WORLD WAR Z

Note the knife taped to the gun barrel and the magazine taped to the forearm.

I follow websites and news about the production side of movie making. I usually know a little bit about the “behind the scenes” stuff on a given film I’m interested in. Occasionally, a project comes along that is so fucked around and fraught with disputes, setbacks, script issues, etc that everybody hears about it. For World War Z you didn’t really have to be checking the trades or following the production to get put on notice about how troubled of a production it was. This kind of buzz, not to mention the delays in releasing it, usually means people are going to have to manage their expectations. I think that World War Z gets by on two things: people genuinely like the book it pretends to be based on and people always (fucking always) have time for zombies.

Fortunately for them, World War Z is actually a pretty decent movie. Yes I went into it with diminished expectations, probably like most people, but I think I can actually make a case. I mean, it’s not seamless. You can’t radically change entire acts of a movie without popping a few stitches, and they do show, but by borrowing liberally from Contagion, World War Z manages to not only stay coherent and reasonably smart, but keep zombies fresh enough to justify itself. That’s the real challenge.wwz

The first bit hews closest to stuff you’ve seen in other zombies movies.

During what appears to be a regular day in his retired life, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) are taking their daughters to school when all hell breaks loose. Though it’s full of dodgy CG and quick, disorienting cuts (a problem throughout the movie), the scenes of Philadelphia essentially collapsing are an effective intro to the larger-than-average scope of the movie. It’s called World War Z after all. Because Pitt and Enos have a nice, gentle chemistry with their kids, you do care about this family enough to want to see them make it to safety. A boon to them is that Gerry was once a UN investigator and they desperately want him back. His principle contact Thierry (Fana Mokoena) will help them get out of the city (they eventually wind up in Newark).

Pitt feels a bit out of place with his surfer hair and gentle eyes, but there’s an intelligence in his performance that comes through both in his constant measured calm and the tactics he employs to deal with the zombies. Early on, he prepares to take his family through an infested apartment complex in order to reach a helicopter waiting for them on the roof. He quickly tapes a knife to the barrel of his rifle and a magazine to his forearm (to ward off biting zombies safely). This is more contextual smarts than entire zombie movies/shows ever get around to having (The Walking Dead anyone?) and pretty quickly puts you in Lane’s corner. He is believable as an adaptive, professional investigator. He’s also got a sort of quiet kindness and compassion toward others that we see evinced throughout the movie. Adding to the surprising quality of the characterization is the way the movie shows how his calm helps him observe small details amidst the chaos. These powers of observation, probably his most useful skill, end up saving the day as much as his bravery and wits. He’s an easy hero to get behind, in other words, and Pitt carries the character (and thus the movie) on his shoulders like they weigh nothing.

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The responsiveness to the pandemic always feels global and competent.

After his family is safe, Lane reluctantly agrees to go into the field to try and find a patient zero. If they can do that, they can make a vaccine and try to slow down the rate of infection which is overwhelming pretty much the whole planet. This follows pretty closely along with the usual schema of an “outbreak” movie (see Outbreak even!) and it’s a slightly bigger perspective on the usual zombie thing. This is the only way in which the PG13 violence and the sort of detached, “force of nature” depiction of most zombies in the film can even work. They operate like the surging limbs of one giant infection-spreading organism. This is actually pretty smart and the movie is very consistent with its version of zombies. Purists will dislike it, I expect, whether they are book fans or simply (ridiculous) zombie purists. The fact is, zombies need to be reinterpreted to stay fresh. The survivalist fantasy doesn’t cut it anymore. So remembering that zombies are a plague and basically constructing a plague movie around this seems like a smart play.

As Lane trots around the globe trying to piece together how this all got started, you realize that this structure works a lot better than it should. Each of the major locations and set-pieces have their own feel and casts of secondary characters. Though the cast is full of lesser or unknown actors, they all do good work in making this really feel like a global problem. They pull their weight, in other words, rather than dragging World War Z down into the sea of episodic random faces it could easily have been.

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The Israeli sidekick being one of the bigger character surprises.

Foremost amongst the secondary cast is Segen (Daniella Kertesz), an Israeli soldier that escorts Lane out of Jerusalem after Muslims (of course) fuck up the nice defensive barrier that’s so far kept the city safe. After she is bitten, Lane cuts off her hand and saves her from infection. As he nurses her, we get a big dose of the compassion and competence that make Lane an effortless hero. Segen must feel that way too because she becomes instantly loyal to him, determined to help him and protect him even with one hand. She’s the kind of character you expect to float out of the movie, or die in some sacrificial moment or something, but she’s there throughout.

As Lane gets around, he hears stories and rumors that feed cool information about how the world is coping with the outbreak. This is the stuff that the book was centered on: a bunch of anecdotes and short histories to tell a global story. World War Z only really ever pays lip service to that idea, morphing it into a more straightforward story that nontheless tries to remember that there’s a world out there where this shit is happening. This allows for cool ideas like Jerusalem’s wall or the quiet Welsh village where Lane finally figures out how to save the world.

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With a little help from his friends.

The conclusion of the story is probably one of its weakest points. But the climax is great. Lane figures out that the infected only spread the zombie to healthy hosts. Therefore, tricking them into thinking that hosts are sick by introducing benign or curable strains of deadly diseases is a way to vaccinate the surviving humans. Stuck alone with eighty zombies between him and safety, he elects to pump himself full of bad shit in order to test the theory. Lane walking alone through a crowd of zombies, calm and collected, is a very nice climax that circles back to why we like this character in the first place.

It’s not quite the “epic” feel that the book probably has (I haven’t read it) nor is it the scrappy Russian battle sequence that was ultimately dropped from the movie. Footage from that sequence did make it into the coda of World War Z (which is hampered by some cheesy voice over from Pitt, who sounds bored doing it). Images from it, particularly of Pitt wearing a heavy coat with what looks like armored plates in the same places he tapes magazines all the time, were leaked also which probably means some were disappointed that some of the “war” stuff was ultimately dropped from the movie. But it’s a great climax all the same, helped along quite a bit by the movie’s consistently good score.

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Even the bombastic “zombie hordes” are executed much better than you might expect.

I would agree that World War Z is kind of an inappropriate title for this movie if you want to nit-pick the implications of “war”. There’s also that Pitt’s character is some kind of badass, which we see glimmers of in the movie, and could have been a zombie-killing machine had the movie gone another way. But they decided it didn’t work and they dropped that shit out of the movie. I don’t know what it would have been like had they kept it but I do know that the movie they wound up with is far from the trainwreck it, by all rights, should have been.

It’s sort of pointless to disparage the movie it could have been had they adapted the book more faithfully or kept the stuff they ultimately cut. I say it a lot but I’ll say it again: it’s important to evaluate and appreciate a movie on its own terms, for what it is, rather than what you wish it was or what it could have been. It’s a miracle big expensive movies even get made, really. Certainly huge movies that go way over budget, have writers hired to rework each other’s work, and where the director is happy being sidelined by over-eager producers and a “visionary” star (just some of the problems suffered during the production of World War Z), are even more of a miracle when they turn out halfway decent. So I mean, part of my reaction to World War Z is certainly derived from how much of an underdog it really is. I wonder how that stacks against those who had no expectations or high ones, going into this movie completely blind to context. Perhaps they’re the ones who are best suited to appreciate it or not based completely on its own merits. Perhaps not.

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I usually hate this type of shit.

All that said, I think it’s more than just exceeded expectations (mine were seriously dismal) that have led to my positive position on World War Z. There’s plenty to like here, as long as you’re willing to let it be the zombie movie it is rather than the one you maybe wish it was. More than just stuff to like, what surprised me most was how thought out and intelligent it is. That the heroes are less the military and more the doctors and specialists of global organizations like the UN and WHO also feels thoughtful and over the boring, conventional military slant that they could easily have taken here. I mean, a lot of people probably just want to see motherfuckers tear zombies apart. I get that. We’ve seen it before, but I get it. The thing is, World War Z understands that conventional warfare is useless against this enemy. Not only that, but it’d be cinematically boring to see even fast-moving, hyper-agile zombies get torn up by conventional weapons. The few bits where World War Z indulges machine guns and bombs are within the confines of general chaos anyway and it works very nicely. Where there is more intimate violence, the movie understands that shooting zombies is less scary and ultimately less satisfying than having to fight them off with improvised weapons.

Plus, there’s a solid emotional core here. Lane’s concern for his family, and the scenes he shares with them, never feels hokey or cheesy. It’s genuine. Though the little kid they adopt after his stubborn family get eaten feels a bit weird. One of the big seams in the movie is that kid, I think Tommy is his name, who never even seems all that upset that his parents are food. So even though the end of the movie feels a bit perfunctory, and is another place where you can see the (appropriately) taping that holds this movie together, there’s an emotional dimension to it that feels all right even amidst the “this war is not over” sequel-baiting.

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