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World War Z Review

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The fate of humanity lies in the hands of a man called Gerry.

by Chris McEneany Jun 22, 2013 at 7:44 PM

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    World War Z Review
    As the world erupts into chaos when a zombie plague spreads like wildfire right the way across it, one man is tasked with seeking out a means of combating the mysterious virus that has caused it. Globe-trotting through various hot spots - from the US to South Korea to Israel to Wales - former UN trouble-shooter, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), must push himself through a veritable hell on Earth in order to save humanity from the apocalypse of World War Z.

    Taking only the premise and a couple of vaguely recognisable scenarios from Max Brooks' bestselling chronicle of the socio-politica,, religio-militaristic ramifications of mankind attempting to thwart the end of the world, director Marc Forster's resulting big budget zombie epic is exciting, action-packed and bolstered with some truly stunning imagery ... but, ultimately, it is watered-down, restrained and emotionally stunted.

    And, given the scale of the subject matter, all done and dusted far too quickly and conveniently.

    The production had some grave troubles, necessitating emergency rewrites and reshoots, which were well-documented. There is the loss of Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston. And most of Matthew Fox’s material has vanished into the ether too. But, bizarrely, these don’t make as obvious an impact as you might expect, although the film flows along so damn fast that it is doubtful you would notice any gaping chasms in continuity anyway. Sadly, there are plenty of naff bits to contend with already in a much hyped movie that may well be entertaining and exciting for most in terms of a pure popcorn night at the flicks, but remains a big disappointment as the “zombie” film it pretends to be.

    There are two major selling points for this huge project. Brad Pitt. And zombies. In that order. But neither really delivers the goods that we all know both can.

    But the film certainly gets one thing right.

    Epic images of amassed zombies on a tsunami-like rampage is exactly what the genre has been missing since George Romero first delivered faltering black and white TV broadcasts that only reported upon a nation’s escalating panic in Night of the Living Dead. Not one single zombie movie has been able to properly convey the enormity of a city-wide pandemic of the undead, let alone its global consequences. Even Day of the Dead, in which the world had been presumably overrun, only managed a few dozen. The closest we have ever come to this scale of horrific hordes of zombies on the attack have been the provocative posters for Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, in which the surrealist artwork of legions of rotting cadavers surging towards New York formed an inedible vision of Hell spitting out the hungry dead, and the deliberately related one for Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, which showed fugitives fleeing from a London totally bursting with infected ghouls. Here, at long, long last, we are presented with the harsh, visceral and genuinely skin-crawling prospect of cities completely flooded with aggressive, fast-moving, hive-directed zombies. Their teeming, insect-like carpet saturation of the environment is bloodcurdlingly nightmarish. Imagine how it must look to isolated pockets of riot police cut off amidst a full-blown riot. Imagine the stark terror of being swept-up in the machete-wielding maelstrom of Mogadishu during the real events depicted in Black Hawk Down. Imagine how it would feel to be surrounded by colossal numbers of a merciless enemy with absolutely no hope of rescue or salvation – Custer’s Last Stand, say, or more dramatically and far more heroically, the events that befell the British 24th Regiment at Isandlwhana. This is how the possible fall of mankind is presented to us … with frenzied, unstoppable, senses paralysing anxiety.

    It is such a shame, then, that the surrounding story and its roster of desperate characters don’t match this level of intensity and should, ultimately, leave you startlingly unconcerned and all rather blasé about the unfolding apocalypse. Former zombie invasions have never been so forgettable.

    Pitt, who was behind this project every step of way, despite ending-up at loggerheads with the creative team, is solid in the role of the UN super-saviour. Though nothing more. He is a tremendous actor who can really portray angst and emotional turmoil, as well as exuding a uniquely brooding intensity that usually translates well to guys swallowed up by grief or rage (Legends of the Fall, Se7en) and yet is able to convey their passions through a convincingly stoic exterior at the same time. As seen in this version of WWZ, Gerry Lane (“Is in my ears, is in my eyes”) is a fairly wooden chunk of noble machismo. Even though he fighting to save his family as much as he is searching for a cure to the plague or a means to defeat it, we never feel any of his concerns for those he has left behind. Arguably, he doesn’t have time to dwell upon their plight too much because the heels of his own are usually being nipped at. But there are plenty of moments when the emotional cost of the situation could and should have been permitted to make more of an impact. Even his voiceover is dreadfully dreary. I like Brad Pitt, but this is one seriously dull performance.

    I know that the surviving officials have placed all their hopes in this man because of his track record with plagues and viruses and humanitarian disasters, but the way in which it is he who spots every little clue and pieces the puzzle together is so sloppily depicted and cliché-ridden that it makes my teeth itch. Yes, he is trained to notice things, even in the heat of the moment, but I can’t stand it when it is only the film’s hero who is able to clock the evidence, put two and two together, and still be the only character able to run and fight and saves lives whilst doing so. In this respect, Gerry Lane becomes the John McClane of Die Hard 2. He is everywhere at once, piecing together the plot and the right course of action whilst everyone else around him just panics and makes all the wrong choices. He immediately spots how the contagion is spread from one to another, and how quickly the transformation takes to assimilate a new host. He spots every crucial element in the viral stages of cause and effect. And he does this right smack bang in the middle of sheer bedlam every damn time, with multitudes flooding all around him, guns going off and vehicles getting overturned. There are ways in which all this could have been conveyed without having him stop to gauge these convenient zombie signposts without it becoming repetitive, but it happens with such monotonous regularity here that you feel like pitching the writers into a tank of old school dead-heads. Jesus, he realizes what is about to happen at the Salvation Gate amongst a million other people who don’t … and they’ve been living with the situation for longer than him. He just happens to be the one who susses out what is about to go down in economy class on a fugitive passenger plane when everyone looks mildly bemused about the strange noises taking place behind the curtain … and also the one who thinks of how to combat it. Plus, tying-in with this, he has the uncanny knack of surviving lots of crash, bang, wallop. I won’t say he survives such things without a scratch, but his sheer indestructibleness does become tediously generic. All this probably wouldn’t matter so much if we actually gave a good goddamn about his mission, or about him as a character. But, honestly, it is difficult to care. Two minutes of doting dad – that’s your lot – to show us that Gerry is a caring, sharing family-man, and then another hundred or so depicting him as a zombie-bashing potential messiah does not authenticate him as a fully rounded character. We need more of the little moments for any of the bigger ones to be properly effective. This is all ratcheted-up at an unflagging whip-crack pace, and totally episodic, but the overall stakes never feel as imperative as you would expect, given the fury and extent of the menace.
    The film shows us an awful lot of civilization collapsing. Or does it?

    If you’ve seen the trailers, then you’ve seen the extent of the upheaval already. A flotilla of US Navy ships, a haunted outpost in South Korea, the sacking of the Holy Land and Wales (actually filmed all the way around the UK except for Wales – natch!) – and yet something as simple as the lights winking out, one by one, in an office block in the original Dawn of the Dead somehow conjures up the grim terror of society slipping inexorably away with far more ominous realism. Those expecting greater scenes of international carnage will be sorely disappointed. The big Russian battle that was supposed to close the movie just didn't work, Pitt maintains. I wonder if it was because a sustained combat sequence would have inevitably pushed up the rating - which would have meant going against the toned-down attitude that smothers this theatrical cut.

    As such, what we have here is an eco-disaster film, with more structural affinity to Outbreak in its DNA than to any bonafide zombie movie.

    Staggeringly clunky exposition bogs down the few quiet moments on inertia. A young scientist delivers that hoary old speech about nature always having the winning hand. Remember De Niro spouting out almost romantic supernatural gibberish about the way a fire behaves in Backdraft? Or Sam Jackson bigging-up the power of ice in Deep Blue Sea“It moves like it’s got a mind. Like it remembers it killed the world once … and got a taste for it.” (HA –one of THE worst speeches I have ever heard.) Well, we’ve got a similar thing going on here. And it stinks. But thankfully, Forster’s film doesn’t just copy the dumb dialogue from Jackson in this regard. You’ll see what I mean by this shortly after the drivel is delivered. Another wretched speech, that bumbles over the top of a couple of on-the-hoof scenes, is served-up by an Israeli official who reveals just how they were able to act quicker than anybody else in the world to defend themselves against the plague … by his simple understanding of the word “zombie”. Honestly, you listen to the story behind this stunning reveal. Somebody in the creative committee wrote this and, ironically in view of the speech, itself, everyone else okayed it. Yes, folks, Damon (Don’t write again) Lindelof was involved in this. Brought in like Gerry’s last-ditch environmental repairman to help fix up a few problems that the film was having with regards to the narrative direction and impetus. Whether he actually aided a worse screenplay, or worsened an ailing one, I don’t know. But his name anywhere near a movie now is tantamount to daubing a red skull and crossbones on a door to ward people away from a plague-pit.

    Judging by the audience that I saw the film with, Forster delivers some valid shock moments. There were frequent gasps from the ladies, and I witnessed some vigorous clutching of a partner’s arm during one tense sequence. Even a couple of burly blokes sat right in front of me jolting in unison at one sudden spasmic frame invasion. I’m clearly more inured and desensitized to these devices, since I watch this stuff all the time, but I will admit that the film delivers some genuinely gripping set-pieces of running-the-gauntlet.
    Although 28 Weeks Later and Zack Snyder’s powerhouse remake of Dawn of the Dead really conveyed the senses-jarring scenario of getting caught out on the streets during a swarm-attack, I found that WWZ actually reminded me far more of Tobe Hooper’s deliriously fun Lifeforce (BD review coming soon). The rushing dead, the chaotic city streets, the fracturing efforts of confused scientists and barely led soldiery, and the split-second rooftop helicopter rescues – it’s all here, though understandably much less hokey.

    But the lack of gore, whilst not quite as irksome as fans of this subgenre feared, is still a bone of contention. We know that these zombies are bloodthirsty and ravenous, and that they have been developed straight out of the Romero mould, but the sanitizing of the carnage renders their attacks fairly inconsequential and considerably less horrifying than they should be. Are we supposed to take it that they simply put a little nip on the next uninfected host and then move on? I know that’s still not a pleasant prospect if you happen to be the “nippee”, but compared to being disemboweled and devoured alive, or slowly and painfully succumbing to the virus, actually dying and then returning, this rapid-fire contagion is unbelievably merciful. How do we know they are even zombies? They act much more akin to the Rage infected “living” in the Later films. For all the talk of viruses and the scientific mumbo-jumbo discussed, these ghouls have the simplest ecology out of ALL the living dead, or those affiliated to them. I mean, twelve seconds after a quick nip, you're one of them ... and up and running, gnashers chomping. But once bitten, for example, do you actually die? Is death even part of the process? This isn’t really explained. And you can’t say that they don’t know because it has all happened so fast. There is all manner of procedures and facilities that have been set up and a thousand theorists and eggheads at work on the pandemic. Despite the madness on show, the whole thing is just too neatly packaged. Oh, everyone knows that they’re zombies … and what zombies do, the makers could argue. Yeah, but yours aren’t acting like the usual run (or walk) of the mill varieties. The certainly look and act aggressive. But what do they actually do? There is that genuinely interesting concept of the “hive-mind” insectoid mass consciousness that they have, but the screenplay doesn’t really explore this very much either, meaning that it seems to have been purely engineered to provide those trailer beloved climbing body-towers that only occur on those two briefly witnessed occasions.

    Woo. It’s cool, but not nearly enough.

    Now, if this film does spawn any follow-ups – which it may – then these issues could well be properly addressed. If it stays at this level though, then we have nothing more than a simplistic, bowdlerized and half-hearted mainstream adaptation of something that should very definitely have been hardcore. A TV miniseries would have handled this far better, and I wish they had gone down that road instead. Hell, the structure of the book actually lends itself to that type of depiction. Unless you’re going to go all Lawrence of Undeadia a single movie cannot hope to properly tackle the topic and put meat on its bones.

    Where the film continually wins is in its aerial views of large-scale destruction. The sense of helplessness and calamity is well-wrought as various locations are overrun. When the zombies manage to scale the Salvation Gates of Jerusalem and overwhelm the city, the film is at its visual apex. Atrocity is clearly everywhere, though never visualized, never singled-out. But the impression of inescapable carnage truly resonates with a dazzling combination of CG, kinetic editing, sweeping overhead vistas of undead infestation, and a galvanizing rush of adrenaline. If it all seems too well choreographed and less confusing and frightening as a result of the pell-mell momentum, the sight of the tumbling hordes cascading down a street towards a handful of Israeli troops really provides a tantalizing glimpse at what could have been truly magisterial mayhem if more time was devoted to each set-piece before the next location-hop. The travelogue aspect, though integral to the tale, means that the film truly whistles by. This is a good thing sometimes, though it does serve to give the story a choppy, piecemeal flow that probably works in its favour. We do feel as constantly dislocated and fatigued as Gerry.

    I’m not quite sure just why the military had humvees and roadblocks set-up during the initial stampede in Philadelphia in the first ten minutes of the film, though. This implies that they were already expecting trouble. We have heard unsettling reports on the radio in the Lane household and in their car, but if something was brewing this close to home why is the family contentedly playing I-Spy whilst sitting in a standard city traffic jam? People wrapping magazines around their arms to protect their flesh against a bite is a nice improvised defence – akin to staving-off a dog-attack. But is it really prudent to wrap up the right arm in such a way and then leave the stump of the left that has been shorn of a hand, simply held in a flimsy sling? Is a trained UN investigator who is clearly not fazed by things like guns, riots and war-zones really going to forget to turn his mobile phone to silent during a situation when he has to remains “ninja quiet”?

    It is also quite amazing how quickly a zombie-orphaned boy can forget the terrible tragedy he has just witnessed and bond with the colourless, textureless blank canvas of the Lame, sorry the Lane Family. Really? You are trying to tell the story from the human point of view, but this is just robotic narrative box-ticking of the most asinine. And how are the Lanes back home? Warm and worth fighting for? Nope. They don’t register even for a second. Mirelle Enos is lousy as Gerry’s wife. Pure cardboard cut-out. And the rest of the cast are just as bad, I’m afraid. When not spooning us and Gerry reams of eye-rollingly portentous exposition, they appear fleetingly and totally sans substance. Fana Mokoena walks and talks with clichéd ethnic gravitas as Gerry’s UN boss, but by the end of every scene he is in, you’ve forgotten he ever existed. The once great David Morse gets saddled with a woeful bit-part of a veritable incarcerated Hannibal Lecter, with just a bit if cackling plot dottage for company. Further cliché comes in the form of Daniella Kertesz’ shaven-headed, tough-girl Israeli soldier, Segen, who rides shotgun with our Gerry. But, worst of all, is Peter Capaldi, who is utterly squandered as a doctor at a WHO research facility outside Cardiff. A doctor? WHO? Cardiff? A toned-down SF/Horror romp that pretty much all the family could see? Hmmm … this combination reminds me of something …?

    Plus you’ve got people who only met him five minutes before clutching their hearts and gasping, “Where’s Gerry?” in hideously unconvincing concern when he suddenly vanishes from a security monitor, like he’s been their best buddy for years. Very poor. And totally unnecessary.

    Ahhh, here’s something else that works.

    Marco Beltrami was an excellent choice for composer. Enormously prolific, with some major scores jostling across this year’s releases – his forthcoming music for The Wolverine promises to be truly exultant – he delivers a splendid, heart-racing, pulse-pounding array of action cues that truly bolster the savage maelstrom we frequently find ourselves surrounded by. Always the master at such relentless material – his frantic, race against time cues from Hellboy, Mimic, Knowing and I, Robot are unquestionably high-points in modern genre scoring – he creates some incredibly exciting passages here for breakneck escapes and hair-trigger encounters. But something that may get lost amid the cacophony of explosions, gunfire and helicopters is the bizarre percussion that he incorporates for the zombies. A hunter friend – and some rumours actually suggest it was Tommy Lee Jones – gave him the idea of using animal skulls and teeth as instruments to be hammered and drummed in primal frenzy. Listening to the score CD as I write reveals the ghastly, tribal rhythm of such jarring instrumentation, and I will be taking his work in-depth in another review shortly. Muse even get to play over some portions of the movie, adding a flavor of rock-ambient melancholy, almost in reply to the now anthemic score from John Murphy for 28 Days Later.

    WWZ certainly sounds absolutely terrific.

    Forster peppers his film with startling vignettes that always threaten to fully wow, but they are over too swiftly and, sadly, far too cleanly to ever really satisfy. If this wasn’t based upon a far-reaching, fresh and quite inspired novel, and had just come along out of the blue, I would definitely be promoting it as an original slant on the overcrowded zombie genre. I would still decry its lack of actual “bite” but doubtlessly applaud its go-for-broke attitude. But, given such rich and well-known material to fall back upon it can’t help but feel truncated, contrived and generic. To his credit, the much-debated final act, which departs completely from the teeming scale of all that has gone before, does not derail the film at all, as some have suggested. I actually like the shift in tone and the more intimate twist, although I would have preferred the film to then climax with something more grandiose. The eventual denouement is too pat and glib and does leave you wondering if ten minutes or so have been arbitrarily marooned behind the credits.

    If The Woman In Black was like “my first horror film” for many kids, World War Z is surely their “first zombie film”. The 15 certificate is probably earned via some violence that, debatably, goes beyond what we’ve seen in The Dark Knight Rises, but despite bravura tension and threat levels, this really is quite tame stuff that is far more befitting the US rating of PG13. The end of the world has never been so censor-friendly. Is there are harder cut languishing out there somewhere? Undoubtedly. Will we ever get to see it? I’m afraid I can’t see that happening. The book was an enormous bestseller, and like The Hunger Games, the movie adaptation is made with the profit margin completely in its sights. Maximum number of bums of seats equals minimum blood ‘n’ guts. And having a big name Hollywood A-lister and husband to a real-life humanitarian figurehead only seems designed to fold the undead genre even more into the mainstream than it has ever ventured before, outside of Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, which, by the way, is much more frightening than this. The scariest image, here, is Piers Morgan cropping up on a TV screen! Maybe this is why the film gained a 15 certificate!

    As a confirmed horror fan all my life and an absolute zombie-devotee, I don’t rate WWZ very much at all. But, going by the reaction of those around me, and speaking with other people afterwards about it, this is a film that definitely appeals to the multiplexers, the daters and the genre part-timers. That is not me knocking any of those viewers at all. But it clearly shows that the film was made for people who don’t watch The Walking Dead, or regularly chow-down alongside Romero’s or Fulci’s flesh-munchers. That, too, is fair enough. But just don’t package it up as though this is the Second Coming of Bub. This is about a plague and NOT about the living dead. That zombie moniker is just a convenient tag … that the script then strives to lessen even further by jargonizing the undead as “Zeke” by the off-the-peg Special Ops jocks in a hit-and-run mission. I’m harsh on this because I’m sick of just accepting Hollywood product. These people have talent at their disposal. Money if they need it. And time to get things right. Simply sitting back and enjoying a movie is totally fine with me – I do it all the time – but we really need Tinseltown to start making a proper concerted effort with their tent-pole blockbusters, and having the courage of their creative convictions and not merely pandering to the suits pulling the strings in order to deliver what they believe we all love to see.

    Cutting corners, condescension, dumbing-down and pulling-punches – that’s for romcoms and teenybopper fare. Not for a serious and sobering observation of what could happen during the zombie apocalypse. This is modern Doctor Who meets Die Hard 2 meets Resident Evil in a head-on, blood-free, emotionless collision with CBBC’s Newsround.

    There were many different ways in which Brooks’ novel could have been adapted. This aimed too high and, like the zombie-tower, collapses under its own weight. It could have been amazing. But it gets a 6 out of 10 … for the undead tsunami and the score.

    For the record, I saw the film in 2D. And, by most accounts, that is the best way.

    Verdict

    The fate of humanity lies in the hands of a man called Gerry. But with Brad Pitt deliberately placing himself in some mightily hostile situations, you can bet that his highly trained eye will spot all the right clues amidst the chaos, and his inherent heroism will keep the biters at bay.

    He might as well be the only “living” person in the film, though, as absolutely nobody else registers at all. We’re informed by the dialogue and the music that we should care about his family – all stuff that actors should be able to convey even without any lines at all. However, we don’t care a jot. There is no pain or fear in Pitt’s eyes and Mireille Enos, as Mrs. Gerry, is even less emotional than a standard zombie from 1968!

    It is lucky, then, that everything barrels along so damn fast that a simple thing like basic humanity – the foundation of what the fight is all about – doesn’t enter the equation.

    Marc Forster blows his money shots in the first half of the film, leaving the finale as a more intimate affair. But even if he jettisons heart and soul, and continually puts his stock in cliché and contrivance his global zombie epic is still thunderously paced and chockablock with admittedly exciting set-pieces. And, for many, this will surely be enough. As a horror film it totally fails, however, and even as a zombie movie it is something of a pale and gutless masquerade.

    But, despite my many misgivings, I was still entertained by it. You certainly can’t call it World War Zzzzzzzz, that’s for sure.

    Totally episodic. Lamentably written. And eminently forgettable. This is, at best, a video game promo … and, at worst, The Disposable Dead. Bravura but hollow, Pitt’s World War is against Z-grade zombies, I’m sorry to say.

    The Rundown


    6
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

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