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World War Z (2013) – Apocalypse How?

Synopsis: 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.

My Take

The proliferation of social media, internet blogging and geek power has created a paradigm shift in who studios listen to when making movies. Fanboys and girls who sometimes don’t reside on the same continent, let alone the same city or street as Hollywood Execs, have never had the kind of power to influence and shape the economics or creative handling of their beloved source material as they do now. World War Z was nearly the most expensive example of how this power can make or break a film’s box office more than any critic can. Stories of re-shoots, customs issues and re-writes flooded blogging sites.

Somehow though, through some kind reviews and the presence of Brad Pitt’s name above the poster, it pulled in a pretty impressive $66m opening weekend. Not incredible for a $175m budget but solid and better than expected.

Having now seen it with suitably lowered expectations I am genuinely pleased it exceeded both the my own and the expectations of the critics, because for all it’s flaws it was a genuinely interesting and dramatic installment in the zombie genre.

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Max Brooks’ 2006 novel World War Z is a collection of first person accounts of the 10 years following the zombie wars. Those accounts are relayed to the Narrator, an agent of the UN’s Post War Commission. Through these interviews we learn of the spread of a viral infection across the globe, transported across land, sea and air by migrant population movement, organ trading and refugees. Eventually the virus hits a critical mass sparking a world wide pandemic.

In Marc Forster’s version Brad Pitt takes on the role of the Narrator, Gerry Lane, a former UN Investigator thrust back into his old world when the social structures of the Western World crumble in a matter of hours. From the relative calm of a traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia, chaos and mayhem escalates at a mesmerizing pace. Once he and his family are evacuated to the relative safety of a US Navy fleet in the Atlantic Ocean, he is told in no uncertain terms that if he refuses to help identify the source of the outbreak, and as a result assist in the identification of a cure or vaccination, then he and his family would be taking up valuable space and they would be returned to the nightmare. Faced with no dilemma at all he embarks on a globe trotting adventure taking in Israel, South Korea and eventually Wales. As he covers the globe in search of answers he is forced to stand toe to toe with the pathogen, witnessing a World falling apart at the seams with no apparent means of stepping back from the abyss. It is essentially a mash up of 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. Though not nearly as good as the former, it is far more enjoyable than the latter.

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For anyone who has seen the trailers the zombies in World War Z owe more to the ravenous runners of 28 Days than the shufflers of The Walking Dead and Romero’s classics. Taking it a step further though Forster creates a number of set pieces, particularly a brilliantly ambitious invasion of Israel’s walled city, whereby the sheer ferocious and insatiable desire for the pathogen to spread forces it’s hosts to clamber upon each other creating fluid uphill streams of bodies able to scale tower blocks and destroy most anything in their path. It is in these moments of chaos that you can see how the budget ballooned.

However, just as countless zombie movies have shown that the human spirit and by extension the human race is endlessly resilient to adversity, so the spirit of the film makers shone through the extensive production issues to deliver a film that is in the most part coherent, gripping and, importantly, not too long.

I have heard a number of people scathe about World War Z for being dull and plodding. In fact someone cleverly, if I think unfairly, dubbed it “World War Zzzzzzzzzzzzz”. Part of me can’t help but think those views are the product of people looking for it to fail because the internet has told them it should. There are enough set pieces in World War Z to keep you on your toes, and coupled with a blistering original electro soundtrack from Matt Bellamy of Muse, I never checked my watch. Compare that to Man of Steel, which, while I enjoyed, I found myself clock watching for the last 35 minutes. The lack of blood (something I imagine was a conscious decision to give it the largest audience possible) might turn off hardcore genre fans, but there are libraries of films being released all the time where story is replaced with gore. It was actually refreshing not to see entrails all the time. I’m not squeamish, and I love horror, but it’s all to often a distraction rather than a necessity.

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Thats not to say that it doesn’t have it’s flaws. The stories of re-shoots and re-writes weren’t born out of nothing and it has evidently had an impact on the final product. It’s main flaw, and the stem of a lot of the negative internet chatter, is that there are too many sets of fingerprints leading to what is essentially 2/3 of one movie and 1/3 of another making 3/4 of a total movie (math was never my strong point). It starts with a sprint and sets a pace in the first 2/3 that it just can’t sustain. When it finally slows down for the final third the pace changes so dramatically that it feels like a different movie. We are introduced to a largely new cast of characters in a new location, and Gerry’s family are largely reduced to a distant memory, and a plot device, rather than a set of rounded characters. So while the end goal remains the same, it feels like the product of a re-write.

Which is ultimately what it was, with heavyweight screenwriter Damon Lindelof being brought into bolster the final act. As a stand alone piece of dramatic writing and directing it was really quite enjoyable, with a classic structure I like to call the Pacman, whereby the characters are forced to flee down corridors strategically plotting their way to the end goal without being spotted or captured. But  tonally and structurally it felt out of place and out of kilter with the rest of the movie.

There are in total four screenwriting credits, all of whom are experienced with strong CVs. Between them they have written State of Play, The Kingdom, Lions For Lambs, Cloverfield, Cabin In The Woods, Changeling, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Prometheus. It means where there could have been great movie we were left with a good movie.

Similarly, Marc Forster is a director used to working with a range of budgets. His CV includes smaller indie movies such as Stranger Than Fiction and Monster Ball, as well as big budget blockbusters such as Quantum of Solace. So while the end result is certainly better than it could have been, it’s remarkable with the experience and talent working on it that it was able to get to that point in the first place. This was not the first time at the rodeo for any of these guys.

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This was Brad Pitt’s movie though and he gives a solid and enjoyable performance. He is believable, and most importantly, likeable as the protagonist tasked with an unenviable mission. With it’s $66m opening weekend it is officially Brad Pitt’s biggest opener, topping his previous best of $50m for Mr & Mrs Smith. When you consider the films he has been in it is remarkable he has never had a bigger opening weekend than that. Despite getting second billing the always enigmatic Mireille Enos is criminally underused as Gerry’s wife left to wait on the ship and pretty much be a plot device. Supporting duties were therefore left to a series of characters Gerry is destined to meet along the way. James Badge Dale, who is making a name for himself as a scene stealer following stints in Iron Man 3, Flight and now this, brings some much needed humour as a US Navy Seal Capt during a series of scenes at a South Korean military base that look like they have been lifted straight out of a Call of Duty installment. Unknown Israeli newcomer Daniella Kertesz also excels as an unwitting companion of Gerry.

All things being equal Marc Forster and co should be commended for riding out a stressful and well documented series of expensive problems that threatened to derail the project, and eventually delivering an enjoyable and exciting, if flawed, action thriller. The critical and box office reception was enough to warrant Paramount announcing the sequel is now in the works. While the eventual numbers might mean World War Z may break even at best, everyone involved obviously thinks that with the troubled first out of the way they can get on and put together something special for the follow up.

Conclusion: Better than the internet would have you believe, but not as good as it should have been. To many cooks don’t quite spoil the broth, but they certainly leave you feeling like you’re eating two different meals simultaneously.

Verdict: 7/10

About: 

Director: Marc Forster

Writers: It would be quicker to list who didn’t have a chip at this. Drew Goddard ; Matthew Michael Carnahan; Damon Lindelof; J. Michael Straczynski; Max Brookes (novel)

Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, Daniella Kertesz, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, Peter Capaldi, Pierfranceco Favino, Ruth Negga

Trivia:

  • Filming took place in several areas of the UK including Cornwall, England where the UN control room scene was filmed alongside scenes on the Ministry of Defence Primary Casualty Receiving Facility (PCRF), RFA Argus (AS on the flight-deck). Filming also took place in Glasgow, Scotland with the streets made to look like those in Philadelphia with many American cars, trucks, taxis and street signage shipped in from the USA. Also filming took place in Valletta, Malta
  • In the beginning of the trailer released in March 2013 while Brad Pitt’s family is having breakfast the radio in the background mentions a flight which landed without permission before martial law is declared in Russia. This is likely the infamous (in zombie lore) Flight 575 which, after landing, disgorged its passengers which had all been turned.

Dylan

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3 replies »

  1. I thought Daniella did an excellent job. Her character was fairly neutral, sit and stare, run some, then sit and drink a lot of vodka, but there was a good deal of fatalistic humor to her. She has a captivating face that pulled the eye in, especially in fatigues.
    I was (and am) a fan of the book, and I never understood why people were so upset that the changes were made. You would have to produce at least two movies, but more likely 3 or 4 to tell the all the stories properly. In one movie … well, you’d have to have the Chinese doctor, the evil pharmaceutical guy in Antarctica, the guy who developed the South African plan, and the American government agent who worked to implement the So-frican plan in the US. Those four at least! But you couldn’t leave out the South Korean agent. The Japanese Otaku, the blind guy and his student, the young girl who now picks bones in Canada, the Chinese submarine sailors, Cuba!, the underwater divers who deal with sea-bound Zacks, the Five Colleges siege. General Raj Singh (?). The president and the Wacko! I mean, really. I went nuts every single time someone tried to dampen my excitement with the film by saying “oh, but they’re not making it like the book!” Well, no? Really? Why would they do such a thing?!

    Ugh. (…um, I just went on a huge rant there. Sorry. Posting anyway! Great review!)

    • Never apologies for ranting. Passion is a virtue. Having never read the book, only being able to relate the basics of the story for context I had to look at the film in isolation from the source material. Having spoken to a couple of people who have read the book I must say I am now keen to get a copy. It sounds like it left an impression on you. Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed reply!

      • Oh, thank goodness. I’m fairly prone to ranting, especially about books.

        I would suggest reading it if you have the opportunity. It’s very well done as a fictional record of the fictional war, based (I do believe) off of similar works recording the memories of World War II survivors. The characters are so rich and varied. And there’s a good deal of realism, that sense of desperation during, and sad pride after. A good account of how the world changed, before and after.
        Loved it. And loved the movie, too.

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