World War Z
Summer 2013 has proved unfortunately consistent in one key respect so far; movies have engrossed and enthralled for the first half-to-two-thirds of their running time, only to fizzle into narrative incoherence or disappointment during the final act; Oblivion, Star Trek, Man of Steel, now World War Z. Only Iron Man Three is left standing proud. It is never less than apparent that WWZ is no more than a string of well-executed set pieces; an increasingly familiar rendition of the apocalypse on an enormous scale, but with absolutely nothing new to say about it. But it’s still something of a miracle World War Z is as good as it is, given the turbulent production history and its director’s lack of distinction in the action department.
Of course, summer action movies aren’t renowned for social or political commentary even if they are often ripe for discovering such (unintended) subtext. One could even argue that the zombie movie, which under George Romero provided some of the horror genre’s most overt texts for such analysis, has been exhausted of merit. Zombies are just zombies now, validated on the basis of the number of humans they can eviscerate and the amount of blood they can splatter across the camera. There’s no room for the reflections on Vietnam or consumerism found in the earlier films. In a postmodern landscape we have reached the point where the meaning of the undead is the artefact of their undeadness, and their modern incarnation, enabled with a turn of speed, is surely a reflection of this understanding. They have been rendered shallow and purely aesthetic; devised for maximum shock value.
Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead was remarkably effective, for all its literalness (the mall is just a mall), particularly in the opening stages of the outbreak; there’s a real sense of an inexorable acceleration towards the end of the world during the scenes before a temporary safe harbour is reached. Snyder’s running zombies took their cues from Danny Boyle’s low budget 28 Days Later (or rather, not zombies but those infected with the “Rage” virus), an effectively relentless little movie. The social allegory of 28 Days is of the most obvious kind (unsurprisingly, since it was written by Alex Garland, known for his subtlety), to the extent that you could argue that any zombie/apocalypse movie is a social allegory by definition. These scripts write themselves, so even if your societal collapse is entirely derivative of other movies depicting societal collapse (a pastiche) you can still claim to be of social relevance.
28 Weeks Later is arguably an even purer synthesis of the modern zombie movie; it opens with its focus on the rot at the heart of family life (Robert Carlyle bitches out and leaves his wife to a zombie death) in an astonishingly effective nightmare sequence. But, after nursing the theme of mistrust and betrayal for a period, it steadily deteriorates into standard shocks and gore.
The latest zombie success story is The Walking Dead. It’s an ever-expanding cable phenomenon, it seems, but the (for TV) fresh horror trappings belie an extremely traditional core structure (admittedly, I haven’t yet seen Season Three) of soap opera melodrama and inaction; as long as you can punctuate that standing around with a zombie every forty minutes or so, you’re sitting pretty. It doesn’t really matter that the storytelling has hardly moved on from your typical ’70s TV show.
One aspect of The Walking Dead to note is the producers’ (whoever they are this week) disinterest in exploring the cause of the outbreak. To an extent that’s understandable; they’re focussing on the remnants of humanity and the disintegration of society; shifting to solving the problem would make it a different show (24 with zombies?). As it is, the structure is really not that different to Terry Nation’s ‘70s virus series Survivors (and the recent, merely okay-ish remake). Just with a bit more flesh tearing.
Does this mean there’s nothing left to say in the genre? Possibly it does, at least on the societal angle. All that’s left is the bleeding obvious. One thing I Am Legend got right (and it got a lot of things wrong), at least in the early stages, was that it told the story not of the breakdown of society but of the disintegration of the mind and spirit of one man. Without a distinctive idea for end-of-the-world movies you’re left with perfectly serviceable button pushing; stir-and-repeat fare that becomes cosily familiar in spite of its apparent intent to evoke fear and dread.
That could be why the reaction of those I saw WWZ with was first and foremost one of weary predictability; the word “bored’ was even uttered. My response was more positive, and I had a good time with it for the most part. But I too was left feeling a little deflated come the end, as if something was missing. It’s not the absence of gore, as that’s not really my thing (but I do get that it might be a deal breaker to gore hounds, and an unforgivable sin to show zombies without it). No, it’s the lack of inspiration.
The current trend with the apocalypse, be it on TV or film, is predicated on a number of rather tiresome interpretations. From post-9/11 angst (surely an event that has been used to manufacture and manipulate fear in one form or another far beyond its natural lifespan) to the post-crash exhaustion of capitalist western society (and all we know and hold dear), it’s all rather over-familiar. The problem is that, whilst any given event or circumstance will inevitably feed into a culture’s surrounding art (if you wish to label it that), tales of the apocalypse are invariably saying the same thing in a slightly different form to each successive generation. That’s why there’s a clear connecting line between end-of-the-world stories post-WWII (post-the atomic bomb) and beyond (be they in the horror or science fiction genre). Nothing especially new is being said, but every couple of years we like to reconsider our fears as if these portents have a fresh, marked significance right at this time. In reality, much of the appeal of the apocalyptic scenario is that we will be one of the chosen, one of the survivors, and the solace we take in the end-times comedy of 2012 or the stop-the-contagion of WWZ is that we might be the indestructible John Cusack or Brad Pitt.
Nevertheless, it seemed to me going in that there was a sufficiently distinctive premise to base this movie on, and the trailers had whetted by appetite. So it’s disappointing that, in the end, this potential is squandered by a confused narrative, one that leaves the filmmakers missing the wood for the trees.
The writing credits for WWZ testify to its turbulent transition to screen. J. Michael Straczynski wrote the initial adaptation of Max Brooks’ novel. He was then rewritten by Matthew Michael Carnahan. Finally, Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard came in to reframe the third act (Christopher McQuarrie also did some uncredited work). The Vanity Fair piece is illuminating on the troubled production but Forster’s waffly comments on making a blockbuster with substance highlight how ignorant he is of the history of the zombie genre; he assumes that his facile ideas for it were somehow original and compelling in their own right. Straczynski, a smart guy who occasionally gets carried away (see Babylon 5 for both his best and worst moments) was amusingly dismissive of Forster’s pretensions when he commented that all the director wanted was a big, dumb action movie with huge set pieces.
Which is a pretty fair summary of the finished film. It seems that Carnahan’s draft settled on the final structure, following Brad’s Gerry Lane as he searches for the cure (and as a consequence eviscerating the spine of the novel). It also comprised the originally shot final act which, even in summary, sounds like a complete disaster; Lane ends up in Russia, leading a slave labour force to overcome the zombie hordes and establish himself as some kind of arse-kicking messiah.
So the additions devised by Lindelof (for all the flak he gets) and Goddard make a lot of sense. It’s interesting to learn that the key establishing scene of Lane and his family at breakfast was one of their additions. It’s an easy-going and naturalistic introduction to our protagonist, and it’s vital in holding onto his motivation during the spectacle that follows. So much so that one shudders at how thin Pitt’s character must have felt in the first cut. The spectre of I Am Legend is brought to bear in terms of the original idea of Lane as a zombie nemesis; mythologising the hero’s credentials. But Will Smith’s character was informed by loss, shame and regret; there’s none of that in Gerry Lane.
Lindelof and Goddard also made it vital that Pitt should be reunited with his family at the end. It’s a choice that makes sense but, as it appears on screen, is rather perfunctory. That Forster chooses to finish on a freeze frame, one of the ugliest and most clichéd of devices unless you really know what you’re doing, suggests to me his heart wasn’t really in it. The Vanity Fair piece indicates that he wanted to keep the family separate; apparently, he went with the really shitty idea of Matthew Fox’s character – who we see for about two minutes in the movie – holding the family hostage as the set-up for a sequel. The preservation of the family unit is such a familiar peg to hang a movie on (of whatever genre) that it can hardly be called inspired on the part Lindelof and Goddard; common-sensical perhaps, in order to save a sinking ship (The Walking Dead centres much of its (melo)drama on the erosion of, and attempts to cling on to, family values.
The alternative to the “straightforward everyman doing it all for his family” restructuring would surely have been to follow through with the real meat of the premise which, as someone who hasn’t read the novel, seemed to make it distinctive; finding “Patient Zero” and discovering source of the outbreak. A less steroidal, more procedural approach, requiring investigation and the pursuit of well-conceived leads (more in the manner of The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak or Contagion) might have enabled the movie to hold its head up as distinctive from the rest of the shuffling/legging-it zombie fraternity.
And it looks like it might achieve that during the early stages, right up until the virologist manages to shoot himself in the head. It’s a darkly amusing moment, but one that unwisely begins to pile on the all-purpose capability of Gerry. Not only can he handle himself in a tight spot, but he now also assumes the mantle of offering insights into the virus that elude the general scientific community. Additionally, this heralds the end of the investigatory aspect of the film. Gerry travels on to Israel from South Korea, but Patient Zero is cast by the wayside. I suspect this is a consequence of Hollywood’s frequently kneecapping desire for instant franchises; save the discovery for a sequel. But it’s final nail in the coffin of any aspirations to “substance”.
Straczynski’s complaints about Forster’s take on the material are perhaps most singularly evidenced by the form the movie’s zombies take. If the approach of the blockbuster is to stage spectacle on an ever-larger canvas, it’s an inevitable that once shambling antagonists, who had already metamorphosed into talented sprinters, are now hyper-kinetic forces of supernature that can build “human” ladders up the steepest of walls. They’re now an unstoppable insectoid army. Visually, this is an arresting sight (as seen during the Israel sequence) but it’s further evidence of a thought process operating from the outside in. As I said, I have no issue with the absence of grue but it certainly reinforces the feeling that WWZ has been so purpose-built and streamlined that it is shorn of any hard edges. The attitude is; a PG-13 (although tellingly a 15 rather than a 12 in the UK) is designed to encourage the widest possible audience, so who cares if the results disgruntle the very vocal horror faithful?
Yet, for all the advanced bad press and the fears that this would be a horror movie without any balls, there appear to have been relatively few voices claiming it is outright terrible. Even aside from the watered-down horror, I was expecting Forster to make a right botch of the action (how could he not, given the incoherence of Quantum of Solace?). So it’s a pleasant surprise that the tightly wound set-up only begins to unravel after a sterling first hour.
The outbreak in Philadelphia is skilfully escalated, even if it is very resonant of the flashbacks in I Am Legend. And Forster manages the ebbs and flows between mass street carnage and claustrophobic panic on stairwells with seamless aplomb. The “lives of you and your family are only valuable if you’re useful to us” message, once they are evacuated to a naval ship, is refreshingly blunt. And the subsequent trip to South Korea continues to ratchet up the tension. James Badge Dale is making something of a thing of showy cameos at the moment. The resigned, stoic remnants of the army base that Gerry encounters, and then flees, serve to build on the oppressive atmosphere. But the seeds of the less inspired course the film veers off down are also rooted here. Gerry encounters a toothless CIA guy who conveniently directs him to Israel when Patient Zero proves a dead end. The idea of the entire population of North Korea extracting their teeth to prevent an outbreak is an arresting one but, like so much else here, the original concepts are left in embryonic form while the formulaic ones take precedence.
Come Israel, and it’s another example of an impressive idea that someone hopes no one will really scrutinise. The Israelis, in a remarkable feat of forearming, have built a huge wall to hold back the zombie legions. As a nod to the unlikeliness of this, Gerry quizzes his Mossad contact. He recounts the report of an outbreak in India that referred to the undead. It seems that a system of “Ten Men” operates. This requires the other nine men listen and respond to the most unlikely possible scenario that it is the responsibility of the tenth man to espouse. In this case it’s the theory that the reports were accurate and there are zombies. And this system is, of course (Hollywood cliché), informed by the hardships encountered historically by the Jewish race. Indeed, this felt like such a silly answer that I wondered if was intended as a sop to Gerry’s line of interrogation. Maybe the Israelis had some actual insight they were choosing not to reveal. It seems not, and that it’s just bad writing.
This seems to be further confirmed when the streaming undead hordes very conveniently overcome the Israelis’ previously impervious defences. Extraordinary that it happens as soon as Brad shows up. It’s also a real blow to Arab-Israeli relations that, just when it seemed they were finally getting along, the very thing that brings them together (uniting in a sing-song) should cause their downfall. I’m not sure what the intended reading of this should be, but given the infantile content of Carnahan’s script for The Kingdom it wouldn’t surprise me if it were a message that, no matter what, peace in the Middle East is a non-starter.
If the Israel sequence works on a visceral level but not on a narrative one, the rest of the film draws from the same well. The zombie outbreak on a plane (in the pre-reshoots cut it lands safely in Russia) is both gripping and deliriously silly (setting off a grenade and sucking all the zombies out of the fuselage; really?!) And it leads to a final sequence at a WHO research facility (in Wales of all places).
The pullback in scale works in favour of Pitt’s character and provides a close-up on the zombies themselves (for which Forster previously shown reticence). Yet it all feels rather predictable; well-staged, but the film has already fallen victim to one too many breaks in the tension, which cumulatively allow you to start thinking about how none of it quite holds together. It’s wearily inevitable that Brad will test his theory on himself. And Brad’s rather mundane realisation further underscored my disappointment at the ditching of the pursuit of Patient Zero. His startling hypothesis isn’t really all that (The X-Files‘ Leonard Betts, basically) and as I suggested earlier, it’s difficult to conceive that some actual scientist, somewhere, wouldn’t have thought of it first. In and of itself the sequence is effective, but it’s an attempt to fix the film by covering it in bandages rather performing extensive surgery.
Despite an undernourished character, Brad holds the film together by dint of sheer star wattage. Gerry is grim faced and remarkably resilient, as the incident on the plane evidences. The issues are more in the formulation; one man to save the world lends itself to hyperbole, whereas a team striking off at different tangents and towards different locations in a quest for answers might have benefited the story on any number of levels (parallel escalations, the tragedy of losing a beloved supporting character, etc.) Consequently, the other characters all struggle to make an impression. Daniella Kertesz does best as an Israeli soldier who accompanies Gerry during the last leg of his trip. Mireille Enos has the thankless “wifey on the phone” role, while Peter Capaldi holds back on the expletives as W.H.O. doctor.
As might be expected, there’s not much in the way of humour (the employment of bicycles as stealth vehicles and the Pepsi product placement both raise a chuckle). So it mightn’t have been the best idea to have the zombies repeatedly clacking their teeth; rather than proving unsettling it elicits mirth. It might have been intentional (since it’s difficult to conceive that no one on the production pointed out the comedy value, although with Forster anything’s possible), but it definitely dissipates the tension.
Marco Beltrami’s score is hugely important in tonally informing the movie. Beltrami takes as his cue Isolated System from Muse’s 2nd Law album, and it drives events with a haunting yet purposeful melancholy. Not that I’d want to compare the two films quality wise (where would you even begin?) but I was put in mind of the use of Tubular Bells as the informing theme for The Exorcist (appropriately, I’ve just saw Brad Pitt on YouTube making that very analogy).
So I’ve been critical of World War Z, but more because I enjoyed the film and felt it had the potential to be really good. I had a similar response to another much-vilified blockbuster roundly rejected by devotees of the novel on which it was based, I Am Legend. By dint of reshoots, WWZ manages not to degenerate into a knuckle-dragging Rambo version of a zombie movie. But neither is it able to muster the resonance that Straczynski attempted to invest in his drafts of the screenplay.