All words: Al Moore
Generally, I’d rather eat the flesh of the living than my own words (or, for that matter, anything else). In the interest of fairness, below is my hype-take on World War Z from the Summer Film Preview Guide of this very illustrious and august publication:
Write it down: this will be the cinematic equivalent of a missed extra point, an air-balled free throw, balking in the winning run in game seven, or posting an own-goal while celebrating a save. It’s generally gauche to write, let alone print, the obituary of the not yet departed, but this work has all the hallmarks of an unforced error.
Write it down: I have no idea what I’m talking about. World War Z is not a flawless movie, and Danny Boyle still did it better, but the film breathes new life into a genre that’s been shambling along for a decade. With all the production hallmarks of a dumpster fire, this film still manages to do so much so well that I really don’t have any cause to trash it.
Basically, my problem was (and to an extent is) this: you could give copies of the book to reasonably talented actors, plop them in front of a camera, and “interview them” using the dialogue verbatim and end up with a sleeper Oscar contender. An Errol Morris-style documentary with live action flashbacks would work so well, so cheaply. So all the tinkering, the “Race for the Cure (TM) (C) (R)” subplot, the glam Brad Pitt-ness of the film seemed trite in comparison, a waste. I still think that format would work, on the big screen or premium television. Rather, the film is of the book, but not in it, and it’s unfair to deduct points because somebody made a different movie than the one I wanted to see.
Here, then, is the significantly adjusted plot, without spoilers. Zombies arrive on the world stage (this does not take long), and chase ace U.N. War Crimes investigator, Ret., Gerry (Pitt) and his family off the island of Manhattan. He and his family are scooped up by a previous colleague, a ranking UN official, figuring he’d be useful in the effort to figure out what, exactly, happened. Gerry is sent to the Korean DMZ to chase a lead, and try and find Patient Zero (because, for virus reasons, you can’t synthesize a vaccine without finding the first person to be infected. Everyone knows this). Thus begins a globetrotting adventure, as Gerry tries to find some answers, or at the very least, some hope.
The movie really excels where it spiritually connects with its source material as a series of vignettes regarding a World at War. There’s a fantastic sense of constraint, of a civilization on its back foot throughout: a scarcity of resources, hope, and time. Eschewing close-in zombie action, World War Z creates its terror through long shots: a helicopter missile splashes a few hundred shamblors in a horde, but it’s barely a dent. The small band of misfits struggling to survive is subverted by the society struggling to reorganize and reinvent itself, from basic resource allocation to warfighting tactics. World War Z is the terror of Contagion, not of The Walking Dead.
This is not to say there aren’t elements where the Z overtakes the World War, but these are – to my mind – the low points of the film, with the exception of a Zombies in the Mist sequence that works flawlessly. There are people, nominally functioning adults, that have strongly formed opinions regarding “fast” and “slow” zombies, the same way other people have notions on a Two State Solution, abortion, or the designated hitter. Such people are infants. The undead from World War Z borrow more from the amazonian ants of its title sequence and the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park than anything from prior zombie canon, if such a thing can be said to exist. They are fast – but not olympic sprinters – relentless, and prone to leaping.
The makeup design is more vampiric than gory (no bloody entrails in this PG-13 affair) and their modus operandi is to bite and move on, rather than stop and feast. The “sound” of the zombies is distinctly Jurassic and works very well. On the PG-13 “controversy,” this isn’t a movie about sex, and the characters are the kind of professionals that you wouldn’t expect to be dropping F-bombs left and right. The zombie terror comes from the “unstoppable horde” mode, not personalized violence, and I didn’t realize the movie was “clean” until another viewer pointed it out to me. People turn almost immediately after being bit, which works well in the world that’s been crafted (it bears mentioning the counting sequence used to drive this home is so clever and adroit, it may just be the best ten seconds of a horror film, ever).
Largely, the film avoids the tired tropes of its category, with a welcome lack of “that’s not your mother any more” or characters making inexplicable decisions, like bite-hiding.* People seem to get, immediately, the “save the last bullet” mentality. The lazy tension tricks of the zombie story are absent. Indeed, the lazy everything of the zombie flick are absent. Production hell notwithstanding, I was taken by how well crafted director Marc Forster’s film was, mechanically and artistically. World War Z’s sound, set, and cinematography were well beyond its genre, and there were numerous sequences that struck me as nothing short of artful, if not masterly. There is no aspect of the film that feels “mailed in,” rather, all seems deliberate.
Again: World War Z is not by any means perfect; it transcends its genre, but not its namesake. There are numerous moments of fridge logic, and some of the late reel developments, though fun, had the audience rightfully groaning. Suspension of disbelief is a reasonable ask, suspension of all rules of probability and critical thinking is, generally, a bridge too far. Despite its flaws, this movie gets most things right. Would I prefer the producers gift the IP to the public domain, for someone else to run with? Absolutely. Will I be snacking on my previous bon mot for a while? Positively.
Extra crow, on the side.
*Where are we on The Walking Dead? Four bite-hides, and counting?