Saturday, June 29, 2013

Welcome to the Zombie Apocalypse

They say that there's no such thing as bad press, because even negative actions mean that somebody is at least talking about it. And yet for over two years it seemed as though nothing positive was coming from the set of World War Z, the zombie apocalypse movie based on Max Brooks' novel of the same name. Rumors and stories of difficulties on set, ranging from going far over budget, to tension between director Marc Forster and star (and producer) Brad Pitt, to a Bulgarian police raid on a prop supply that turned up still-active firearms. Most famously was the hiring of first Damon Lindelof and then Drew Goddard to rewrite the entire third act, because otherwise the film would have no ending. All the images we were witness to painted a canvas of chaos and dissent, complicated further by trailers that made the zombies look more like swarming ants than the shuffling (or even more modern running) zeds that we've become familiar with. When all was said and done, just how mediocre could this particular adaptation turn out to be?
This is ALMOST as chaotic as July 4'th in Boston.
Actually, it turns out that World War Z isn't that bad. Sure, it's a straight disaster flick from the moment we see Philadelphia overrun by leaping, running, and definitely deadly virus carriers (Yes, my friends in Philly, yours is the first city to fall), but the story of former UN investigator Gerry Lane's (Pitt) mission to save the world at least makes the film a globe-trotting epic, leading the audience to South Korea, Israel and Cardiff (really?). Lane is a former UN investigator who is an expert at solving problems, and what government is left drafts him into leading a small team to uncover the start of this global pandemic so that it can be either cured or combated more effectively. In exchange, the government will keep his family safe. It's a race against time, and if he doesn't figure out where the virus started soon, Gerry may find himself with over six billion enemies wanting to take a bite out of him.
There's one thing that keeps running through my mind as I see the zombies move about in World War Z: "These aren't zombies." In fact, they're arguably closer to the monsters in the excellent 28 Days Later, who were really just rabies sufferers. The "zombies" here display almost all the same symptoms: near-instantaneous infection from bite, insane sensitivity to sound, and swift, animal-like movement when pursuing their prey. Anybody who has seen the trailers can see the result, as they mainly swarm in huge groups like an unstoppable tidal wave of disease and death. The story is similarly generic, playing to the summer movie crowd with action and adventure and even a little character drama, dropping almost all of the political undertones that were to have been adopted from Brooks' novel. Possibly worst is that this is a one-man show. Brad Pitt is a great actor, but even he can't carry a zombie epic all by his lonesome. The third act does see him accompanied by a tough Israeli soldier called Segen (an excellent Daniella Kertesz), but most of his companions in the movie are either uninteresting (Mireille Einos as Lane's wife, Fana Mokoena as his boss), or here-and-gone characters who pass on important information before getting out of dodge (James Badge Dale, David Morse, Ludi Boeken). Movies like this are usually BUILT on its supporting cast, but Forster decided that this would be the Pitt Show, and all others were just a bite away from going out of style.
But what the film certainly lacks in originality, it actually somewhat makes up for in style. The film's budget may have overshot original estimations at about $200 million, but that money was certainly put to good use visually, with fluidly-moving zombies, gorgeous environments and well-paced action scenes. The only downside to this is that you've already seen most of what happens in the trailer, with monstrous masses piling down every street in Jerusalem and through the corridors of a 747. The zeds are genuinely SCARY at times, though those scares seem relegated to jumping out of the shadows unexpectedly and not due to their bloody natures. Still, they're effective, if not quite what we've come to expect from the shuffling meat-eaters of The Walking Dead or other fare. Finally, the third act is a whole other ballgame, and despite trading the previous hour and a half of open world and adventure for a claustrophobic, Resident Evil-like biological mystery, it has at times the best parts of the whole movie experience. Turns out the rewriting by Lindelof and Goddard was just what the movie needed, they crafted a satisfying (if blandly closed) finale to World War Z.
That's it! Enjoy the fireworks!
Coming out of this film, you might find yourself believing that there's a ton of potential here spoiled by audience and regional pandering. Comparing it to Max Brooks' book does it no favors, as the single-voiced perspective of the film is adapted from the novel in mere name only (seriously, am I the only one who thinks a faux documentary about a zombie apocalypse with interviews and "found" footage would be AWESOME?). It's especially difficult to reconcile the story here with rumors of the original draft, which some outlets shouted was the closest a zombie film might get to the Academy Awards. That movie is not World War Z, a decent but unspectacular action movie that relies on its special effects to bring in the Summer movie watchers. This perhaps isn't surprising considering it's from a director whose good (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger than Fiction) has since given way to bad (Quantum of Solace, Machine Gun Preacher). Still, Forster manages to make it work as a summer event movie, though it'll never reach the iconic status of the all-time greats. It's a fun movie, though one for which you could safely await a DVD release.

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