Thursday, August 15, 2013

“World War Z” – A two-hour ass clench.

Have you ever heard someone say “I don’t need to read the book; I’ve seen the movie?” This phrase is usually uttered by smart-ass teenagers who think they are being clever or are trying to avoid reading a book assigned to them in school. As awesome as it would be for kids to be told to read World War Z in school, I can assure that if you think you’ve read the book because you saw the movie, you haven’t.

The only aspects of the movie shared by the book are the title, the premise of a zombie apocalypse, and the main character being a United Nations employee (though in the film, he is a retired employee forced back into action by circumstances). The problem with turning this particular book into a movie is that the book is written as a series of anecdotes told by survivors of the ten year zombie war to that U.N. agent, Max Brooks (also the author of the book). That’s not exactly a formula conducive to a movie meant to entertain folks who are too lazy to read. Instead, the film is a generic action flick following the tried and true formula of most action flicks – everything is fine, the main conflict occurs, zombies eat people, main character and family must survive, zombies eat more people, family is rescued, main character must go find a cure, zombies find a buffet, main character must survive more ordeals, zombies take a break from eating to climb a wall, eating resumes, conflict is resolved-ish, cut to credits. Substitute anything else for the zombies and you can see how closely they adhered to that formula.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying this movie was bad or even ho-hum. In fact, it was quite good and one of the two most intense films of the year (the other being The Call). Brad Pitt is at the top of his game as Gerry, the former U.N. employee, travelling from location to location searching for answers and dodging hordes of zombies. Several times, he comes very close to becoming a chew toy and the film does a good job of convincing you this is possible. On that note, it’s actually a little disappointing that his entire family survives. Gerry is motivated (i.e. forced) to search for the cause of the zombie outbreak in order to keep his family on board an aircraft carrier rather than have them be moved on shore with everyone else. Because of that, his wife is very resistant to him leaving them whereas with a prior death, she could have been far more supportive of his efforts. Protecting his family is his motivation anyway, but it’s far less effective when he hasn’t lost any of them. Or, maybe I’m just a little deranged.

Even though his family is Gerry’s motivation, they are mostly irrelevant, especially considering the movie would have been no different had Gerry been a single man still working for the U.N. There’s still a zombie apocalypse and Gerry is the only one that can find a cure, so of course he’s going to do it. His family is really only there to intensify Gerry’s situations, whether that be physically with him during the initial outbreak or calling him on a satellite phone while he tries to sneak past zombies. That being said, the only other interesting characters are the zombies. In interviews, the filmmakers said they wanted to create a somewhat unique zombie. We’re all familiar with slow zombies and fast zombies, etc. so the filmmakers made their zombies act as a swarm. They said they patterned the movements after flocks of birds and similar swarming creatures to create something a little more frightening. It worked. The zombies move extremely fast in groups and always threaten to spill out of the screen and overwhelm the audience. The best example of this is when they throw themselves at the giant walls surrounding Jerusalem, eventually scaling the wall by climbing over each other. The rest of the characters are also foils; they help Gerry achieve a goal or obtain knowledge only to become zombie snacks.

Beyond the generic characters and plot, the film does a very good job with special effects and music. These things, more than the story, help create the non-stop tension as the film progresses. The swarming nature of the zombies makes you expect every scene to end badly and you experience it in very high detail. While the music sets good tone in most scenes, its absence in the climax creates the tensest scene of the film, as Gerry and a group of doctors are trying to be as quiet as possible while making their way through a research facility. Trust me – you almost have to peel your fingernails out of the arm cushion by the time the scene is over.

While I did enjoy the movie, there were parts of the book that I wish they could have included. The film would have been better had they focused on a climactic battle that occurs early in the ten years of the book, rather than fall back on the generic action formula, and end it just after the battle. The book also examines how dogs react to the zombies, how zombies can walk under water because they are already dead, and many other clever things that we’ve never thought about zombies. Maybe they’ll include these things in the sequel(s), but you’d still be missing out if you don’t read the book.

Rating: Worth every penny, including what you paid for the popcorn you didn’t eat because of your death grip on the arm rests.

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