Once Upon A (PG-Rated Family-Friendly) Time…
First off let me say that World War Z is not as bad a film as I thought it was going to be, especially as I know better than to expect the film to reflect the book word for word. I know enough about narrative to know that that is just impossible. You’re best bet of doing that would be if this were a TV mini-series based on the book, where each episode was based upon one of these stories found within the novel. Your other alternative (perhaps) is to use the material for a game – which has its own bag of problems I won’t get into.
Though I guess you could try and make a Zombie version of Once Upon A Time In America (1984) in way of scope and length — the 2012 cut is 259 minutes, that’s 4 hrs and 19 minutes. It’s worth noting that the original 229 minute movie was a box office failure, and, NO studio would currently make a 4 hour zombie movie let alone a 3 hour one. They are just not brave enough to take that kind of financial risk on a horror movie, nor are they smart enough to pull it off — see Exhibit A: World War Z.
Anyway to sum WWZ up, it’s not a great film but it is a watchable film that I feel comfortable giving a 7/10. But if that isn’t enough then read on weary zombie survivalist…
ACT 1: In The Beginning…
WARNING: if you haven’t yet seen the film then only read ahead if you really like spoilers!
I also know enough not to trust what critics think about a film, especially if there is a wide difference between the average rating that the critics give a film and what the fans rate it. I know film people, I know critics by extension of this, and I know that they know film to such an extent that they get bored very easily, and nit-pick quite a lot. They will see things wrong that everyone else, meaning your average Joe and Jill, will not see due to their understanding of the mechanics of the medium. But, knowing some about films and narrative, and probably far too much about zombies and zombie films for my own good. I had originally had a hard time dismissing the negativity about this film and my apprehension about seeing it and being not just disappointed but thoroughly disgusted at Hollywood’s (PG) take on the zombie film that it thinks that we all want to see.
This leads on to my next point of apprehension. Because it is PG, these zombies are more interested in biting and spreading the infection to others over eating those they bite. This to me feels too much like 28 Days Later (2002) and the rage infected humans who are “zombie” like but not actually zombies, rather they’re “infected.” And at first when I sat in the cinema and watched the first 15 minutes I feared that it was as I suspected, that these dead weren’t actually the dead but rather the infected. The use of words to this affect, such as pandemic in the description of the zombie outbreak, made this feel less like a zombie film and more like a film about infected people dressed up as zombies — not that is a bad thing as long as you make clear that these people are not zombies. Especially when I read that apparently Brad Pitt’s character is doing this globe trot in search of a “cure” for the pandemic.
You see you cannot cure the living dead, you can only kill the living dead with a bullet in the head. It’s a harsh reality that within a zombie apocalypse, people need to get over if they want to remain one of the living. Which originally made me speculate as to whether these WWZ zombies (Zekes) aren’t just infected people and not actually zombies at all. It’s a small detail but actually quite a big detail in effect. As you can’t call something one thing, but in reality, it is something else entirely. Which though not entirely the case, it does feel this way in effect by virtue of the way they have changed the mechanics of zombies to suit their narrative, cinematic and financial aims.
They’re not stumbling generally mindless corpses that have an insatiable hunger for human flesh, which in itself is disturbing in that the dead need NO sustenance to survive, only the living do. No, what the Zekes are are discriminating pathogens that target only “healthy” hosts for the Zeke epidemic, creating further zekes that relentlessly attack with NO fear at blinding speed and ferocity, and once having infected a new host for the disease, they then move on to infect the next person. If I just wrote these two depictions up and asked you to tell me which one was describing zombies, without using the word or referencing the reanimated dead in any fashion. I think you would easily identify the first description for a zombie. As for the second, you may suggest that it is some kind of alien mutagenic virus, especially if I described the physiological changes made to the hosts as seen up close in the later parts of the film — in particular their new sharp teeth — and how they actually don’t look all that much like a corpse at all.
So even though you are watching the undead on screen, it’s like saying that vampires being another form of undead critter, are exactly the same as undead zombies. When any kid who has watched a vampire flick and a zombie flick will tell you that they are really not. Right? So, this is NOT a zombie apocalypse film but rather a Zeke apocalypse film. An altogether different beast, especially when you see them close up in the later stages of the film.
Something else that reminds me of the infected from 28 Days Later, is the fact that these zombies are super fast. This will get up the nose of a lot of people, the same folks that saw the Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake several times (at the cinema) and every time they saw it they hated the fact that the zombies were all sprinters. I’m not that fussed in particular with how they were in the Dawn remake, however, I would have preferred that they stuck to something a bit more logical. The fresher and “fitter” they were the faster they were. The more decayed and “fatter” they were the slower they were. This would have made more sense in the film and would have mixed things up in that the film at the beginning would be about surviving fewer but faster zombies, then later on, it would be masses of slower zombies you now had to deal with en masse. This requires a change of tactics as you can’t deal with these two situations in the same way. A failing of the film, but, still more of a nit-pick you could say compared to other aspects of that film.
Now with WWZ, they aren’t just sprinting but seem to have an (illogical) mass zombie physics where they seem to move like rushing water or as a hive of angry ants; keeping in mind that these people though now dead, still had at best the same physical limitations that they had when they were alive, yet now they seemed to have super speed and agility. Originally when I saw the first trailers, I thought it rather extreme in that the physics of what was being depicted did not make any sense due to this, due to the context that these things are zombies, which usually are depicted as slow rotting corpses. That it would be nonsense that completely fucks with my suspension of disbelief as the conceptual pieces don’t come together but pull themselves apart at the Frankenstein seams.
However, watching the film in a cinema surrounded by parents and all their fidgeting and screaming kids, the effect was not as bad as I first thought it would be. As to whether the trailers prepared you for it beforehand so that it was not as big a shock, or, whether the CG effects were tweaked to make it less pronounced from the original due to the negativity such early footage may have generated. I’m currently none the wiser ;).
ACT 2: Congratulations, You’ve Survived To The Middle!
I’m not going to trash Damon Lindelof, who consulted and worked on the scene rewrites for the script. That’s a tad pointless. Instead, I will choose to rather focus on a lack of research that I think is an issue with many scripts. If you ever attempt to write a novel, you will learn that writing prose is a bitch and it takes lots of effort to get better — Fun-fact: not necessarily the same case with scriptwriting. You will also learn that you will more than likely need to do a lot of research for your book, though this is somewhat dependent upon the genre and elements contained within the book.
A script on the other hand, can get away with a complete lack of research altogether; which poses a bit of a problem. To explain the process goes something like this (though it may differ):
A script draft or treatment will get written, the scriptwriter will more than likely do minimal research so as to limit how much work may get lost if it is not optioned. The script if lucky will get picked up / optioned — whatever the lingo is — and then this script will get rewritten usually by a succession of script editors who will shape the script to something that can be filmed, working out any structural scene/flow/pacing/theme/dialogue errors out of the script and tailoring it to what the studio(s) that optioned the script want from the script. However, that doesn’t mean that at any point there will be any real research done by these additional writers, and if it is done at all, it will be in other aspects of pre-production such as set, costume and effect design as the film heads towards full production.
By that point something like a “cure” for a zombie plague has been well written in no matter how implausible the research into the “basis” for this cure says it is. But hey, the script writer was watching something on TV one day… read something… or Googled something that lead to this “basis” being mentioned and not really understanding it terribly well, it gets added into the heart of the script and ends up being a crucial aspect of the script and film. Though in this case, it could very well of appeared later as part of the major rewrite of the ending and additional scenes shot for earlier parts of the film as a quick fix to what was perceived to be a flawed film based on the PG target market for it.
Based upon Lost and Prometheus, Damon isn’t a big fan of hard research or realism for that matter. That is not his forte. That is creating plot twists where there really is no plot to speak of, creating drama between characters on screen like via common denominator love-triangles, implausible situations such as invisible polar bears on a tropical island so as to keep viewers engaged (and wondering “what outlandish thing next?”) and apparently, open-ended stories that TV execs like in that they can keep a series going for as long as possible for ratings and profit before they inevitably pull the plug when the honeypot begins to run dry.
His favoritism for open-ended stories shows a bit in the ending that suggests that there is a sequel planned — though, another scriptwriter was brought in by that point and would have in all likelihood changed anything they didn’t like or smoothed off any Damon edges. Though I am surprised that the film didn’t end with a love triangle between Gerry, his wife Krin, and the Israeli solider Segen — and probably not in the way that you immediately imagine it would be.
But I digress in that I am talking about plot points or story beats that could have been better, different, and in that regard they could have lead to a better script and movie. For example the scientist-expert guy (Fassbach) that dies via a self-inflicted gunshot wound within the first act of the film – or is that the start of the second? He should have played a longer if not larger role in the film as he seemed like an interesting character that would be far more capable of spotting the Zeke’s weakness over Gerry (Brad Pitt). A character that could of had a real character arc and gone through some kind of change, growth and fall (or sacrifice) in order to best the Zekes.
Unfortunately he would have taken far too much screen time away from Brad Pitt’s character, which makes me wonder why exactly that character abruptly dies only just having really been introduced to the plot..?
Then there is the whole Israel thing. Honestly, it just does not ring true at all. I think Israel would have finished its wall and defended it at all costs against all. They wouldn’t be letting (Arabic) refugees in at all from countries they have had bad relations with for a long time. Too much bad blood and too an ingrained belief that they need to wall themselves off from their neighbours rather than opening their doors to them if they wish to survive as a people and state within the region.
Further, and sidestepping the obvious about why Israel would have finished off their wall just before the Zekes appear, if you are looking for a means to a cure, why would you leave Israel? They do some cutting edge research that is fast-tracked from working prototype to fielded production units – case in point, Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense shield. Yes, a lot of Israel’s research is in way of military technology due to necessity, however, I’ll wager that they are quite good in the biological weapons research department.
So, if you want to rapidly find and produce any kind of cure or just find out what the Zekes are at all. Then you would stay in fucking Israel! That is where you would make your last stand as it is your best chance to a “cure” to the global Zeke problem. Which then lets you make a whole lot of comments of a social nature on a wide range of aspects — hell, even biblical if you really like. After all, zombie films, especially the really good ones, are also a social commentary on society and its ills as well as being a horror film about the walking dead. And though there may very well be some kind of social commentary present within WWZ, perhaps something to do with the nature of what Gerry did for the UN. It is not very clear in its aims to remain a family-friendly PG film, so what Gerry exactly “did” for the UN and what was so terribly “bad” about it was never made clear.
I still have no idea what it was, but if it is the UN, then it was probably something along the lines of Gerry realizing just how hopelessly ineffectual the UN is and how meaningless his job (and purpose of his life) really was.
ACT 3: The (Alternative) Ending… Or Is It?
It seems fairly easy to spot where the original shoot footage ends and the re-shoot footage begins. This is when the CG zombies end and get replaced predominately by actors in make-up playing zombies. They don’t move as quick and are initially slower paced, being described as being in a “dormant” state. I can’t help but feel that re-shooting the ending afforded them the opportunity to ease some of the backlash they would have been anxious of due to the zombies for the most part being non-stop marathon biting sprinters.
This is also when the idea of a “vaccine” for the Zekes emerge. We may see reference to it in previous scenes that foreshadow it, but the concept is not verbally voiced by Gerry — and these scenes could of possibly of also been part of the extensive re-shoot. Know I’ve read enough to know that what they are implying, based upon what is implied to be scientific fact, isn’t really that concrete as suggested in the film. And what really makes this implausible to me is that zombies are walking corpses. A corpse is a corpse. Diseases spread, the more infected the better for the disease as it means more chance to spread itself to more hosts. Why would the zombie plague care or discriminate against a potential host just because they have terminal cancer? Answer: it wouldn’t as the host will be dead anyways. And most importantly it wouldn’t care because it lacks the brain to compute all of this in the first place.
The film implies that this disease not only kills the host to make them one of the sprinting dead, but also transforms them into a new creature altogether, a Zeke with super senses and instincts that enables them to ignore a “diseased” host by sight or smell. These raging freaks can tell all that in an instant so that they can just sprint around those that are “unfit” to act as dead hosts for this disease, whatever it may be. This to me though an interesting idea, is just not plausible enough for it not to begin to undermine my suspension of disbelief. So using a disease to mask yourself from the Zekes to make yourself appear unfit to them so you do not get attacked, does not feel right as compared to in The Walking Dead season 2 where they use the gore taken from “killed” walkers, and smear it on their clothes so as to mask the fact that they don’t smell like the walking dead so as to avoid being attack by them. You don’t need to have a super sense of smell to determine this one, as it would be pretty clear to all who does and doesn’t smell like a rotting corpse.
But, on to something else now… Without showing the close up gore-action, in particular during the scenes at the WHO facility, it feels like you’re missing out on part of the scene being partly shown on screen. I think if you read anything on writing, especially scriptwriting, they will mention something along the lines of show don’t tell. Yet in this film they are effectively not doing both, in that they are failing to show enough to suggest what is going on and most certainly they are not bothering to tell you. It also comes off as if they ran out of money, so they couldn’t do the special effects for these shots and simply made sure not to show any FX intensive close-up gore shots in the later parts of the movie. Though I’m sure it is also to do with Brad Pitt wanting to make a (PG) zombie film that he could take his boys to see, as I’ve heard him say on the TV, and I’m sure he has said over and over again all over the place as he sells his film to movie goers. However, zombies films work on gore, so… You’ve got a bit of a problem there, you know?
Well, I don’t know any zombie film that is PG beyond an animated kids flick. It boggles the mind that they have gone to the effort of creating a PG zombie movie, an E for Everyone film in effect. Zombies are dead, rotting corpses that crave flesh — well, these ones don’t in that they are interested solely in spreading the Zeke disease, and NOT, eating people. So that means some gore is necessary in order to clearly portray the horror that is a zombie; perhaps not Romero bordering on the inane of silliness over-the-top gore, but, gore nonetheless as it is how you sell the fact that you are dealing with zombies. Anything less is just going to border on the idiotic to a lot of folks, and I do mean zombie fans.
Funny side-note: since I mentioned kids earlier I might add that there was gore during the screening of the film when I went to see it in the way of one kid puking all over the place. Too much chocolate, or, avant-garde artful critique of World War Z..?
My Fuzzy Feel-Good Conclusion
I do wonder whether the actual footage that was shoot first and then discarded, however flawed, didn’t actually offer a better ending than this feel-good crap of an ending created to make the film appropriately PG and broad in appeal. A happy, neat and tidy, ending of sorts. Regardless, I think with the current ending that they are missing the point of a zombie apocalypse film. Sure you can have an ending that suggests hope, a chance of bleak survival, however, it needs to be a slim chance won at a high cost with continued survival being precarious if the survivors do not adapt to their new reality. Plus the feel good ending along with the lack of any real gore, just makes this zombie flick not really a horror as it has no scares in it. Especially as you can see the setups a mile off as they are overly predictable and a tad idiotic at times — for example, Gerry for some reason needs to put his crowbar down in order to operate a keypad with two hands instead of using the one hand… Dumb.
World War Z is what happens when Hollywood notices the popularity of something, such as zombie films and zombies in general as popularized by The Walking Dead TV series. And decides that they can’t ignore an opportunity to cash in on this popularity by making a big-budget Hollywood film. However where they usually fail, is not understanding why something is popular in the first place and then getting a whole bunch of people involved to craft this film who only have a superficial understanding of that thing. In this case zombies.
Brad Pitt saw the popularity of zombies, saw an opportunity to produce a film based on a book that he then optioned, with the intent of it being a star vehicle for himself. He then gets a director, Marc Forster and writers involved, the most high-profile being Damon Lindelof. But unfortunately they missed one crucial ingredient: someone who knows zombies and zombie films. If you really grilled them you would discover that though they espouse their interest in zombies and how cool it is and will rattle off a few words that makes them seem far more knowledgeable about why zombies are so popular all of a sudden. You will find that they know fuck-all about zombies and really aren’t that interested in learning about them and why they are popular to begin with.
Which is why this WWZ is such a failure as a zombie movie, as it is not World War Zombies, but rather, World War Zekes. Plus, who else would make a PG zombie film other than those that know nothing about zombies?
Personally, I think that if Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company had won the rights, that it would have been a far better film. Maybe not as big a production in way of cost, but more than likely far smarter and better constructed in way of production and narrative. One that I think would have made better use of the source material along with taking the opportunity to do something interesting here that other zombie films haven’t other than to turn zombies into Zekes. Even if it is simply to make a zombie film that spans 2 and half hours or even approaches 3 hours in length. That’s the only way to make a zombie movie that is worthy of the World War Z title.
Lastly, I think that if the rights still exist that WWZ would make a fantastic one-off TV mini-series and that is how it should have been adapted for the screen in the first place. But hey for all my whinging here, I have already seen this movie twice in 3D…