Wednesday, July 3, 2013

World War Zzzzz: More of the Same

Brad Pitt in World War Z
I've never been a big fan of zombies, whether in books or films. While they’re inherently scary, these ravenous creatures who lurch out of the shadows to feed on humanity, they also quickly become boring. (I always found vampires, the often elegant undead who can feel attracted to or alienated from humans, or The Frankenstein / Golem, a supposedly mindless creation that actually may contain a soul, to be far more compelling.) Nevertheless, I've liked a few zombie movies, such as George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) and his sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), Danny Boyle’s formulaic but well done and effective 28 Days Later (2002) and Dan O’Bannon’s witty underrated The Return of the Living Dead (1985). Others, such as Fido (2006), Zombieland (2009) and most of the sequels to Romero’s zombie movies, weren't so hot. But I've never bothered checking out most of the numerous novels on the subject, more of them than ever being published, it seems, because they appear to be too much of the same old, same old, though I really appreciated Jonathan Maberry’s moving short story "Family Business," from the anthology Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead (2012), It was a touching reminder that zombies were once human like us. On the other hand, I found Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies (2010), wherein a zombie falls in live with a human girl and eventually changes to become well human, to be utterly far-fetched, even within the parameters of zombie stories, and silly, too. (For that reason, I never bothered checking out the film version of the book when it came out earlier this year.) And finally, I found AMC’s The Walking Dead, the hit de jour, to be a supremely dull TV show, bailing out on it after a season and a half.

One novel, however, Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), stood out from all the other zombie apocalypse stories, filmed or written, because it went further in analyzing how a human – zombie war would change our society, solve, sometimes inadvertently, pressing political disputes and make heroes out of some of the most unlikely people. Brooks labelled World War Z an oral history, deliberately patterned on The Good War (1984), the late Studs Terkel’s oral history of World War Two, and it’s apt. World War Z possesses the wide ranging intellectual interests, smarts and empathy of Terkel’s best work. Not surprisingly, the new film version of World War Z does not.

The film has a troubled history, being re-written and tampered with by the powers that be in Hollywood, but it’s unlikely it would have ever been released as a straightforward rendition of the book. That would have entailed an art house, low key approach to making the movie and big budget Hollywood films, which World War Z certainly is, never unfold that way. (Apparently the initial screenplay by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski was outstanding and faithful to the book but it didn't fly with the suits, who commissioned writers to re-write and then re-write it again.) That doesn't mean that what we got on screen needed to be this dull, flat and sloppily put together, with a lead actor, Brad Pitt, who is distinctly uncomfortable in an action hero role.

 Daniella Kertesz and Brad Pitt 
The novel dealt with an unnamed U.N. employee, likely American, who penned his oral history after his superiors deemed his report on the impact of the human-zombie war to be too intimate in nature. They wanted a bureaucratic, fact based report with all the emotion leeched out of it. (This description actually fits the film version, as it’s a pretty impersonal piece of work.) In the movie that U.N. employee is re-written as one Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), who has recently left the U.N, where he dealt with crisis issues in various hot spots across the globe and now resides in Philadelphia with his wife (The Killing’s Mireille Enos) and family. There are murmurs of mysterious ‘outbreaks’ in Taiwan and South Africa but no indication that anything major or life threatening is afoot until the Lane family, caught in a massive traffic jam, witnesses the zombie attack first-hand, barely escaping with their lives. Lane is then coerced by his former superior, the U.N. Secretary General, Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) to rejoin the organization and is then dispatched to find out what is causing the zombie plague and how to stop it.

That sounds a lot more interesting than it actually is, as the movie is really just an excuse for a series of very badly directed action sequences - director Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, Quantum of Solace) isn't any more adept at those than he is at drama or fantasy – which punctuate a lot of non- action scenes, only one or two which are actually compelling. One of those takes place in Israel, which seems to have anticipated the zombie outbreak ahead of anyone else. While the movie is a surprising paean to Israeli resourcefulness, it’s also a simplification from the novel, which goes much further in its examination of Israel’s pre-emptive actions. Some pundits are attributing ironic intent to the fact that in the film Israel has built a wall to keep the zombies out, presuming it's a clever commentary on the real wall or separation barrier erected by the Israelis to keep suicide bombers from infiltrating the country. I don't buy it and refuse to give the filmmakers that much credit for smartness. Sometimes, as in this movie, a wall is just a wall. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, the Turkish version of the film censors the mention of Israel, referring to its setting as the Middle East, even though the scene with the Israeli flag flying confidently above the ramparts of Jerusalem is still intact. (Kudos to the filmmakers for identifying Jerusalem as being part of Israel, Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) didn't do that.) Then, it‘s off to Wales, as Lane, with an Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz), identified only by her rank, in tow, prepares to continue the good fight.

So much of World War Z, from Lane being taken unawares by the initial zombie attacks – even if the information was being hidden by governments, including his own, he should have been plugged into what was going on by his U.N. contacts – to the movie’s hastily wrapped up (and faintly risible) resolution is slapdash and not thought through. World War Z was supposed to be, I believe, the first of a trilogy so the film’s ending does come across as overly rushed. But with four credited writers for story and screenplay, what can you expect? I blame Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, who co-wrote the equally disappointing Star Trek Into Darkness; both of them were also involved with the ridiculous Lost TV series, which should have been a red flag for this film, too. (Brooks has quickly and understandably distanced himself from the movie, describing it as “World War Z in name only”.)

Zombies climbing the wall
World War Z is also another distracting, unnecessary and blurry 3D offering – they won’t stop making those as the overseas Chinese market, Hollywood’s latest obsession, is besotted with that format. That also explains why China, fingered as the culprit for the zombie outbreak in the novel, isn't mentioned at all in the movie. And while the cast, mostly no name is adequate, the characterization is at a minimum. (You might recognize a few other actors besides Pitt, such as David Morse (St. Elsewhere, 16 Blocks) as a CIA spook and Peter Capaldi (Local Hero, In the Loop) as a World Health Organization doctor.

I like the fact that movie is not American centric, one of the few ways it apes the novel, but the film never really gives you a sense of a world at war, just scenes of Lane in various locales. Even a potentially powerful scene of grim American authorities removing the U.S. constitution and American historical treasures for safekeeping, away from the zombie hordes is more of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, That moment might have been more memorable if we’d seen similar scenes of folks at The Louvre, the Vatican, Buckingham Palace, etc., doing the same. But World War Z fails to ever be as indelible as it could have been. If they weren't going to stick to the book, then it behooved them to create something equally as striking. Max Brooks’ World War Z was an original, distinct work of art but the movie version is just another bloated, empty Hollywood epic, ultimately self effacing and utterly forgettable. No great revelation there. But a colossal missed opportunity nonetheless.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

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