“Ze plane, boss, ze plane!”
Tattoo, Fantasy Island
This rant is spoiler free.
World War Z’s biggest downfall is that it violates two prime rules of any fictional world:
- Be consistent to your established rules and logic
- Establish said rules and logic (perhaps I should have put this first)
To wit, the movie is never clear on the nature of the zombies. Are the monsters in this film zombies or infected people? Are they dead, or are their nervous systems infected? It’s a valid concern, if only because it affects the plot. Are the heroes looking for a cure? Or simply a vaccine? The characters are never sure because the filmmakers are never sure, or if they are, they’re certainly not sharing this certainty with the audience. Ambiguity can be fine when you want your audience to asks questions, but in a movie called World War Z the last thing you want is people spending the entire movie trying to figure out what the Z are. It needn’t be so difficult. It takes one line of dialogue, look, I’ll even give it to you, free of charge, because I’m a nice guy: “This man is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!” (Please make all contributions to the Zombie Python fund.)
Since I’ve got your attention, I’ll tell you why the ‘zombie’ issue matters. As vulgar as the image may be, the zombie in all its manifold incarnations nonetheless works as a potent metaphor for all manner of social issues. George A. Romero was able to use it with rather brilliant effect before he got senile to comment on a whole range of topics, from racism, to consumerism, and even political ideology. 28 Days Later effectively upended the genre by choosing to feature rage infected humans, rather than typical undead abominations, reflecting and commenting on the state of the world as the filmmakers saw it. So, what is this film trying to say? I’m tempted to answer “make a quick buck”, but I need to believe that there’s more to it than that. After all, you don’t spend the time and money it takes to make a movie on this scale, certainly not to reshoot it, if you want to make money. You do it because the act itself has some meaning.
The thing that scares me about this movie isn’t the supposed horror the filmmakers attempted, it’s that the entire third act was replaced. Imagine any great work of fiction. Let’s take Dorian Gray, just for kicks. Now imagine if the last 60 pages of the 180 page novel had been restructured. Not just edited, but dramatically altered. Now, as it happens, Dorian Gray was dramatically revised by the incomparable Oscar Wilde several times before it ever reached publication. It even began life as an 11 chapter novella before he expanded it to its present 20 chapter incarnation. The difference, my dear readers, is that he didn’t change the plot. Dorian Gray ended the same way in every version. The details of his life unfolded the same way in every version. The telling may have changed, the language and the details refined and the scope broadened, but not the plot. This was because Oscar Wilde knew what he was trying to say. He had a message, he had a theme. And in an overall unity of effect, each sentence, each word, each moment contributed to that. You couldn’t take off the ending, or there would be no book. The book was finally published because that was the story and there could be no better refinement upon it. That this film could lose 30%, and that the newly added material could be so drastically different from what the original ending entailed (a quick google search will find it for you) makes me wonder whether they really had any point to make.
The film could have made up for this lapse in necessary exposition if they’d given a single compelling character to worry about. I liked Brad Pitt’s character, for what little meat there was on his role, if only because he was reasonably intelligent, and because I have great respect for Brad Pitt as an actor. I couldn’t have cared less about anyone else though, simply because everyone else was braindead (infected or not). All the scenes with his family fell dramatically flat. His family served as props for an extended escort mission, not as flesh and blood participants. Worse yet, a quick look online reveals that most of the scenes with his family were added—last minute rewrites courtesy of none other than Damon Lindelof (this boy and I need to have a talk sometime, he’s long past irritating me and his Lost credit has already expired). His daughters spout insipid dialogue, his wife is a nagging bore who begins to resent him for choosing to stop a zombie apocalypse rather than stay on board a ship with her. If you’re trying to make us understand why Brad Pitt’s character would choose to leave his family behind, well played Damon—I would’ve dumped them in Jersey. But if you’re trying to make the audience feel for these people, Damon, you’re doing a piss-poor job. If you’ve got nothing interesting to show Brad Pitt doing with his family, that’s fine, don’t show it. Don’t worry, we will infer he loves them based on how much he’s doing to save them. We’re not idiots, we can figure that much. But don’t waste ten minutes of screen time in a big-budget zombie movie trying to deal with a kid’s asthma problems. Was the studio pressuring you for an idea, Damon, and did your mind immediately rip out the same scenario from Signs? If that wasn’t bad enough, they’re entirely abandoned by the second act in favour of non-descript soldiers AKA zombie fodder thus rendering all of their characters superfluous.
And one other thing, this time on the moviemaking side. The scenes of chaos were too chaotic. If you’re going to spend $200 million just to try and mimic 28 Days Later, Mr. Forster, why not hire somebody to tell you that that movie partly looked that way because they didn’t have the budget for a wide shot, or the time! Look, I just did, and you’re not even paying me. As well, the shakicam aesthetic, novel at the time but now tirelessly done to death (forgive the pun), wasn’t simply a matter of shaking the camera, it was for director Danny Boyle an aesthetic. Cameras were placed low and in the actors’ faces, the audience’s discomfort was meant to mimic the characters. The nausea and confusion likewise. So that’s been done, Mr. Foster, you don’t need to do it again. But if you’re going to copy that look, at least contribute to its language, say something! Don’t just scream noise. In World War Z the panic is clumsily choreographed (despite being mostly CGI mush), the camera darts this way and that—not with any artistic impetus but simply because that’s the way zombie and action movies apparently need to look. If you’re going to spend that much money on a film, Mr. Foster, put some of it into a storyboard artist. It’s not like you didn’t have time either, you had oodles with all the reshoots.
Ironically, for all my gripes, I don’t have a problem with their deviation from the source text. This is not a discussion about being faithful to the book, although I’d like to have an open-ended debate on that issue at some point. No, this is more a question of why buy the rights to the book if you have no intention of making that book into a film. It seems more like the filmmakers were buying the name as a license to go epic, but I doubt any court would’ve sued them for copyright infringement for this movie if they’d never paid Max Brooks a cent and simply changed the title. Because now they’re in this unfortunate position where they’ve effectively pissed off the fanbase of the book, while using the book’s capital to make a killing at the worldwide box office. Maybe that was their intention all along, and why they kept mum on the zombie issue—to see who the real zombies were.