Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: World War Z (2013)

World War Z (2013)

"I'm gonna pop some heads, only got six bullets in my pistol, I-I-I'm huntin', lookin' for those hacks, 'cause this was fucking awful!" Oh, did I stumble upon a bad one last night! To be honest, I have no idea why I went into this one expecting it to be any good. This film's production woes were already the stuff of Hollywood legend well before this was released; as meticulously documented in this Vanity Fair article, production on World War Z was beset by every sort of disaster that could possibly happen on the set of a major motion picture. If you've seen the amazing action-comedy Tropic Thunder, then picture the mayhem that went on during the making of that film's fictitious 'Nam epic... only for real. A director and production company who were both in way over their heads. Millions of dollars thrown away like confetti at a ticker tape parade, ultimately pushing the budget to anywhere from $170 to $250 mllion (before advertising costs) depending on who's telling the story. A lead actor putting production on hold due to prior commitments. Feuding between the director and the writer over the film's creative direction. Fights within the crew. A panicked studio desperately trying to reel the budget in to something manageable. The director and editors, after production wrapped, having just over an hour of largely incoherent footage to show to the studio, necessitating emergency rewrites and up to seven weeks of reshoots. The whole climax, an epic battle sequence that likely cost tens of millions of dollars to shoot, being dropped and replaced in its entirety. Films like this usually turn out to be either masterpieces like Apocalypse Now and Titanic, or legendary disasters like Cleopatra, Waterworld, and Heaven's Gate. I may not have been anticipating the film itself, but I was most eagerly awaiting the process of writing my review, because I was going to spend the night either gushing at how amazing this was, or ranting like a crazy man about how much it sucked.

Well, I'm about to get a little crazy. You see, I walked out of that theater wanting to shoot everybody who was responsible for this piece of garbage.

Unfortunately, my gun is a .357 Magnum revolver. Smith & Wesson Model 686. It packs a punch like a lightning bolt, but it only holds six bullets. And as Zombieland (a far better zombie movie than this) taught us, you always double-tap in order to ensure that your target is dead. So that means I can only kill three of the people involved with this film. Do I shoot Brad Pitt? After all, he was, in a large way, responsible for this movie. It was his production company, Plan B, that bought the rights to Max Brooks' amazing novel about an international take on the zombie apocalypse, and he hand-picked the director, Marc Forster. Plus, he's the star, which puts a huge bullseye on his back on top of what I just mentioned. However, I can't blame him too much for what went wrong with this movie. As an actor, he does alright here, using his natural charisma to carry himself through a great many scenes. Most of the cast here was likewise decent-to-good (apart from those annoying kids), even if their characters were pretty forgettable more often than not. Plus, he only brought Forster in as a favor to a friend. I'll let him live. He went into this with the best of intentions, and he's just too likable. Besides, I don't wanna mess with Angelina.

Now Forster, on the other hand, he's getting two in the brain pan. Between this and Quantum of Solace, I am convinced that this guy should not be allowed near the director's chair of an action movie ever again. Nearly every action/zombie sequence here is jerky beyond belief and nearly incomprehensible, a towering symbol of everything that I hate about modern action movies. Yes, I know that shaky-cam makes the film look more like something that was recorded off the street by a dude with a cellphone, thus making it look more "real" than a professionally-shot film. And you know what? I don't go to the movies to see amateur YouTube videos. If I want to see realistic death and chaos recorded with shaky-cam, there are all sorts of websites that show cartel executions, unedited war footage, and the "home videos" of psychopaths. In the movies I pay eight bucks to see, I prefer my action clean, well-shot, and coherently edited. Not this.

Furthermore, going by the Vanity Fair article I linked above, Forster was also responsible for some of this film's more boneheaded creative decisions, particularly in terms of diverging from the book. I've heard it said that Max Brooks' novel World War Z, in its original form, is unfilmable due to its unique structure of multiple protagonists scattered all over the world during various points in the zombie war, and that a miniseries on a premium cable network like HBO would've been the optimal medium for bringing the story to life. My response is to remind people that, just two years ago, Steven Soderbergh made a film with very similar themes to World War Z, titled Contagion. While Contagion was a highly flawed film (in my opinion due to the fact that it felt as though large chunks of the film were left on the cutting room floor -- I'd love to see a director's cut), it was still enjoyable for the way it handled its titular plague, the science surrounding it, and the global reaction to it. Had Forster made a zombie apocalypse version of Contagion, or at least tried to, then this could've gone down as a noble, if flawed, experiment.

What we got instead was a disjointed mess that doesn't know whether it wants to be a globe-trotting epic, a character-focused family drama, or a post-apocalyptic horror film. That's what happens when you have four cooks (three credited, one not) with different visions spoiling the soup. J. Michael Straczynski gets off the easiest, since he apparently got driven off of production early due to clashes with Forster over creative direction; he wanted to remain faithful to the book, and most of his work was apparently thrown out. Likewise, while Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard may not have perfect records themselves, their work was limited to those emergency rewrites. It seems that Michael Carnahan is the recipient of my third and fourth bullets, as he's the first writer credited and, by most accounts, was responsible for most of this film's script, including the creation of Brad Pitt's character Gerry Lane. How he dropped from The Kingdom to this is a mystery to me. For instance, Gerry's family, which figures so heavily into the first act, largely drops out and fades into the background afterwards, only showing up in brief shots. Once they made it to the ship, I never bought them as being in any danger. Also, for a film that's all about an international view of a zombie apocalypse, we get awfully little of it outside of the locations that Gerry and his crew actually visit; once they're gone, those locations drop out of the story. The film also suddenly changes its entire plot in the third act, with Gerry's goal of finding the origin of the zombie plague being brushed aside with a "you can't go into India, it's too dangerous" line and turned into finding a vaccine against zombie attack that, even by the film's own rules, makes no sense. Lastly, we get bizarre crap like this film's almost comical take on one of the book's most chilling sections, the part about the fate of North Korea. (In the film, it turns out that Kim Jong-un had everybody's teeth pulled out so that they couldn't bite and spread the zombie plague. A joke about "those craaazy North Koreans!" might've worked in a less serious film, but not here.)

My fifth bullet is intended to merely wing whichever person decided to make this movie PG-13. Now, I'm not opposed to PG-13 horror movies on principle. Some of the scariest movies ever made have very little gore in them, relying on the things that the viewer doesn't see in order to scare them. Case in point: the green-band trailer for The Conjuring that played before this movie was downright terrifying, easily scarier than anything in this film. Plus, given this film's outrageous budget, I can imagine the studio stepping in and saying "no" to an R rating. However, when it comes to zombie movies, I draw the line. The entire idea of the zombie as a monster is the fact that it is one of us, killed and revived to feast on us and, in doing so, turn us into more of them -- and the zombie genre, almost as a rule, depends on having lots of shots of people being violently eviscerated. Here, we get the opposite. This film is practically bloodless, with CSI episodes having more gore than this. This is the one point where I agree that this should've been an HBO miniseries; there, they could've done the kind of stuff that The Walking Dead does on a weekly basis.

Last but not least, my sixth bullet is going into my head. Not just because I supported this film at the box office, but because I ran through my review a sick running joke about murdering people for the crime of making a bad movie.

You may have noticed that, outside of one paragraph, I haven't discussed this film's lack of faithfulness to the source material all that much. First of all, a film can stand on its own merits even if defiles the source material (case in point: The Shining). Second, some level of significant compression and decay was always inevitable for something as dense as World War Z. Lastly, I wanted to demonstrate why this film fails on its own merits for those who haven't read the book.

Score: 1 out of 5

It's a bad zombie movie, it's a bad political thriller, and it's a bad disaster movie. Save your money and pick up the book instead.

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