikely that's really her name. "Segen" is an Israeli military rank similar to a lieutenant.

• Why the hell is Matthew Fox (of LOST fame) in this movie for ten seconds? He shows up to escort Gerry's family from the aircraft carrier and then promptly disappears from the movie. I can only assume he originally had a much bigger part in the original cut that was whittled down to nothing during all the reshoots and editing.

• What a lucky break that Gerry and Segen, the two main characters on the plane are the only ones who survive the crash.

• Once the plane crashes in Cardiff, Gerry and Segen miraculously wander right up to the front door of the W.H.O. I guess they must have picked up a road map at a gas station. This is the point where the rewrites and reshoots really show. The first two thirds of the film had a world-wide scope, but suddenly this third act ignores all that and becomes a confined and claustrophobic "avoid the zombies in the lab" story. 

• Gerry discovers a chink in the zombies' armor: These aren't your usual brain-eating zombies; they only bite in order to spread the virus. But they seem to ignore victims that are terminally ill. From this Gerry reasons that if you infected yourself with a lethal disease you'll become "invisible" to the zombies.

As I mentioned earlier, that's certainly an interesting idea, but I don't buy it. In Philadelphia the zombies were running full throttle and leaping on top of people. I didn't see any of them taking the time to sniff their victims to assess their health.

And why would a zombie care if a person was terminally ill or not? Think of it like this: Someone with a terminal disease is going to die, right? So what does the zombie virus do? It KILLS people! Why the hell would they care if they killed someone who was going to die anyway?

• Pretty much every big zombie set piece in the film— the panic in Philly, the Jerusalem wall attack, the explosion on the plane, etc.— is in the trailer. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen a good 75% or more of the effects work.

• Once Gerry figures out his dubious "camouflage by disease" solution, the film sputters, coughs a few times and then abruptly ends. It's like they were running out of film and realized they needed to wrap things up quickly.

• Instead of a proper denouement, we're given the dreaded "ray of hope" ending. Gerry drones on in voiceover that the war isn't over, but humanity now has a chance.

We got the exact same non-ending in The Darkest Hour and the recent Red Dawn remake. It's a hell of an unsatisfying way to end your damn movie.

I'm assuming the filmmakers are so certain that this movie's going to be a hit that they're leaving the door open for a sequel or trilogy. I wouldn't hold my breath if I was them.

• Unintentional hilarity— during the end credits we see this line:

Geraldine Jones.......... Personal hairstylist to Mr. Pitt.

Somebody did that to his hair on purpose?

Plenty of World, but not nearly enough War or Z. At least it wasn't like the book, which I loathed. I give it a B-.

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