World War Z (Paramount Pictures, R)

wwarZ 75If they really wanted star power, they should have taken the Contagion approach, where everyone is a star and no one is safe.

 

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I find it hard to believe that anyone is legitimately excited for World War Z. This movie has been the victim of one of the worst ad campaigns in recent memory, with trailers that are completely nonsensical: They really focus on two big money shots, both of which are terrible, and I’m not sure that they even convey the fact that this is a zombie movie to those who don’t already know. The main poster for the film, which depicts a stack of zombies attacking a helicopter, is completely laughable. And forget about if you actually know the behind-the-scenes stories. The film was pushed back for extensive reshoots and editing, with word being that the first cut was unreleasable. The man they brought in to save this script was Damon Lindelof, whom I defended when Lost ended, and it seems like he’s been punishing me ever since. And the director is Marc Forster, a good director of actors who has proven himself completely incompetent as a director of action. In light of all this, when word started coming out that World War Z was better than expected, I figured that wasn’t saying much.

The book on which World War Z is allegedly based tells the story of a zombie outbreak through many short, journal-like accounts from people all over the world. Everyone who has read the book loves it. In a typical act of Hollywood not understanding its audience, the film completely ignores that structure, and instead focuses on one story. I understand the impulse to cast a huge star like Brad Pitt and focus on his personal story of trying to find a cure and reunite with his family. Audiences like having a protagonist whom they can follow throughout the story. 

The problem is, none of the main characters are developed as well as the characters who occupy a few pages of the book. The only reason to care about Brad Pitt or his family is because they are a family and he is Brad Pitt. We are just supposed to project our own experiences onto them and see them as we would see our family. This kind of shortcut storytelling works when you have a big cast and not much time to spend on them, but when the whole movie is about these four people, I should really care about them.

The other problem with having Pitt in the lead is that it undercuts tension. Zombie movies are typically cast with B actors and no names. When Ken Foree is the only recognizable actor in your cast, you can believe that anyone could die at any time. But when Brad Pitt is attacked in the opening scene of a movie, you know he’s probably going to be fine. It’s not his fault; he’s a fine actor and he’s certainly not phoning it in. It’s just a problem with what these filmmakers thought was important. If they really wanted star power, they should have taken the Contagion approach, where everyone is a star and no one is safe. That ensemble approach could have also allowed the story to unfold in a way that would be closer to the book, and really add to the sense that this is happening on a global scale.

Since I don’t care about the people, it’s up to the zombies to pick up the slack. If I had to boil down everything wrong with World War Z to one core complaint, it is that these are some weak-ass zombies. I hate them. They clearly were made to move in a very jerky way that makes sense in theory, but is absurd in practice. When we finally get close to some of them, we see that their jaws stick out and they do this weird teeth chattering thing, which made them look like chipmunks and elicited laughter from my audience.

The level of quality in the CGI is unacceptable for a major release. These hordes of zombies don’t look any better than the hordes of Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded, which came out a decade ago and was bad at the time. And when it comes right down to it, even the shots that are passable are known by the human eye to be not real. An entire city block of computer-generated zombies will never be as effective as even a small group of people in make-up.

It doesn’t help that Marc Forster seems incapable of directing a kinetic scene. This is a step up from Quantum of Solace in that the camera is less shaky and the editing is not as frantic, but I still never engaged with any of the massive set pieces. The zombies tend to be indistinguishable from the people running away from them. The only face we always keep track of is Pitt’s, and as I mentioned, we never feel too much urgency when it comes to his character.

About halfway through World War Z, I had this weird realization that the filmmakers seemed to be cutting around the violence. This film is rated PG-13, and you feel it. I’m not saying that zombie movies have to be filled with nonstop gore, but I literally can’t think of a single noteworthy zombie flick that isn’t at least rated R. Most of the classics that defined the genre were rated X at the time. The lack of gore is especially weird, since this is supposed to be the biggest zombie movie ever, and yet the zombie action can’t even compare to what people get for free on television. Also, in an end-of-the-world situation like this, people might say “fuck” a couple times.

Despite all this, I have to say that I did get involved in the final act, in which the movie seems to shrink dramatically in scope. The action becomes limited to one location, and the nonstop chase is replaced with a much more effective tension. Audiences love spectacle, but whether they realize it or not, they will always react stronger to small, intimate moments in which characters have a defined goal and risk their lives to accomplish it. I’m not sure how much of this was done in reshoots, but I know the last act was where Lindelof did most of his tweaking, and so, after Cowboys and Aliens, Prometheus, and Star Trek Into Darkness, I can finally give him some props. The last act works. I just wish the rest of the movie was as solid. | Sean Lass

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