If you’ve followed the drama about the production problems that, um, plagued World War Z since principle photography wrapped and the film’s editors cobbled together a rough cut, you know that this movie was slated to be released during Christmas*, but went back into production after Brad Pitt and other moneyed interests listened to Damon Lindelof’s critique of the rough cut. For those who don’t know, Lindelof was the show runner on LOST and the author/screenwriter of the utter train wreck that was Prometheus, so his record isn’t quite spotless. Anyway, Lindelof presented Pitt with two options: keep the narrative of the rough cut and release the film and see how it does, or rewrite the third act, dump a big zombie battle sequence in Russia, and focus on an arc that brings the film to a kind of conclusion. I say “kind of a conclusion” because Hollywood loves sequels…
Well, Pitt and Co. went with option two — and that’s what was released on Friday.
In a way, the back story on the making of this film would probably make for a better movie/documentary than what ended up on the screen. That’s not to say that the World War Z isn’t tense, thrilling, and a good way to kill a couple of hours during the weekend. It’s just in the age of The Walking Dead, the audience who is up for a zombie story have already bought into that universe and know that while zombies are a great “Big Bad,” they are one-dimensional creatures who just want to eat your flesh. The more interesting story is how humans react from being predators to prey in a world where the comforts of civilization are wiped out.
So, what does World War Z do to make the movie less like The Walking Dead and more original? Fold the themes of 28 Days Later and Contagion into their own. The former film had really fast-moving zombie-types, and the latter film shows how fast a virus can decimate humans and their civilizations. Though, to be fair, 28 Days Later was also about a fast-moving virus that turned people into zombies, but Contagion had a more satisfying story on how viruses are contained. But enough on the particulars, what about World War Z‘s narrative?
Well, Marc Forster did a good job of telling a story of a former U.N. worker (one who has a lot of experience in volatile situations) who is happy at home caring for his kids. His wife, it seems, is the bread-winner of the family –and that’s okay with him. As Pitt’s character (Gerry Lane) put it, he likes his new job now and it content making pancakes for the kids, driving them to school, and generally living the life of a house husband.
And the zombie apocalypse happens.
Lane and his family were close, but nothing brings a family closer than zombies trying to bite you. In the first few minutes of the film, we get to see the panic of the denizens in Philadelphia where an outbreak of zombies happens really fast. There are some wonderfully choreographed scenes of chaos, and Marc Forster wisely chose to refrain from showing the zombies in close up well into the action sequence where zombies are biting people left and right — which turns them into zombies in a matter of seconds. It was truly nail-biting to watch that sequence and the one that followed in an apartment complex where Lane and his family make their escape onto a military helicopter and to an aircraft carrier where the last remnants of what we call civilization have retreated. Because Gerry was a former U.N. worker, his talents in getting in and out of dynamic situations is needed by the military if they are to find a way to control this outbreak and eventually battle the zombies. So, through an act of blackmail, Lane agrees to help and is off to South Korea, Israel and then Corsica to find clues that will help to save what’s left of humanity. He sets off with a military team and a scientist who tells him about how “Mother Nature is a serial killer who wants to be found.” Essentially, the scientist tell Lane that the way to control this outbreak is to find the chink in the armor of the virus — which they can only find if they look for the “breadcrumbs” Mother Nature leaves behind. Those breadcrumbs are the key to finding a way to turn the tide, and the rest of the movie is Lane’s attempt to piece together some of the clues he finds in his travels among the zombie-infested planet to save humankind.
There’s nothing terribly original in World War Z. Rather, whatever story Matthew Michael Carnahan originally envisioned was changed to make the film appeal more to the masses — who don’t want complex explanations about why zombies are compelled to bite humans and turn them into zombies. I read the book by Max Brooks, so I know that the source material wasn’t easy to adapt to the screen, and given the cost of the film (reportedly over $200 million), the producers had to play it safe to recoup their investment and make some dough. No one wants a film to fail, but the compromises one has to make when a film’s budget gets bloated like it did in World War Z must be quite a lot. Whatever the behind the scenes politics of making of this film were, it’s clear that the forces of standard boilerplate action film prevailed over the forces of more original thought. So if you do see World War Z, you won’t be disappointed by the experience, but you won’t be all that impressed, either.
*Huh? Wha? Do the marketing people at movie companies not know a summer-themed film when they see it in development?