Can 7 minutes of extra footage make Z better...
A quartet of consecutive screenwriters; last-minute rewrites and a script that wasn’t even completed when filming ended, let alone when it commenced; reshoots a year later, with a new ending; and $200 million thrown into the pot, even before you consider the extensive promotional costs – World War Z was a nightmare production. So concerned were the Studios that it was going to go down the John Carter route and flop (which, to be fair, even John Carter didn’t, since it made back its money overseas), plans to do a sequel were scrapped during the production – hence the reshoots – but half a billion in Box Office returns goes a long way towards changing things. By all accounts, World War Z should have also been a terrible film, notwithstanding the unexpected commercial success, and yet it really is quite entertaining, particularly in this more viscerally engaging (i.e. bloody) Extended Cut.
Indeed star Brad Pitt’s desire to make a movie that his teen sons would enjoy, and director Marc ‘Quantum of Solace’ Forster’s attempt to make a Bourne-style international zombie action-thriller, threatened to sap some of the much-needed horror out of this affair, however the Extended Cut boasts a whopping 7 minutes of new and alternative footage, almost all of which is violently action-packed, for once doing precisely what it says on the tin. Sure, Damon ‘Prometheus’ Lindlehof’s involvement in the picture may be something of a death knell, but even he can’t ruin the sheer thrills of World War Z’s zombie tsunami.
Former UN investigator Gerry Lane is stuck in a traffic in Philadelphia when chaos erupts. People, crawling across the streets, moving like animals – at speed – leaping, grabbing and biting. Gerry counts to 12 as their victims turn into the very same creatures; as the virus spreads. Airlifted out of the warzone, Gerry is enlisted to help track the source of the plague, which has seen all the major cities in the world overwhelmed by zombies. Travelling across the globe he puts together pieces of the puzzle, hoping that he will find some clue that will unlock a cure to the disease that will soon consume mankind.
At its best, World War Z delivers some elaborate, epic action set-pieces which are expertly-staged, and which more than justify their undoubtedly huge cost, proving thrilling in spite of the fact that the numerous preview trailers tried their best to spoil all the fun. Don’t worry, there’s plenty more to be had that they didn’t show.
Director Marc Forster may have made his name on more dramatic fare (The Kite Runner), but he’s probably better known for his Bond sequel, Quantum of Solace, which proved – if nothing else – that he was adept at globe-trotting non-stop thrills. Hampered (or perhaps assisted) by the fact that the majority of the story had been provided in the previous entry, his was never going to be a standout Bond film, and instead played more like an action-addendum to Casino Royale. Relentlessly intense, and shot with the kind of frenzied guerrilla camerawork that Greengrass’s Bourne sequels gave birth to, it was clear what we were going to get from his zombie epic, no matter what the source material.
The treatment of the highly popular bestselling source novel is, of course, a huge bone of contention amidst fans – namely, the fact that it was not adhered to faithfully for the film. Well, one could argue that the atypical narrative, which posited no specific protagonist and merely ran as a series of effective ‘reports’ on the worldwide outbreak, could never be made into an effective feature film (perhaps a series, but that wouldn’t have the same epic scale as a big budget film could command) but that does not, of itself, justify turning an outstanding zombie novel into a merely serviceable action thriller. Which was how people viewed it. Indeed, by all accounts, the first draft – by J. Michael Straczynski (most famous for basically penning almost every single episode of Babylon 5) – was outstanding, with genuine genre-defining potential, so, if that was the case, one has to wonder where exactly things went wrong.Hiring a further three screenwriters to work on the script can’t have helped, of course, particularly when the middle culprit was none other than the infamous Prometheus scribe David Lindlehof, whose name sends a shudder through my bones every time I see it attached to a project. No wonder things were still so up-in-the-air when he got done, he left midway through, the script still unfinished (probably so he could go back to raping Wrath of Khan).
Despite all of this, though, World War Z might have still turned out excellent. It starts off well, and throws you pretty much instantly into the fray, heightening both the stakes and the tension as we traverse the globe in favour of ever bigger set-pieces – the daytime street assault turning into a night-time tower block siege; the stealth-based Korean operation leading them to Jerusalem, for the sequence most trailer-familiar viewers will already recognise. It’s just a crescendo of chaos, with the zombie tsunami eventually crashing down and overwhelming every place that it reaches. And it was supposed to continue that way, culminating in a grand Red Square siege in Russia, where our hero takes to the streets in a more viscerally physical confrontation with the infected.
If you can fight, fight. Our war’s just begun.
Unfortunately we’ll likely never get to see that version in any shape or form, mostly due to the fact that footage of the sequence was never completed, and instead the film takes a more quiet, small-scale approach to the finale, which only further draws parallels with the movie that was most in my mind when I watched this – Will Smith’s I Am Legend. But that comparison is only a compliment. World War Z, despite being fractured and disjointed – even its potentially rousing, suitably thematic score doesn’t gel together across the proceedings – is a surprisingly entertaining ride, working in many ways like a prequel to I Am Legend (something which itself has been long rumoured).
Brad Pitt too acquits himself well as the lead protagonist. He’s not exactly famous for these kinds of roles – he’s largely stayed clear of Big Budget action fare, making an exception for the leaden historical romp, Troy, and for the more comedically-slanted Mr & Mrs Smith – but here his is less the heavyweight ex-military character, and more the kind of caught-up-in-the-middle-of-it-all hero Cruise portrayed in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake (it’s no surprise then that Cruise’s production company was also interested in the project). The closest Pitt’s come to his UN investigator caught-up-behind-enemy-lines is probably actually the underrated Tony Scott thriller, Spy Game, and he only reminds us here that he’s still got what it takes when it comes to this kind of more action-derived fare.
Although the multitude of faces opposite him change almost too fast to keep up – perhaps a product of the script, although the premise does not lend itself towards ongoing companions – a few sparks make an impression, including 24 stalwart and Iron Man 3 villain James Badge Dale; star of the US remake of the excellent Danish TV-series The Killing, Mireille Enos, making for an atypical but effective wife for Pitt’s investigator; David Morse (The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Rock) as a lost-the-plot CIA agent who has clues as to the virus’s origins; and newcomer Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli soldier.
At the end of the day, World War Z shouldn’t have come out of wars looking this good, but it has. Many have labelled it a Big Budget version of Soderbergh’s similarly-globally-conscious Contagion, and perhaps that’s not far off, but I still see I Am Legend comparisons as being more relevant, again on a larger scale and taking the action across the globe. Forster is in his element during the action setpieces, and, had they maintained momentum, this could have probably been an even more noteworthy effort purely from a grand-scale-zombie-action point-of-view, but, even with a more restrained ending, the film is still very effective. And for those who were worried about the restrictions of the more ratings-friendly Theatrical Version, this Extended Action Cut rectifies a large portion of that, not only adding 7 minutes of pure extra action, but also tweaking VFX here and there to great effect – zombies now are more visibly scarred, blood is more prevalent, and blows, shots and action beats are amplified at an almost microscopic level, leaving the piece far more vicious than before.
The VerdictThose who were hesitant over seeing the novel adapted into a film; cautious when they heard about the troubled production; put-off by the notion of a PG-13 zombie flick; and exhausted by continuous reshoots that saw the project delayed for a year, should consider rethinking their position. World War Z may not be the greatest Summer Blockbuster this year but it’s not as far off as the critics predicted, and provides two hours of unabashed zombie-tsunami entertainment, with characters to root for, and enough clever ideas and grandstanding set-pieces to make an impact. Recommended.
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