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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: World War Z

America seems to run on zombie films. Ever since "28 Days Later" and the Zack Snyder helmed "Dawn of the Dead" reboot, we've been on a massive influx of zombie-mania and "World War Z", the novel by Max Brooks, was a capitalization on that. It's a terribly written book with an admittedly interesting premise, what would be the worldwide reaction to a full-blown zombie apocalypse? In most media relating this kind of scenario, we get small beats and set pieces like in the above examples and the television series The Walking Dead. "World War Z" could have at least made for an intriguing film, or at least a fun one, improving on the book and incorporating an ensemble cast and short stories detailing how a cross-culture of humanity attempts to survive one of the ultimate nightmare scenarios. It seems at some point Paramount decided to jettison everything within the book's structure more or less and make it a generic summer blockbuster along with a PG-13 rating to boot.

"World War Z" opens on the home-life of former military investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), and his wife (Mirelle Enos) and two daughters. While driving through downtown Philadelphia, the zombie invasion breaks out. Once finally out of the city, Gerry and family are picked up by helicopters in New Jersey and taken to a secure UN aircraft carrier where his family is allowed to stay if he accompanies a team, including a virologist, to a military base in South Korea to find "Patient Zero" as the suspected first person to have encountered the zombie plague is referred to. Thus begins a three country journey for Gerry in an attempt to find a way to cure or stop the zombie plague that is ravaging the world's population.

There have been many very good zombie films that ratchet up high tension, "28 Days Later" being the apex of that genre, and there have been a good few epidemic movies that contain high stakes, most recently the very striking "Contagion". "World War Z" attempts to do both, and by mixing zombie action with light political intrigue it ends up being a mish-mash that's utterly unsatisfying. For the first 2/3rds of the film, I found myself bored out of my mind. The zombies during these acts are mostly CGI creations and are shot in such a quick cut way that there's never an opportunity for the audience to really get caught up in the terror of the scenario. Half the time I couldn't tell what was even going on, some might argue this was the point, but it doesn't make for a satisfying movie experience around something that's supposed to inspire fear. The shakey-cam domination throughout is a detriment to any coherency the film may have been striving for, even by the early going; which credit where credit is due, does at least throw us into the thick of things despite how ineffective the spectacle is. The PG-13 rating likely necessitated much of this shooting style, as the content clearly demanded an R rating.

The movie is structured quite oddly as well in that the story beats don't really add up together and their connective tissue feels like an after-thought. The logic that sends Gerry to Jerusalem is nonsensical, and the happenstance that gets him to Wales is almost as ridiculous. It's this sort of carelessness in production that leads to bad, or at least indifferent, cinema and unfortunately the mostly inept Marc Forster and his team of FOUR screenwriters deliver. It's as if there was a check-list that was needed to be followed, "Oh, Gerry needs to be here at this point..." but no one put much thought into how Gerry should get there other than the laziest possible reasons, "this crazy guy told me to do it, we were able to sneak on a plane, etc...". The rapid, messily assembled editing does the film no favors in that regard either. Perhaps this is an instance where the story would have benefited from the mini-series format, certainly each set piece feels very episodic and disconnected from the whole.

Much discussion has been waylaid into the film's third act rewrites, and if you pay close enough attention, you can find bits and pieces of what was once Matthew Fox's much larger performance scattered throughout. Funny enough, the new third act is actually the best part of the entire work. Once Gerry gets to Wales and the World Health Organization Complex, the camera finally calms down and we get back to somewhat more "old school" zombie action. Gerry running through the corridors of the complex with his cohorts in tow, trying to stealthily avoid detection by the "dormant" zombies is a bit video-game like (especially for anyone who may be playing The Last of Us right now), but it's the only time I felt anything resembling interest about what was going on on-screen. The lesson to learn here is, despite the desire for bigger scale war-like pieces, what works best in this well-worn genre is the same thing that's always worked, intimacy and a sense of confined space. When the original ending's clips appear on screen to fill viewers in on the bigger picture, I can only imagine how much more painful "World War Z" could have been.

Brad Pitt is fine as Gerry, if a bit bland, with his highlight moments coming mostly during the Wales segments. There's a nice stare-off between he and a zombie that I found particularly entertaining. Gerry's family is window-dressing and serve little more than plot functioning. The only other notable highlights are James Badge Dale as the leader of the troops in South Korea, giving some nice gruff snark that lightens the proceedings a bit and Daniella Kertesz as the Israeli officer that accompanies Pitt to Wales. There's a nice bit of chemistry between them both and her unlikely action hero status, getting something I haven't seen as much of before, is one of the elements I liked best. Everyone else just fulfills the standard tropes you've come to expect from dumb summer action scripts.

There are alot of films that fail to stick the landing, I've seen a few of those this year, but it's the rare breed where the ending is the only real highlight. I won't say it saved "World War Z" for me, but at least it kept me from banging my head against the seat. The best I can say about "World War Z" is that its completely inessential, not outright offensive, but a slog nonetheless; which is too bad as the central premise was rife with great possibilities to provide some reinvention to the zombie movie. This is a case where bigger definitely was not better.

I give it a C-
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