Sunday, June 23, 2013

World War Z

2013. 116 min. PG-13, not for pre-teens I think, violent and very scary in parts, not much gore, no sex, limited language
IMDB says... United Nations employee Gerry Lane traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to destroy humanity itself.

The 73rd Virgin says... It’s well known to fans of the book that Mel Brooks’ son Max was a comedy writer on Saturday Night Live when he wrote a faux Civil Defense handbook entitled, “The Zombie Survival Guide”, in a dry-as-dust style that perfectly mimicked its inspiration. There were chapters devoted to weaponry, survival tactics, defense strategies for the two story house, etc., complete with cheesy line drawings to helpfully illustrate the text, and even a handy section for “Notes” at the end. The Zombieland opening borrowed large chunks of the vibe. But, the final chapter, “Recorded Attacks” was a creepy set of very short stories written in the same style.

Based on sales and positive feedback about the last chapter, Brooks then gave us an entire novel “World War Z – An Oral History of The Zombie Wars”, in roughly the same voice. Brooks’ protagonist is a United Nations historian who travels the world interviewing veterans and survivors of the worldwide zombie apocalypse which had pretty much ended a dozen or so years before the book. It is one of the most entertaining novels I have ever read. Pitch-perfect alternative history with hugely creepy stories.

Fans of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” series could almost see interviewees, their faces lit against a black background, could almost hear mournful violin music and historian David McCullough’s voiceover narration.

Fans were also given hope by the simple fact that Brad Pitt bought the rights. He generally seems to “get it” and we also knew he would have the money needed to do the scope of the story justice. Early buzz was that the script would even try to follow the book. But as the years crawled by, it became apparent that big changes were coming. Let’s face it; Hollywood would not bet its summer and a few hundred million dollars on the backward-cap crowd suddenly developing a taste for and the patience for the somber storytelling of Ken Burns “World War Z”. So while fans stroked their neck-beards and complained, there was a movie to be made here.

In short, if you loved the book unqualifiedly there is a good chance you will hate the movie, and I went prepared to feel the same.

I didn’t hate it. I dislike that as it began to compromise with the book, it didn’t just go for clichés here and there, but went full Spielberg. Hero Pitt as Lane is now a retired UN trouble-maker who quit over some unknown conflict. But once the zombies get loose, his old boss needs him back as “the only man” who can do something or other. And his daughter has asthma. Sigh. At least he's not a divorced single dad.

But the script is pretty smart in parts. Lane sets the tone telling a fellow survivor trapped in an apartment that “movement is life”, that is, do not sit in one defensive position. And once Lane and his family get on a “UN” aircraft carrier, he is called upon to leave them there (their safety guaranteed only by his cooperation) and escort a young virologist to South Korea where the word “zombie” first appeared in a stray email a few weeks back.

Side note 1: The book’s description of zombies moving under water and climbing up anchor chains to reach those presumably safe on ships – and the subsequent ghost ships - was amazingly scary, and this script blows an obvious opportunity for big chills. Hell, they already had the ships.
Side note 2: China continues to flex its Hollywood muscles. The book placed the beginning of the plague at the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, but the movie moves the controversy to South Korea. Go figure.

In Korea, David Morse steals a three-minute scene as a wise-cracking CIA operative who tells Lane something like “no more cocktail parties Boutros-Boutros”. Those of us who are dismissive of the UN’s Blue Helmet Genocide Management and Quality Improvement ProtocolsTM at least get something to giggle about.

The action shifts to Jerusalem because the Israelis mysteriously had a response plan in place before anyone else. I thought, “oh boy, this blame the Jooooz stuff is getting out of hand again”, but it turns out they’re just hair-trigger cautious – except they are too tolerant of noisy ecumenical religious celebrations that drive the zombies into a frenzy. The fall of Jerusalem segment is masterful; huge in scope and terrifying in detail.

Lane picks up an icy-cool sidekick in “Segen” an Israeli soldier who is the most engaging female badass I’ve seen in a long time, but after Jerusalem and a plane crash the script loses steam as Pitt winds up at a besieged WHO facility and the bulk of the action moves indoors. It’s well made and scary enough but it leads to a perfunctory conclusion with, God help me, Pitt’s voiceover.

I was sitting there thinking “4 sheep or 5?”, until the story and ending went sour.

As Pitt intones grimly away, we see glimpses of clips that probably belong to a time when the script was still trying to follow the book. Newsreel-grade video of ships launching, giant piles of burning zombies, emergency radio broadcasts, etc. At 116 minutes, it is certainly not too long. In fact, I would have tolerated quite a bit more length if it had served a better ending. The door seems to be open for sequels, with or without Pitt. I would go see them if they begin to tell some of Brooks’ fantastic stories.

The special effects are very good. I can’t think of a single shot involving teeth sinking into squirting flesh, children eating their parents, etc. So the movie went to the trouble of inventing a sorely-needed new zombie visual vocabulary. This was not a waste of time; better than War Of The Worlds –

but read the books.

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