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World War Z – film review

June 26, 2013

WORLD WAR Z

Fast-paced zombie ride stops dead half-way.

Reviewed on Thursday 20th June 2013

world war z - jerusalem siege

Directed by Marc Forster. Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof. Screen Story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski. Based on the book by Max Brooks. Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Fana Mokeona, Ludi Boeken, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi and David Morse. Running time: 116 mins.

A globe-trotting troubleshooter is coerced by the United Nations into travelling around the world in the hope of finding a possible cure for a rapidly-spreading zombie plague which is engulfing the planet.

Taking its cue from Zack Snyder’s celebrated Dawn Of The Dead remake; World War Z opens with a seemingly mundane day in the life of its protagonist (Brad Pitt) and his family, which rapidly escalates into full-blown social pandemonium – as they are forced to flee Philadelphia in the midst of the out-of-control zombie apocalypse. As directed by Marc Forster (Quantum Of Solace) – the frenetic energy of the first half of this movie is brilliantly sustained for at least an hour. The waves of CG zombies for the most part are convincing, with the ‘Siege of Jerusalem’ sequence being the standout – a visceral tour de force of visual effects and editing. Brad Pitt is fine in     his tailor-made role as the resourceful family man. And one gets the feeling his performance here is not too far removed from reality.

It’s just a shame the film is ultimately unable to maintain its roller-coaster momentum all the way to the end.

Aside from the catastrophic shift in story focus and pacing in the second half (which I will get to in a moment), another issue I have with this film is the fact that Brad Pitt’s character’s skill set and applicability to the unfolding crisis at hand is never clearly defined. We are initailly led to believe he is nothing more than a glorified minder – charged with escorting a nerdy virologist (Elyes Gabel) through the world’s zombie-infested hot spots in search of the source of the outbreak. When the virologist is (ludicrously) killed ten minutes after he is introduced, however, Pitt’s character takes it upon himself to carry on with the mission, despite the fact he hasn’t the slightest understanding of virology! This clumsy lack of character clarity is the first indication that something is seriously awry with the writing of this movie. Perhaps it was the result of someone deciding this story should be all about Pitt’s character single-handedly saving the world – and to hell with logic and believability.

The movie’s troubled history goes a long way to explaining why there is such a dramatic shift in pacing in the second half. Originally adapted from Max Brooks’ book by highly-regarded scribe and script doctor J. Michael Straczynski – Straczynski’s draft was deemed too close to the source material and immediately discarded (the book is less a narrative with an actual protagonist – than a series of oral accounts from survivors long after the war has ended). Matthew Michael Carnahan was brought in to do a page one rewrite – jettisoning the episodic nature of the novel and crafting a more conventional narrative, with the character of Gerry Lane (the only element retained from Straczynski’s draft) – now a kick-ass, globe-trotting action man. After the completion of principal photography, Paramount executives were shown a rough cut of the film – which was prompty deemed to be way too bleak and lacking box office appeal. Considering there was a potential money-spinning franchise riding on the success of this movie, and the countless millions already spent on production – the stakes were very high indeed. With the suggestion a happy ending would salvage the film, fanboy fave (I’m kidding!) Damon Lindelof was hired to do a rushed rewrite of the last forty minutes. When Lindelof was obliged to leave to apply his ‘magic’ to Star Trek Into Darkness, writer/director Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, Cabin In The Woods) was brought in to complete the task (the point, incidently, at which the original material gives way to the newly-written footage occurs during the Jerusalem airport sequence; where Pitt and his Israeli team flag down a passenger jet after their own transport leaves without them). I was aware going into this film that the studio had shelled-out an additional $20 million on reshoots; which reportedly improved it no end. And so it was with much astonishment, as the new scenes began to unreel – that I found myself wondering – well, if this is considered an improvement, then the original cut must have been truly dire to say the least. Everything about these scenes is awful – from the uninspired direction to the ludicrous plotting to the phoned-in performances – it’s all gob-smackingly tired and second rate.

The initial appeal of WWZ is the fact that it is, in essence, a global road movie – travelling from one continent to another, over a vast canvas – with a size and scope quite unlike anything we’ve seen before in a zombie film. And unlike the shuffling crowd of zombie flicks clamoring for attention – this film was never meant to be the classic claustrophobic ‘small group of survivors holed-up in a single location’ siege scenario. So in the rewritten second half – when the narrative does indeed become confined to a single location – this sense of epic grandeur and scale is immediately lost. The second half feels more like every other zombie film we’ve ever seen. And it is for this reason it loses much of its unique appeal. Ironically, the upbeat ending as it now stands leaves little enthusiasm for a sequel. For, in their desperation to give the film a positive resolution, Lindelof and Goddard have completely overcompensated – sapping the finale of any intrigue, energy or burning desire to see more. By solving humanity’s problem of how to deal with the zombies, the ending essentially leaves a sequel with nowhere to go – rendering any future continuation of the story an aimless and unwarranted exercise.

And then there’s the violence – or lack thereof. Eschewing the gory mayhem normally associated with zombie movies in order to gain the far more commercial PG-13 rating, the filmmakers have opted instead to accentuate the overwhelming numbers   of undead to generate the horror. This is all well and good up to a point, but when a character (who has been bitten) has their arm amputated – with no blood at all – it     all becomes a bit limp and ridiculous. This coyness the film displays in the way it depicts violence becomes even more pronounced in the claustrophobic, close-quarters skirmishes of the second half – being particularly noticable during a scene where Pitt dishes out some ultra violence on a downed zombie – only to have it all happen teasingly just out of frame. Perhaps it’s all part of a clever release strategy.   It may well be that Paramount plan to make available a more violent edition of the film on home vid. In any case, extra blood-letting and gore would do little to fix what is essentially a fundamentally flawed and ultimately unsatisfying film.

If I were to sum up World War Z with an analogy – its like spending a day at an amusement park, having a great time on all the scary rides – when half-way through the most fun ride of all – the carriage suddenly stops and you are escorted off the ride to sit out the rest of the day on the ferris wheel.

2.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Piccadilly Cinemas, North Adelaide, June 20th 2013.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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21 Comments
  1. I agree with you 100% on this one, though I perhaps liked it a little less than you. Thanks for pinpointing the point at which the reshot footage starts as well. Like you point out, that is by far the weakest part of the film, so would be interesting to see the original stuff. Especially the ‘bleaker’ ending, because the one they went for did not work for me one little bit.

    • gregory moss permalink

      I’d definitely be interested in seeing the original forty minutes. Perhaps they’ll include it as an extra on the disk when it is released to home vid (like what was done with I Am Legend). Although I won’t be buying it just for that.

  2. Excellent write up as always Greg. Going to see this next week I hope, still optimistic despite your negative-ish words 🙂

    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers TC. 🙂 If nothing else – it still looks great on the big screen – and I’ll be keen to hear your take on it. 🙂

  3. Excellent review, Greg. I loved the book so confess to being wary of the movie. As my son pointed out to me, it’s a shame they didn’t have the courage to go for a down-and-dirty pseudo-documentary approach – something more like District 9. Still, sounds like there’s plenty to catch the eye.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Graham. Yeah, it seems like the ‘down and dirty pseudo- documentary style’ was kinda’ what they were aiming for in the first half – sans the violence of course. I guess this is what happens when you try to please everyone – you end up pleasing no-one. 🙂

  4. Good review. 🙂 You definitely liked it less than I did, though! I certainly didn’t love it and it has lots of problems but I thought it wasn’t TOO bad. Plus, after reading about the original ending which sounded horrible, I still say they made the right choice with this one even though it wasn’t perfect. Well, we mostly agree on movies usually… Lol 😉

    • Thanks table9. 🙂 But hey – I’m kinda’ glad people generally have their own opinions and don’t always agree on everything. If we did, then we’d be no better than the hordes of consumer zombies wandering aimlessly around shopping malls. Hehe – see what I did there? How’s that for a zombie metaphor? 😉

      • That’s great. And Dawn of the Dead is THE best zombie movie ever. 😉

      • Absolutely! And call me old-fashioned – but I much prefer the slow-moving zombies of Romero’s films – to the fast-moving ones currently in vogue. Although Dan O’Bannon’s Return Of The Living Dead was also a lot of fun. 🙂

  5. Nice review mate. I really wanted to see this but missed it at the cinema here. Looks like a Blu-ray prezzie for Christmas. I’m curious about the talk of re-shoots and an originally more downbeat ending. Think I would have preferred that version, maybe we might get a choice on Blu-ray?

    • gregory moss permalink

      Yeah, actually, upon reflection, I think it might be a bit of a stretch to expect a fully-restored release of the original cut – as many of the effects were, apparently, left unfinished. And I kinda’ doubt the studio will throw good money after bad just to appease our curiosity – but you never know. 🙂

      • Well, they must have wasted a fortune filming it in the first place. The way the marketing boys in Hollywood play around, its a wonder they didn’t release two versions of the film, WWZ HAPPY ENDING and WWZ DEPRESSING ENDING, have them running on two screens at the multiplex and left it to the public to choose which version they fancied watching. God knows they don’t seem to trust the original film-makers to make decisions themselves.

      • gregory moss permalink

        Two different versions of the same movie – with either an uplifting or downbeat ending, depending on your mood – what a great idea! Kinda’ like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books. From memory they tried to do a similar thing with the movie Clue (based on the board game Cluedo) – where they had five or so different endings, depending on which cinema you went to. But your idea of getting to choose either a happy or not-so happy ending is very cool. 🙂

      • Well with seamless branching on DVD or Blu-ray, it would be even easier at home. In a way Hollywood is halfway there with so many discs with alternate endings and directors cuts. I’m just puzzled that it hasn’t tried it already. It’d be no more of a gimmick than 3D.

  6. I remember reading an interesting article in Vanity Fair about the tribulations they had making this movie, sounds like Pitt’s film company was very lucky to be given the extra dollars to complete it and get it into the cinemas. Stories of massive over-budget spending on the first shoot in Malta is not a good start to a film (see article: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2013/04/brad-pitt-world-war-z-budget). I watched the film on video later after reading the article so was well prepared for some below-par zombie action. It was alright. But it wasn’t great 🙂 I actually didn’t mind the solution they found to combat the zombies, I thought it was quite interesting. But the movie didn’t make much sense overall and lacked direction in the storytelling.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks for the link, Anne-Marie – I’ll be sure to check it out. 🙂 Yeah – the point where the reshot material was tacked onto the film really IS apparent. I heard they were going ahead with a follow-up – but I don’t think it’s happened yet.

      • Unfortunately I just noticed the article is truncated and doesn’t have half as much detail as the original one but anyway it was an interesting insight into the personalities involved in making the film.

      • gregory moss permalink

        No worries. 🙂 I’ll see if I can track it down somewhere … 🙂

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