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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
World War Z, based off of the best-selling Max Brooks novel, began production as a film sometime in the mid-2000s, when Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company outbid Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way for the film rights. Almost immediately things began to go south for the production. The script, adapted by noted comic book author, screenwriter, and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, was reworked over a period of years by different writers, with Paramount eventually bringing in the dreaded team of Lindelof and Goddard to finally finish off the script. The duo completely re-wrote the ending which eventually necessitated expensive re-shoots (an entire action sequence set in Russia was completely excised from the final film) that were widely commented on in the media in the run up to the film’s release.
Outside of script troubles (but not necessarily independent of them), the film’s budget ballooned to nearly 200 million dollars (from an initial 125 million), shocking studio heads at Paramount. Along the way, actors were cast and then re-cast, parts were filmed and then nearly completely cut, and extensive sequences of the film were retooled, either to make the film more “political” (and thus, more faithful to the source material) or to include more action for the summer crowd and set up potential sequels. Despite all of these issues (issues that would normally completely kill a production), the film has somehow not ended up a complete disaster, both commercially and critically. Yes, I saw World War Z last week – and I didn’t hate it. I don’t think it’s a particularly good movie and I think the idea of Paramount turning it into a franchised series is ridiculous, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have and should have ended up being.
In World War Z, Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations worker who finds himself in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, brought on by a mysterious world-wide epidemic that has spread across the globe through the airlines. Gerry and his family, including wife Karin (Mireille Enos, of awful AMC television series The Killing) and two daughters (and an adorable moppet they save along the way), are rescued due to Gerry’s UN credentials, but he is later asked by the US military to track the source of the epidemic as a sort of “payment” for his family’s rescue and safe board. Oh, and just maybe he’ll possibly find a cure or vaccine along the way as well perhaps. The film really starts here, as Gerry travels precariously from country to country hoping to find intel and salvage some kind of hope for humanity along the way.
Some of the best moments in World War Z are the quieter moments where Gerry is either observing or expanding on the behavior of the infected hordes and the disease itself. There’s some high class material to be mined from the source novel, and the film is at its best when it is both thoughtful and political. Unfortunately, these scenes are too few and far between, and the film seems to think that a bloodless gun battle and/or zombie attack is far more interesting. I had read reports that Paramount attempted to make World War Z a more accessible summer entertainment property (probably to help recoup some of that enormous budget), and the film clearly suffers for it. This is a shame, as there is nothing boring whatsoever about Gerry’s journey from country to country simply looking for a cure and taking in whatever information he can (and Pitt acquits himself quite well as a more political action hero, I might add).
The filmmakers do their best to try and turn whatever mess of a movie they had on their hands into a coherent two-hour blockbuster, and to their credit the film at least makes sense logistically. It is quite jarring to see Matthew Fox randomly pop up in the background with no lines (his entire character arc was apparently cut from the final version), but this is forgivable considering the circumstances. Unfortunately, characters like Mireille Enos’ Karin suffer from the cuts, as it is clear she had much more screen time and development in an earlier, incomplete version of the film. Whatever scenes she has are at least well-acted, and Enos does well in her action-y scenes too. The best parts of the film, as noted earlier, are the moments where Gerry is taking in the aftermath of the apocalypse – these are quite compelling, with no scene in the film as great as the one between Gerry and David Morse’s CIA prisoner Haffner, who has taken extreme measures against the epidemic. It is just unfortunate that this is Morse’s only scene in the movie, and that there aren’t too many others like it.
The film also teeters the edge of being completely unintentionally goofy at times as well. The zombie hordes are scary in places for sure, but the individual zombies themselves are not all that scary and add little suspense to the film. In the climactic moments of World War Z, Gerry is collecting samples of viruses from a WHO building in Wales, and he is menaced by a zombie continually making goofy facial expressions and clicking noises like the raptors in Jurassic Park. It is neither compelling nor suspenseful in any meaningful way. That the scene ends with Pitt enjoying a delicious, ice cold can of Pepsi is just indicative of everything that is wrong with summer event filmmaking. World War Z is also completely bloodless, which is absolutely ridiculous for a zombie movie (granted, it is rated PG-13, but there’s more gore in the average episode of CSI than there is to be found here).
Despite its many faults, World War Z isn’t a terrible movie. Based on the numerous production difficulties, I thought maybe it would end up being so-bad-it’s-good, but it isn’t really that either. It is just a bland summer film really. Pitt gives a pretty decent performance as the main character and there are bits and pieces of a better film lost somewhere in there, but on the whole World War Z is just kind of there. I didn’t hate this movie, but it could have (and should have) been a whole lot more compelling than it was. It is pretty sad when the geo-political aspects of a summer blockbuster film are far more interesting than the on-screen spectacle. I would have liked to have seen much more of that kind of zombie film.