Archive for the cinephilia Category

Zero’s “World War Z” film thoughts. ***SPOILERS

Posted in cinephilia with tags on July 6, 2013 by darryl zero

Okay, so I know what’s in the title and all, but I’m still gonna put this here:































So…I saw World War Z.  Or, at least, what they ended up throwing up onscreen and calling World War Z because, as I’ll get into later, almost nothing from the book ended up onscreen.  Although, admittedly, I actually prefer it that way, because the stumbling, shambling mess the film ended up being was such a failure on so many fronts that it’s amazing they even decided to call it World War Z in the first place.

Before I go through everything about this film that bothered me, I want to first dispel the notion that I’m somehow just nerd-raging that what I got onscreen was not a faithful adaptation of the source material.  I’m a critic by nature, passion, and education, so the mere fact that I was willing to watch the film in the first place, knowing it wasn’t going to be a note-for-note rendering of a dense, layered, and completely beautiful book, should tell you that my gripes are not because I’m one of those nerds that feels everything needs to be exactly as it was, only in another format.  I mean, if you know me at all, you should know that by now, but people are quick to jump to the “ZOMG NERDRAGE” conclusion, usually because they have absolutely no counter for my arguments.  In short: just because I actually, you know, read the book and loved it, that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to step back and give a film a fair shake just because it happens to be different.

That said, I will confess to going into the film knowing it was going to suck.  From the endless stories of re-writes and re-shoots, I could tell the thing was doomed to be shit.  Watching the trailers made things seem even worse.  By the time the fucking film actually came out, I’d resolved not to see it–but something jabbed me in the brain and told me to throw down six dollars.

(Movies are cheap in Iowa.)

I’ll start with the good part of the film, because there is one: producer/star Brad Pitt.  While his performance doesn’t actually require much in the way of actual acting (indeed, his character arc consists largely of looking calm in the face of sheer chaos), he remains the charismatic screen presence he always has been, to the point at which you want him to live, if not succeed at what you think he’s trying to do–but I’ll get to that later.

The problem with Pitt’s charisma is that, with the exception of Fabrizio Zacharee Guido’s surprisingly effective turn as a young boy who encounters Pitt’s character’s family early on, absolutely no one else onscreen generates anything even vaguely resembling empathy.  While that in itself isn’t enough to damn an entire film (sacrificial characters are a staple of all post-1970s horror cinema), it does make the scenes in which Pitt doesn’t appear forgettable and bookmark-y, like they were tacked on as afterthoughts because Pitt is expected to carry the film with the weight of his performance.

Because it sure-as-shit isn’t the script that gives Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, any weight or significance.  I sat through 116 minutes of the film and am still not entirely sure what Gerry’s character really was.  It’s established at the beginning of the film that he used to work in places in which martial law had been declared, and that he was some kind of investigator for the United Nations.  And a damn good one, apparently, because he has enough pull to be on the speed-dial of his old friend/boss/colleague Thierry (an “assistant secretary-general,” I think) when shit hits the fan and the world succumbs to a plague of zombies that neither Gerry, nor the entire city of Philadelphia seems to notice until hordes of frantically-sprinting ghouls start running through the streets, making weird noises and biting the air and anyone they come across, turning them into more zombies in a mere twelve seconds.

I mention that last bit because, apart from the fact that they’re really fast and seemingly immune to anything that isn’t a direct gunshot to the head (which we never really see, by the way–this is a PG-13 movie), we don’t know what these zombies are, what they want, nor what they actually do–all zombie biting is implied, not actually seen on-camera, to the point at which all “zeke” attacks consist of getting tackled by something diving in from off-camera, struggling in close quarters, only for the zombie to get up and run away while the victim convulses for twelve seconds, then almost immediately turns into something that looks like Bub from Day of the Dead, which then gets up and sprints off to presumably do the same thing to someone else.  Which brings up the first instance in which the film completely and utterly goes in the wrong direction: the “zombies,” which are actually called as such onscreen, have no clear menace other than that they appear and that, somehow, you become one.  For comparison, I turn to the first three Romero Dead movies; in those films, the goal of the zombies was clear–to eat the flesh of the living.  That part in itself was terrifying; the fact, even if you got away, a zombie bite would still turn you into one was a means of upping the stakes and also making you care about every second of every battle–you didn’t need to be eaten to be killed, but in some ways you were better off being eaten.  For that matter, if you didn’t turn into a zombie right away, you could still be useful until that fateful moment when someone would have to put a bullet in your skull–allowing you time to actually demonstrate and experience emotions in a way that would allow a viewer to connect with you and, in the hands of a capable actor/director/writer, actually feel for you.  Even Zack Snyder’s clumsy (if inspired) remake of Dawn of the Dead managed to grasp this concept.

Now, the common thing I suspect defenders of World War Z the film will try to bring up is the film 28 Days Later, which certainly did take the angle of “mindless, infectious rage only sated by infecting others with mindless, infectious rage.”  However, 28 Days Later was not a “zombie” film in the traditional sense, something deliberately planned by its director, Danny Boyle, and the storyline clearly delineates what’s going on, the source of the invasion, and exactly what the motivations of the individual “infected” were, simple though they may have been.  Even if you want to overlook the specifics of the story, the fact remains that much of what made 28 Days Later so effective as a film was that it took such great pains to differentiate itself from the commonly-accepted Romero zombie mythos, which in turn created a completely different level of terror in that it seemed almost plausible.  For that matter, while Boyle’s film does operate under a pretty far-reaching conceit (that such a virus could actually exist), the Infected in the film were at least human and, thus, subject to logical human limitations in terms of speed, strength, endurance, and durability–in short, we at least knew something about them.

The fact that the filmmakers behind World War Z considered themselves beyond such trivialities of offering us some kind of explanation of the zombies in the story wouldn’t be so infuriating if it weren’t the ostensible purpose of the plot, however. Gerry and his family somehow make it out of a Philadelphia that somehow goes from normal traffic jam to complete zombie clusterfuck in less than a minute; after they’re relatively safely out of the city, one of the Lane family’s two daughters has some kind of asthma attack, which Gerry talks her through and the filmmakers spend enough time on to suggest it might be important at some point later on.  The asthma’s importance to the story (and, really, the daughter’s) only lasts as long as the next sequence, as the family arrives in Newark to take part in the looting of a department store.  A series of heavy-handed images of so-called civilized humans reacting to the collapse of society in different ways later, we learn that Gerry is, apparently, quite adept with a rifle, which is the exact thing one would inspect from a UN investigator–but not the reason why he’s so important to Thierry that a helicopter is to be sent to retrieve Gerry et al.  Around this time, Gerry and family encounter Tomas, the young son of a Spanish-speaking family that offers the Lane family temporary sanctuary for the night.  Young Guido shines in these early scenes as Tomas; he convincingly gives his lines (often mere translations of Gerry’s words) a sense of gravity, and a small scene in which he shows legitimate kindness and protectiveness toward Gerry’s asthmatic daughter lays the groundwork for a character that could have been very interesting.  Sadly, aside from helping Gerry escape the clutches of a zombie the next morning (although not before Gerry gets some of the zombie’s blood in his mouth, which–to his surprise, if not the audience’s, does not result in his turning into a zombie), the Tomas character (like Gerry’s daughters) is reduced to little more than a piece of scenery for the remainder of the film.

Indeed, at that point, the second act of the film charges ahead, into…nowhere.  Gerry ends up on a military vessel, where the well-being and care of his family are essentially held as ransom so that Gerry–who is, apparently, the only man qualified–may accompany a team of four soldiers and a virologist to South Korea to help determine the source of the zombie virus (because, according to the virologist–it has to be a virus).  Again, not once are Gerry’s unique qualifications actually mentioned other than he was a UN investigator, and a darn good one–a dialogue exchange on the plane with the virologist (whom Gerry actually refers to as “just a kid” in a preceding scene) reveals Gerry knows exactly how his “escorts” are going to function.

At this point, the film properly starts to fall into nonsense.  Gerry’s not a doctor–he implies as much, and explicitly says so later in the film–nor is he a soldier, as evidenced by his only carrying a handgun when he and the soldiers finally make it to South Korea.  In fact, that Gerry even carries a firearm in the first place is confusing–he only seems to do so to justify the virologist also having a firearm in the scene.  Gerry specifically tells the virologist to “keep his finger off the trigger” at the beginning of the scene in a set-up (also used by Robert Rodriguez in Grindhouse) so obvious that its inevitable, predictable result is the film’s first unintentional laugh.  The US soldiers at the South Korean military base prove to be about as useful as they are intelligent (they offer a name and a place, then elect NOT to travel in an otherwise-empty troop transport plane because “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”), remaining on a base on a peninsula with no electricity and a finite supply of ammo rather than, say, anywhere else.  After a confusingly-silly sequence involving Gerry and the remaining UN escorts riding bicycles back to the plane because running would make too much noise and attract zombies (a plan completely obliterated by one of the soldiers DRIVING A FUCKING FUEL TRUCK TO THE PLANE), Gerry manages to be the sole survivor along with the pilot–who suddenly cannot fly the plane without him (fortunately, among his other skills, Gerry’s also a capable co-pilot), and the plot takes them to Israel, because, somehow, the captain of the South Korean base knows that the email that was sent to-or-from that base either came from or went to an Israeli dude named Jurgen Warmbrunn.

Now, of all the things in the the film, Warmbrunn is the only fucking thing to actually have appeared in the book, which would have been reassuring had the filmmakers not completely bungled everything from the jump by electing to go with the “fast zombies” trope.  Like in the book, Israel manages to prepare for the coming apocalypse better than just about anyone by re-purposing their infrastructure so that, rather than dividing the Muslims and Jews, it divides the living from the (un)dead.  With the traditional, slow, Romero-esque zombies of the novel, this approach makes sense.  However, with a super-powered, determined zombie attracted by sound and (apparently) capable of swarming like fire ants toward a given target, the idea of a wall only works if the zombies don’t all converge on one area, creating a big enough pile to climb over each other and, eventually, over the wall.  That it doesn’t happen until Gerry is nearby is confusing enough; that it happens at all still doesn’t make sense even within the logic of the film, as the apparent millions of zombies surrounding the walls suddenly decide to choose one specific spot to attack.  Even more amazing: with such a massively important wall, no Israeli thought to, say, build watchtowers on or near them, if only for strategic importance.  In their defense, I can understand why no one would have predicted an impromptu happy sing-along JUST INSIDE THE FUCKING WALL that would somehow drive the zombies into a feeding frenzy, but still.

So Israel falls, but not before Gerry can see an infirm old dude and a skinny bald kid somehow not get attacked by a swarm of zombies, which leads him to the obvious conclusion that zombies can sense a terminal, chronic disease.  How they sense it, I’m not entirely sure, as the zombies only seem to attack when some kind of audio stimulus from far away kicks them into a wild, presumably murderous rage, and they don’t demonstrate any pensive traits (is it really possible to discern anything when you’re in a dead sprint, mindlessly driven by the need to tackle and throttle and presumably bite the nearest living thing?).  But Gerry, who isn’t a medical professional, is clearly able to diagnose chronic, terminal illnesses from a distance while running from his life, and to perform emergency machete amputation on an Israeli soldier after she’s been bitten (out-of-frame) by a zombie.

Really, it’s that point that signals the film’s complete departure from its own logic.  Again, because of Gerry’s as-yet-unexplained qualifications and importance, he somehow garners a military escort on foot to a quickly-besieged Israeli airport that somehow still has fucking commercial airlines flying in-and-out, despite it being clearly explained in dialogue earlier in the film that airplanes were somehow the perfect means of spreading the contagion.  (At this point, I’m thinking to myself wait–wasn’t Israel supposed to be completely quarantined?  Like fucking sealed-off?  What’s the fucking point of having a fucking wall if you’re just going to be flying motherfuckers in behind it?  The fuck?  Seriously?)  Four Israeli soldiers with machine guns essentially use said machine guns to force an Air Belarus flight to allow Gerry and his new, one-handed friend aboard–yet none of the other soldiers choose to escape from what is clearly a lost cause–and Gerry, at this point armed with nothing other than a satellite phone, manages to get said phone (with Thierry on the other end) into the cockpit; after a dialogue exchange between the pilot and (presumably) Thierry which we are neither allowed to see, no hear, the pilot tells Gerry they, per his wishes (and presumably Thierry’s orders), will re-route the flight to Wales, where there’s a World Health Organization facility.

Again: based on orders given by someone on a satellite phone claiming to be an assistant secretary-general of the UN, the pilot of a crowded commercial airline flight somehow still operating amid a highly-contagious pandemic agrees to re-route the flight to Wales.  Because Gerry is extremely qualified, and the only man for a job that started out as “discovering the origin and nature of the infection” but, since he’s not a doctor (as he admits while applying a tourniquet to his now-one-handed friend), has since become something else.

Anyway, because this is a movie, the flight is apparently so stress-free that none of the flight attendants bother to use any other compartments of the plane until it’s over Wales, conveniently preventing the inevitable reveal of zombie-on-plane until the last possible instant.  But it happens, and before you can say “twelve seconds,” all of coach and business classes are in a tackle-and-presumably-biting frenzy that only spills into the first-class cabin when someone assisting Gerry with building a carry-on luggage barricade accidentally lets a bag drop on the floor.  The barricade holds about as effectively as one could expect a Jenga stack of soft bags to hold up against an enemy that only runs at one speed, does not feel pain, and can’t be reasoned with, so Gerry–backed against a wall with his one-handed buddy, does the only logical thing one could do–throws a grenade.

Okay, let’s back this up for a second–Gerry, who is apparently a really smart dude, throws a grenade in a pressurized cockpit of an airline still in flight.  I mean, I get the heat of battle and all, but where’s the logic in this?  Firing a gun in a commercial aircraft is dangerous enough, but there’s no way a small grenade would do anything to damage a horde of zombies he’s already witnessed to be so potent in their presumably-murderous rage as to enable themselves to swarm over hundred-foot walls.  I can only assume he was trying to harm the zombies, because if he were trying to, say, commit suicide rather than be turned into a mindless run-and-tackle monster, it would have been more efficient to hold onto the grenade and guarantee a quick death.  Unless Gerry was so smart that he knew the explosion would blow away part of the cabin and suck all of the approaching zombies away from him–which is, in fact, what happens–but, in that case, how does he know that the zombies won’t fall on residential areas and put friendly Welsh men and women at risk around infected corpses–or, even worse, survive the fall, thus completely negating the safety implied by the fact that the plane was routed there in the first place?  Whether or not Gerry has created a zombie cluster bomb is never answered, because, after all the zombies are sucked out of the cabin, he and his one-handed soldier buddy manage to get back into their seats and buckle themselves in before the plane does the obvious thing one would expect a plane to do when you detonate a fucking explosive on it:  crashes.

Cue the closing credits…

…or not, as Gerry proves he’s the only qualified man for whatever job he’s on by now by surviving a fucking plane crash only being minorly impaled.  Righty survives as well (proving she must be just as qualified, but more on that in a second), and the two manage to stagger to the WHO office, where Brad Pitt wakes up after three days.  Fortunately, someone at the WHO thought to charge the satellite phone (that miraculously did not get lost in the crash, proving my theory that holding a backpack on your lap is the best way to store carry-on baggage that I’ve unsuccessfully tried to explain to flight attendants since I was nine), so the WHO could call a man claiming to be an assistant secretary-general of the UN and have him tell them this dude that looks conspicuously like Brad Pitt shouldn’t be physically restrained (for no clear reason, mind you–three days is a shitload longer than twelve seconds, and Gerry shows no signs of infection), because he has important information and is the only man for the job.

So Gerry reveals to these trained fucking doctors his remarkable insight about zombies’ ability to sense terminal chronic illness–or not sense it?  Or ignore it?  Who fucking knows?–which gives them the idea that it could potentially be used to camouflage people so that zombies can see and hear them, but not attack them.  Great idea, right?  Only one problem–all the diseases that evil are kept in a refrigerated room behind an automatic door and a door with a four-digit key code in the wing of the building infested with zombies, because one unlucky schmuck was looking at zombie blood under a microscope (because, you know, the World Health Organization wouldn’t have a type of special equipment enabling you to examine the most threatening contagion ever seen to humans without having to get near it) and apparently either got it on him or in him–and, since his character isn’t played by Brad Pitt, he immediately goes all tackle-and-presumably-bitey.

I’m not even going to fuck with describing the last half-hour of the film in any detail, because it’s a completely nonsensical, contrived set piece involving a needlessly-labyrinthine chase involving Gerry, a WHO doctor, the one-handed soldier (who is totally not a liability because, you know, she’s an Israeli woman, and thus fucking badass–okay, that part was actually pretty cool too, I’ll admit that) and eighty zombies that now only run and try to tackle-and-presumably-bite you if you make a sound and are completely healthy.  Gerry ends up having to take desperate measures, sticks himself with a dirty needle, and finds he can walk through a wave of zombies, and the only one that notices him actually takes the time to sniff him before deciding it doesn’t want to tackle him, completely ignoring the fact that it just spent all of its preceding screen time chasing him without bothering to check his cologne.

Which brings me back to the main gripe I have with the film: even after all of this, we still don’t ever really learn anything about the fucking zombies, even though the whole film has supposedly been about doing just that.  The zombies themselves operate under a revolving set of conditions: they locate you by sound unless the plot requires them to locate you by sight, which they in turn do unless the plot requires them to locate you by smell.  They apparently came from South Korea, or China, or North Korea, or somewhere, or not, really–because some dude in Israel sent an email somewhere.  The film doesn’t provide any fucking insight into this–all Gerry does is give people the ability to move through zombies without them attacking, thus freeing people to fight them hand-to-hand in the streets–because zombies will pursue you with absolutely no regard for their own physical safety when they can hear you far away to the degree at which they will fight and claw past each other in order to get to you, but, if you have a chronic disease of some kind, won’t notice you advancing on them with a shovel until you actually cave in one of their fucking skulls–but even that’s speculative, because we don’t actually know what Gerry stuck himself with (he sticks himself with a random disease and then carries a whole shitload of samples in a fucking tin for no reason).  For that matter, what do the zombies eat?  What do they do to sustain themselves?  They don’t appear to subsist on anything–in fact, they go dormant if nothing’s around, making enough noise.  Since they’re not seeking food when they attack, why not just make enough noise to run them around in enough directions that their bodies eventually run out of fuel and starve themselves to death?

In discussing this film with a friend, we both agreed that this type of story has to either a) have an indisputable set of hard-and-fast rules, or b) establish rules, and then break them in ridiculously awesome ways.  It’s the distinction between the Romero Dead films and the Return of the Living Dead films, basically.  The rules don’t need to be extraordinarily specific, mind you–they just need to be clear, otherwise it’s just characters with no clear conflict (and, by extension, no clear motivation), moving from set piece to set piece, waiting for action sequences to begin.  And, I’m sorry, but even the action sequences in this film are underwhelming, because we don’t know any goddamn thing about any of these goddamn characters and, thus, don’t give a goddamn if they live or die.  The only character with any substance or depth is fucking Tomas, and he all-but-vanishes from the film after the first act.

I think the biggest tragedy of this film is not even the film itself, although it does suck in a truly disappointing way, but rather the reaction to it.  Like Man of Steel (which, admittedly, I haven’t seen), it’s made a pretty decent chunk of change at the box office, and has actually managed to garner praise from some critics and some viewers (with clearly low standards), thus resulting in talk of a sequel.  Given Hollywood’s recent track record of simply creating sequels as an attempt to do what they feel the first film should have done, it essentially feels like the film made enough money that they’re just going to trot some other piece of shit out.  Really, the only thing World War Z proves is the reliability of peoples ability to not think about what they’re watching.

Which could be the entire point of the film, really–that, if you spend enough money on something and have the right (mostly white) people in front of and behind the camera, people will flock to the screens like…well, like the shambling, mindless undead.

I take it all back.  This film is fucking brilliant.