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World War Z: Keep Calm and Let The White Man Do His Job

June 23, 2013

After two or three big popcorn flicks that just brought me down because they flailed about or they just didn’t know what they were doing, I wanted to see something good or at least something simple. My original plan was to watch the latest Pixar flick because how can you screw up a children’s movie but since I don’t have screaming human larvae in my life, I’m not getting conned into paying extra for 3D. I hesitated on Joss Whedon’s pet project Much Ado About Nothing simply because I’ve never read the original play.

Which is what brought me to a crowded theater to watch World War Z.

I really thought, based on the exciting trailers and what little I knew of the source material, that this would be a cool world hopping adventure. Personally, I’ve never read the book, though I did read its predecessor The Zombie Survival Guide and I have many friends who I suspect might actually have a zombie apocalypse kit ready to go. With there being a little buzz on social media this past week, I did give a glance to its major themes and basic plot structure.

For those unfamiliar, the original book is written as an oral history of the Zombie Wars. Essentially outlining, through various personal accounts, and collected documents, the Zombie Apocalypse, how Humanity survived, and how they ultimately fought back. It’s a very intense collection, with an international scope including stories from all over the world and sometimes really getting into the grit of a post-zombie world. What makes World War Z the book truly interesting is its fairly critical view of the way institutions and bureaucracies across the world will deal with crises, as well as the United States’ historical reliance on isolationism in response to world problems.

Obviously, I wasn’t expecting to get all of that from this movie. It would be really nice, and it would definitely elevate the zombie film as much as the novel elevated zombies in general, but I just did not expect it. I expected some action, some jump scares, and some kind of heart to the movie.

In return I got…

A few good set pieces and action sequences, and a lot of awkward scenes that just devolved into the audience laughing a lot. The ending especially felt really drawn out, until it ended and felt exceedingly abrupt. The best way I could describe the movie is with the phrase unfulfilled promises. A lot of this movie is really strong, if simple. However, it just never finishes the things it sets out to do, rushing to an ending that was clearly written well into production.

Most audiences won’t be aware of the production problems this movie suffered. After all, I wasn’t aware of them until I started to suspect something while walking home from the theater. A good portion of audiences will be able to realize it though, and another good chunk will probably admit the ending felt rushed or seemed dumb. It was watchable but I found it lacking in most of the areas I expected it to succeed in.

Disappointment, I guess is my final word on the film.

After the break, spoilers and the things that irked me for all the superfans out there!

********************

Greetings Superfans! Chariots Chariots!

The movie started with the almost standard zombie apocalypse mash up of weird news stories combined with ignorance and fluff pieces. I had this brief fear that despite the movie being called World War Z and being marketed off of scenes where zombies are literally piling atop each other as they’re mowed down by a .50 caliber machine gun, that they might have a really slow boil of a beginning. Luckily, they didn’t. There’s literally about a scene or two to just establish that whatever Brad Pitt did before that took him to bad places and made him familiar with the world, it’s behind him because he wants to be with his family.

It’s quick, and Brad Pitt is really enjoyable as a dad.

The action appropriately comes out of nowhere. One moment, they’re a happy family in a car playing the sort of dumb games everybody eventually plays while on a car trip, and the next zombies everywhere! We’re thrown into a horrible panic with everyone moving around and lots of cool things happening.

My only complaint about all these early action sequences was that we have no sense where anyone or anything is. The camera is very jerky, and the motion so fast, that I have no clue what’s going on. There are these quick cuts between big wide shots of everything happening, and then flashes of action occurring on the ground. It’s confusing and something I see a lot nowadays that I just wish would come to an end. I’d rather have Snyder’s terrible slow-mo fighting than this because at least then I know where stuff is.

Ultimately, the first act is really strong. We start to feel for this family and also the world as a whole. There’s a whole sequence in a supermarket that is easily the best part of the film because it shows the panic and breakdown of society that would actually happen in an apocalyptic scenario. It’s simple, and it pulls at your heart strings a bit but it works.

Everything leading up to their escape and the start of the actual plot is really great. Once again, the apartment complex scenes that follow the supermarket sequence are just fantastic. In the apartment complex, they get saved by a Latino family that lets them in for the night while they wait to be airlifted out, and it feels real. That family feels like it just was there, and helped out its fellow man in a time of need. It even feels real when Brad Pitt tries to convince them to come with them and they instead choose to keep their heads down.

Of course, that was the wrong decision as they get attacked by zombies a few moments later, but their son manages to make it out and join Brad Pitt and his family.

All of this is a fantastic set up. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and a high-ranking member of the UN or the US Government needs Brad Pitt’s character because he may be our only hope. Hold on to your butts, guys, cause from here on out its zombie-fighting and serious information gathering…

The next scene is where I immediately realized that things were going to go down hill. Even though they keep trying to make it sound like they’re not prepared for what’s happening, the governments of the world are really prepared. Not long after Brad Pitt arrives at their headquarters-on-the-sea, they’re already moving people back to safe zones on the main land. There’s a wealth of information out there to get them started on investigating the possibility of a cure. Sure, major cities are fucked, but enough people are on point to preserve the world (hell, we see them carrying precious American relics onto the ship in one scene).

Including the American military is also when I realized that there was not even a chance of Hollywood Liberal Check Box critique of the military-industrial complex. If you want to have lots of military hardware in a movie, you have to work with the Pentagon, and the Pentagon does not want the American public thinking it would be unable to protect them in a crisis. No matter how devastating or unthinkable that crisis, the Pentagon wants you to believe, and they themselves want to believe, that they will be able to handle it. So, I fully anticipated so military wankery.

My cynicism was rewarded within ten minutes when characters might as well have been waving their guns in my face going, “Phwoar! Yeah! Check this shit out, built it in my spare time! I call it the Zombie Face-Fucker 5000.”

Seriously, it’s one thing to give the military the respect they deserve. It’s another to give them the handy in the Shenaniganz parking lot because you need something from them. It’s a completely different thing however to let them mount you on the hood of their Trans-am while their buddy is watching.

The plot kicks off when we find out that Brad Pitt is an investigator or some such, not that he ever really displays a knack for getting information from people or deduction or anything really besides being white, buff, and generally relentless. He’s sent to help shepherd a young doctor who is the actual hope to save the human race.

I really liked the doctor character, and I was glad that he hadn’t gotten any play in the trailers. Dopey me for some reason was staring at the screen imagining how this vaguely brown doctor with a vaguely foreign accent was going to act while the world is crumbling around him, how Brad Pitt as the more experienced character would be his rock as they deal with the military and zombies. Brad Pitt as the leading action-adventure type, with the doctor as the brains of the outfit who would eventually sacrifice himself nobly for the good of mankind. Brad Pitt would then have to heroically get the doctor’s research, that he gave his life for, through some horde of zombies, perhaps finally getting assistance from that son-of-a-bitch character who seemed to be working against them earlier in the film….

And then the doctor character accidentally shoots himself in the face like thirty seconds later.

Good thing the military is there to save Brad Pitt as zombies surround his plane in total darkness. Yes, members of the Army perform perfectly executed head shots on a whole mess of zombies in complete darkness, despite the fact that zombies have only existed for a whole of eleven days or so. This is the part where I imagine the director told the Pentagon they had never done this with a defense department before.

From here the movie just sort of progresses through a series of interesting set pieces and exposition dumps. It’s not bad. The movie still manages to engage and be exciting, it just slowly starts to shed a lot of the things it set up.

The doctor’s dead. Despite building up the idea that the Israelis know something, they turn out to know absolutely nothing. Continuous references to Moscow are left hanging. India, implied to be a black hole of horrible zombies where patient zero might have originated is completely side stepped. The military plane that brought Pitt to Israel just leaves him there, completely dropping the US Military from the mix because… I guess they got off?

Brad Pitt is given a new sidekick in the form of a female Israeli soldier. She seems kind of interesting, until he cuts her hand off rendering her no longer as awesome as Brad Pitt. It’s weird because I kept seeing her in the background of all the Jerusalem shots, but she doesn’t matter until he cuts her hand off. I fear some sort of earlier scene where she’s implied to be his handler in Israel was just cut from the film.

I feel like more could have been done with her but like everyone else who isn’t a White Protestant Male in an action movie, she just can’t take the stage away from Pitt. We don’t even learn more than a name to call her. We’re given no context for her, which I guess we don’t need. She’s military in a movie so that makes her instantly badass, Israeli on top of that so even without a hand she can kill you in eighty different ways. Still, like so many other things she’s underused.

Did I mention that the family just sort of slowly drifts out of this movie?

The action sequences are punctuated with Pitt’s wife trying to call him or him trying to call her. These scenes get briefer and briefer, with few indications of what life aboard an overcrowded naval transport is like. There’s maybe one scene where they’re all getting food, and some soldier makes a comment about overcrowding but we never really feel it. Once again, much like the background soldier who suddenly becomes the sidekick, I feel like scenes were just cut for running time or something.

Eventually they get thrown off the boat because Brad Pitt is presumed dead after his ride to the third act crashes on him. Nothing more is shown of their life adapting to the safe zones, that were earlier in the film implied to be anything but safe. What happened to that crumbling world we witnessed less than an hour ago?

The ending of this film feels tacked on, and weird. Not helped by the long black screen between Pitt’s ride crashing and him waking up. Brad Pitt ends up at a research facility and he theorizes that if he infects himself with a virus that the zombies won’t infect him but oh no, all the viruses are in a zombie infested part of the facility. So Brad Pitt must brave this annoying fetch quest to save the world. It really felt like a bad video game set up, the way that a simple level becomes needlessly complicated because the developers said, “Fuck it,” when they got to designing that section.

Anyway, his plans works, he saves the day, and there’s a really bad ending where we find out that the safe zones were perfectly fine, and thanks to Brad Pitt we were able to fight back. ‘Merika!

Oh, and Moscow totally just started murdering zombies apparently. Vodka solves zombies? Who the fuck knows?

Since coming back from the theater I’ve learned that this movie has been plagued with production problems. Personally, I’d love to read the J. Michael Straczynski script that apparently had people shitting their pants because it was so good. This is one of those movies that isn’t atrociously bad but you know while watching it that people started making decisions at one point that took it from being good to being not good. I want to know about those decisions, and chart the fall of World War Z.

For example, the third act was so bad simply because they realized they were never going to set up a trilogy no matter how well they did at the box office. Plus, they didn’t what to do about the fact that in the original movie the character goes from genial family man to Zombie Killing Machine in about twenty-four hours. So, they just wrote some bullshit for a closed set and uh, then had an ending where Brad Pitt is doing some voice over while they reuse the same reaction shot of his wife as he arrives in the actually safe… safe zones.

Yeah, disappointment is the way I would describe this film.

On a final note, I want to explain that people started laughing in the theater, and it took me a bit to pinpoint exactly why they were. In some cases, it was just the awkwardness of the movie, or perhaps something the person sitting next to them had said. What always set them off though, was when the zombies would clack their teeth.

In the Zombie Survival Guide and presumably World War Z, Brooks explains a disturbing noise that the zombies make and why. They clack their teeth together because they’re chomping at the air (or things they smell on the air, something like that). The idea being that this is one of the disturbing ways you can hear zombies, and in prose it’s kind of chilling.

Teeth clacking in a book is scary because you can imagine a big empty apartment building with a central staircase. Then you can add a quiet clacking noise, like someone walking in heels but not as regular. You then realize it’s a dormant zombie looking to spread its horrible disease, practicing bites on the air. The noise, clack clack clack, bouncing off the walls and the linoleum floor. Like much of the post-apocalypse, it’s scary because we can imagine it anytime we’re alone in an empty space.

The problem is that when you do a close up of a person’s mouth, and you have this clacking noise blaring from theater speakers… well, it’s kind of hilarious.
Kind of a shame, because that was something I had forgotten about until the first time it had happened, and I always thought of it as a pretty cool idea.

Like I said, a disappointment.

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