JUNE 22, 2013
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
I normally don't read a book that's due to be a movie until I've seen the latter (I've explained why dozens of times; to sum up - I know the book will be better, so why ruin the enjoyment of a new movie by noticing what's "missing"?), but as it turns out, the only thing World War Z takes from Max Brooks' (terrific) novel is the title and the basic premise of a realistic, global account of a zombie epidemic. 99% of all zombie films focus on a small area and leave a few radio/TV broadcasts to fill in the details of how it's spreading (via "Just heard... New York is gone!" type dialogue), but WWZ takes place in the US, Israel, South Korea, and Canada (replacing the original Russian location; more on that soon), and features more airborne sequences than movies about pilots. It is truly an epic adventure that shares just as much DNA with a James Bond movie as a typical zombie flick.
So it's kind of ironic that it's best moments are the ones that are straight out of any Romero wannabe. I particularly enjoyed a bit where hero Brad Pitt and his family stop at a grocery store to find inhalers for one of the daughters (if there was no such thing as asthma or diabetes, a lot of movies would have trouble creating an easy obstacle for their heroes). It's a scene filled with little surprises; when Pitt goes to find the inhalers and a man steps from the shadows with a gun, he doesn't rob/loot Pitt, but helps him find what he's looking for, and when a cop arrives after a scary situation, we see that he's there not as an officer of the law, but as a man desperate to find baby food and supplies for his own family. The best parts of the book were the smaller, personal stories set against the larger backdrop, so while the movie fails to adapt anything specific from it, they at least got the general tone mostly right.
Same goes for the (rare) focused zombie scenes. Those swarms of anonymous (and 99% digital) zombies scaling walls or whatever may look impressive and provide the trailer with its needed money shots, but in the film itself they're nothing more than empty spectacle. I much preferred the scaled down bits, like when Pitt and co. are racing up some stairs to get to a rooftop rescue with a few undead in pursuit, or when he and the other passengers on a plane work together to quietly block their section of the plane off from the tail section, where the zombies have begun biting their way through the other passengers. The larger scenes, such as the siege on Israel (as massive as it gets, really) are fine on their own, but with Pitt being the only character around that we know or care about (and the movie not close to ending), they lack any sense of terror. The PG-13 rating keeps things from getting too violent or gory, and that's fine - but there's not much excuse for being just plain ol' unscary.
Unfortunately, the "Pitt and a bunch of randoms" is a problem that continues throughout the movie. His family is safely kept on a battleship by the end of the first act, and from then on he's always on the go, meeting folks (many of whom don't even have names; David Morse is merely "Ex-CIA Agent") who either die or stay behind as he moves on yet again. The entire third act involves an attempt to locate an important sample from a lab at an overrun CDC type place called the World Health Organization, and the four people on staff who are there are collectively billed as "WHO Doctors" - they are the main focus for a 30-35 minute chunk of the movie and don't even get identifying traits to credit them properly! And poor Matthew Fox ("Parajumper" - a funny name anyway, even funnier when you consider we never see him do that) saw nearly all of his role left on the cutting room floor when the movie was reshot - he was originally a sort of human antagonist but is now only briefly glimpsed in a few shots.
Ah yes, the 3rd act. You can look around for details on what it originally was, but suffice to say (with minor spoilers ahead, but keep in mind this IS a PG-13 summer blockbuster released by a major studio) it's now much different, and less sequel oriented. Not that everything is tied up by the end, but the other "ending" stopped short of ANYTHING that could be considered a proper climax; Pitt was basically still out there looking for his family AND the cure, where at least the new ending resolves one of those things. I can't say which is BETTER since I haven't seen it (it SOUNDS pretty interesting, at least), but I will say that we lost even MORE of the film's already loose ties to the novel as a result, and that the new ending, while enjoyable as its own mini-movie, definitely doesn't jive with the rest of the narrative. For over an hour we're watching this global, epic-scale adventure, and then suddenly we spend the final two reels focused on a few rooms and a basic fetch mission (it's also easy to see that they didn't want to blow much MORE money on their new ending; replace Pitt with some guy from the Syfy channel and you have any Saturday night movie with regards to how expensive it looks).
So it's not a perfect film by any means, and bears more than a couple telltale signs of a reworked production, but it's nowhere near the disaster some folks had feared. Despite the involvement of Damon Lindelof, the plot is refreshingly straightforward - no "vague for the sake of vague" plotting or twist shenanigans. I would have liked them to do a better job explaining why Pitt's character is roped back into the UN (he has retired to be a stay at home dad) when he doesn't seem to possess any special skills beyond the ability to listen while people explain their situation to him, but I guess it's just shorthand - he's Brad Pitt, so naturally we want him to save us all (George Clooney was presumably quickly located and brought to safety). And again, we've never really seen anything quite like this for a zombie movie, so we can forgive a few missteps; if the whole movie was set in an isolated farmhouse or underground bunker, then its low points would be much harder to swallow. Not sure if Paramount wants to pursue it as a franchise as they originally intended after all the problems they had getting this one together (reports say there are, but I can show you a few articles about when Brandon Routh will be suiting up for a Superman Returns sequel too), but at least it paid off - the movie secured a HUGE opening weekend gross (Pitt's highest ever, in fact) and will be the all time highest grossing zombie film by the end of the week. Not too shabby for a movie everyone wrote off as a disaster a couple months ago. And as a bonus, it's a pretty enjoyable blend of typical summer action movie and zombie flick.
What say you?