movie film review | chris tookey

World War Z

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  World War Z Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
4.80 /10
Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz
Full Cast >

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof Based on the novel by Max Brooks

Released: 2013
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 110

World War Zzzzzz.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Movies don’t come bigger than this, and zombie flicks tend to come very much smaller. In Shaun of the Dead, the undead had to content themselves with snacking off a handful of British actors in a deserted pub. Here it’s the future of humanity at stake. This time, Brad Pitt is available to save us, and the skies are soon full of crashing helicopters, screaming jets and stuntpeople being sucked out of aircraft.

So what’s it like? Well, it’s awfully like all the epic action films made by Roland Emmerich, ranging from the nearly sublime (Independence Day) to the totally ridiculous (10,000 BC). It’s slap-bang in the middle of that quality spectrum, round about the level of Godzilla and not quite as classy as The Day the World Ended.

The film is most impressive in its big set-pieces. The initial panic on the streets of Philadelphia is thrillingly done, as is the fall of Jerusalem to the zombie horde. There’s also an effective airborne sequence, which might easily have been called Flakes on a Plane.

The film is horrifyingly feeble when it comes to characterisation. Brad Pitt’s hero lacks personality. All we know about him is that he loves his family, but no one has given either him or his relations any exceptional qualities. The same goes for the other characters, as uninteresting a collection as I’ve seen in a disaster movie.

A key fault is that we never know why the powers-that-be at the United Nations think so highly of Pitt’s hero. He’s resourceful, but doesn’t seem particularly brave, bright or knowledgeable. It is a central weakness of the film that, without any particular expertise, he solves the mystery of how to fight the zombies before anyone else. It’s as though no one except him is paying attention.

World War Z has had what might euphemistically be called a troubled history, with producer-star Pitt publicly at odds with his director, Marc Forster, who shows here once again that he is more confident with small-scale projects such as Finding Neverland than action adventures, such as the Bond bore-a-thon, Quantum of Solace.

After negative reaction within the studio, the final 40 minutes were rewritten and reshot, at an unprecedented cost of 200 million dollars. It’s hard to know where the money went. The long, would-be climactic sequence inside a Welsh research laboratory is nowhere near thrilling enough, and looks about as lavish as the average episode of Doctor Who.

Brad Pitt introduced the screening I attended, and promised the audience “the most intense film you’re going to see this Summer”. He called it “original” and “genre-bending”. If only it were.

Okay, the zombies are not the slow-moving undead of yesteryear. They’re sprightly, aggressive and eager to bite. It’s like a planet seething with Mike Tysons and Luis Suarezes, doing lots of jerky, uncoordinated dance-moves that look like Jarvis Cocker in the heyday of Pulp. But they’re not original. They were like that in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.

It’s a tedious cliche that Brad is torn between nurturing his cute children and rescuing the whole of mankind. No one except him is going to think that’s a tough call, but Brad spends too much of the first hour chewing his lip over it. Eventually, of course, he decides he’d rather be in an epic than a home movie.

If you’ve read Max Brooks’ original book, published in 2006, you will know that Pitt’s character is a UN worker trying to piece together the truth from a variety of sources. Apparently, the first draft of the script, by J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s intelligent drama starring Brad’s wife Angelina Jolie, was faithful to the source material.

Producer Pitt and Paramount junked that investigative structure, which might have turned into a movie along the lines of District 9, All The President’s Men or even Citizen Kane, in favour of a straightforward hero-to-the-rescue scenario. That was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who scripted the undistinguished Kingdom and Lions for Lambs. Despite numerous others being recruited to rework the ending – I understand there were seven of them – Carnahan receives the main credit, shared with Drew Goddard (who recently directed The Cabin in the Woods) and Damon Lindelof, head writer on Lost.

None of the writers is at his best, and the film bears unmistakable signs of having been assembled by a Hollywood studio over-preoccupied with earning a family-friendly certificate. Virtually all the violence takes place fractionally off-screen, and that’s not going to please the fanboys who like a bit of gore and mutilation. Disappointingly, the final product is much more conventional than the book and studiously avoids its most interesting qualities.

The innovative aspect of Brooks’s novel – and the reason, presumably, it was bought for the screen - was that it deliberately adopted the approach that journalist Studs Terkel did when writing The Good War, an oral history of the Second World War.

Brooks’s purpose was to satirise the bungling of government, the excesses of survivalism at all costs and the dangers of corporate power. Brooks took a particularly cynical stance on George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” tactics in Iraq; like Muslim extremists, his zombies are too obsessed with slaughter to be shocked or awed.

In the book, the zombie virus spreads from China via refugees and an illicit trade in human organs. Pakistan and Iran destroy each other in a nuclear dispute over border controls. Cuba becomes the world’s most thriving economy and the centre of international banking.

The people at Paramount evidently think all this political stuff is too difficult for a cinema audience to comprehend. Maybe they’re also nervous about how it might go down in China, Pakistan and Iran, not to mention America. So they’ve cut it all out, played “safe” and turned the story into a one-man triumph for an American UN operative blessed – unlike the rest of the world’s population – with guts, intellect and movie-star looks.

World War Z isn’t terrible. Parts are impressive and exciting. But the incredibly long distance it falls short of its source material means that it must rank as one of Hollywood’s most woefully wasted opportunities.

There are estimates that, by the time the marketing campaign has finished, the movie will have to gross 550 million dollars, merely to break even. Its lack of originality, ingenuity and personality – all avoidable at the script stage - means that it has virtually no chance of making back that scale of investment.

Last year’s most underperforming blockbuster, John Carter, is said to have lost Disney over 200 million dollars and resulted in regime change within the studio. If I were a senior Paramount executive, I would be afraid. Very, very afraid.

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