Thursday, June 27, 2013

World War Z

Alternate Title:  2,564 Days Later

One sentence synopsis:   A former UN operative must travel the world to find the source of a zombie plague overwhelming the entire world.

Things Havoc liked:  I loved Max Brooks' World War Z, one of the finest works of fake-nonfiction I've ever seen. For those who haven't read it, World War Z is a retrospective oral history, purportedly by a UN journalist, recording the stories of various civilian, military, and government officials, as well as ordinary people, in the aftermath of a worldwide, decade-long war against a zombie apocalypse. Exhaustively researched and tremendously detailed, the book comes the closest I've ever seen to making something as insane as a zombie apocalypse actually plausible, treating the subject with absolute seriousness and a clinical, sociological, and even historical view of what a worldwide war, given these premises, would actually look like. It's a book I can go back to and re-read over and over again.

World War Z, the film, has nothing whatsoever to do with this book. And yet I put all this in the "good stuff" category.

The premise is the same. The Zombie plagues explodes out of control in largely the first few minutes of the movie. Where it comes from and how it functions is a mystery, at least initially, and we see the desperate efforts being made to evacuate cities and whole nations in something approximating order. Yet rather than jump from person to unit to country to scene, this time we follow a single man, played by Brad Pitt, a former government official who, in the absence of most major governments, is simply the best option to travel the planet and try to figure out what can be done to save the world. Simple? Maybe too simple? It's all in the execution. Pitt, who I frankly find boring sometimes, here plays the character perfectly straight. Levelheaded and reasonable at all times, all without seeming superhuman or some kind of monosyllabic movie-stoic, Pitt does an impeccable job playing someone just trying to find a way to save the planet while keeping his immediate loved ones safe. The duality between these things is not overplayed, as the government forces he works with act as reasonably as they can under the circumstances, and the movie wastes no time with absurd subplots or hackneyed drama about how the zombies "aren't the real enemy". As this was a common staple of Romero's films, it's nice to have a movie that actually understands that flesh-devouring monsters from beyond the grave can certainly hold one's attention as far as villains go.

And these are not the zombies you've seen before, not even in 28 days later or the other fast/other zombie films. The trailers have all showed the various human pyramids and dogpiles that the zombies get into, but what this movie gets across very well is the raw sense of inexorability that the zombies propose. Hordes, literal hordes of them spill over every barrier, overwhelm every defense, pouring like raging torrents down streets and over walls. A particularly excellent segment midway through the film leads our hero(es) in a running battle against a tide of zombies in the Old City of Jerusalem, overwhelming every barrier in their path and consuming the IDF as they go. I've always privately wondered about the logistics of a worldwide zombie contagion, relative to the various weapons humanity has to destroy one another, but this particular plague was able to convince me of the viability, given the evidence on-hand.

But the real triumph of World War Z is its tone. Other than Pitt, the movie is mostly populated by unknowns and character actors such as David Morse (of the Hurt Locker and Green Mile), Fana Mokoena (of Hotel Rawanda), Peter Capaldi (of In the Thick of it) and Pierfrancesco Favino (of a whole bunch of assorted stuff). Without exception, every single one of them plays the material sermon-straight, professional men and women doing professional work. Particularly good is unknown Daniella Kertesz, who plays an IDF soldier picked up by Pitt almost by accident, and who accompanies him through the rest of the film largely for lack of any other option. A lesser movie would have presented this situation as one of romantic tension or some such comic/tension-relaxing relief. This movie, exhaustively-paced as it is, and understanding that global catastrophes do not tend to permit such distractions. Yet neither does it seem like the movie is shortchanging us on character (unlike last week's Man of Steel). Instead the job of characterization is so well done through limited time and dialogue, and the characters themselves act with such reason, decision, and competence, all without seeming wooden, that the movie wisely trusts the audience to fill the blanks in themselves as it rolls through to the next sequence.

Things Havoc disliked:  World War Z had a hellish production history to it, and seems to have come into being thanks mostly to a single-minded effort by Brad Pitt himself. Insofar as development hell movies go, this is one of the better, but the signs of the rushed production still linger. Many of the scenes from the trailer appear only in truncated form in the final movie, with obvious ADR changes and sudden drops. The editing mostly keeps up, preventing the film from becoming a mess, but there's still a few lingering issues that still seem a bit off. An early subplot with a Hispanic family that takes Pitt's family in during the initial stages of the emergency seems to be dropped in a rather perfunctory manner (albeit one that does make sense), and I had a few questions as to the UN's use of resources in shipping such a small group of people from ship to shore and seemingly back again. Nothing enormous though.

There's also the question of the last third or so of the film, where the movie shifts a bit from action-suspense to straight suspense, to the point where it comes about as close to a horror movie as I like to go. Don't get me wrong, the transition is both logically consistent and extremely effective, but it does render the overall flow of the film somewhat uneven, wherein the big action beats all come in the first half, and the slow, laborious stuff is saved for the end.

Final thoughts:    All that said, I don't want to give the wrong impression here. World War Z is, despite all my expectations, an excellent film, arguably the best zombie film I've ever seen, and certainly in the conversation for that title with the other shining examples of the genre (Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later). Despite all the nightmares that attended getting it to theaters, the end result is a pounding, tense, relentless action-thriller, bereft of the cliches that so mire the genre and fully cognizant of the spirit (if not the letter) of the book it was based upon. Those who go into it expecting anything resembling the source material will be disappointed, as ultimately they should have expected to be. The original book, while amazing, was patently unfilmable in any format other than a 12-hour Ken Burns-style documentary. But leaving the burden of source aside, what we are left with is an incredibly tightly-made film, crafted with care despite the chaos, one far better than I had anticipated it being.

In a summer season characterized thus far with nothing but disappointment and mediocrity, this was the last place I expected to find excellence. But when you see as many movies as I do, you learn not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Final Score:  8/10

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