Saturday, June 22, 2013

In Theaters: WORLD WAR Z (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Marc Forster.  Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof.  Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Matthew Fox, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Moritz Bleibtreu, Ruth Negga, Elyes Gabel, Ludi Boeken, John Gordon Sinclair, Michiel Huisman, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido. (PG-13, 116 mins)

The film version of Max Brooks' acclaimed 2006 novel World War Z was in various stages of development before filming finally started in 2011.  It was an infamously troubled shoot that had multiple script rewrites and clashes between producer/star Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster (MONSTER'S BALL, QUANTUM OF SOLACE) that got to the point where the two eventually stopped speaking directly to one another.  The ending was completely scrapped and most of the film's second hour was completely rewritten and reshot, which bumped the film's December 2012 release date to summer 2013 and ballooned the budget to $200 million.  There's no denying that the completed version of WORLD WAR Z is the biggest zombie movie ever made, with an epic and occasionally legitimately stunning hugeness that looks terrific on a big screen.  But it's very episodic and lacking in cohesion, which is bound to happen with so many cooks in the kitchen, and it has little do with Brooks' book other than the title and zombies.  J. Michael Straczynski's original script was tossed and rewritten by Matthew Michael Carnahan (THE KINGDOM, STATE OF PLAY), and then Carnahan's ending was ditched as LOST co-creator and mercenary screenwriter Damon "Will Rewrite for Food" Lindelof (PROMETHEUS, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS) was brought in to devise a new closing act.  Lindelof eventually left and his contributions were reshaped by THE CABIN IN THE WOODS director Drew Goddard.  And somewhere in there, Oscar-winning USUAL SUSPECTS scribe Christopher McQuarrie reportedly had an uncredited go at it as well.  It's amazing that WORLD WAR Z isn't a complete fiasco, but while it has its strong points, it certainly begs the question:  did anyone ever consider just adapting the book?

The film opens in Philadelphia as retired UN investigator Gerry Lane (Pitt) is taking off on vacation with wife Karin (THE KILLING's Mireille Enos) and their daughters Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins).  In a traffic jam with chaos erupting around them, the Lanes take off to New Jersey as zombies sprint 28 DAYS LATER-style through the streets, biting their victims and spreading a contagion that reanimates their victims in approximately ten seconds.  Gerry makes contact with his old UN boss Thierry (Fana Mokoena) who has them airlifted from the top of a Newark apartment building and onto a Navy ship 200 miles off the coast of NYC.  Thierry tells Gerry that they need his help, and the commander in charge (John Gordon Sinclair) is prepared to boot the Lanes off the ship if Gerry doesn't play along.  A UN doctor (Elyes Gabel) has traced the outbreak to South Korea and from there, the trail leads to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government pre-emptively built walls around the city to keep out the dead, which are officially called "zombies" in government memos.  The zombies eventually force their way over the perimeter by climbing atop one another--an impressively-executed idea that looks a lot better in its final CGI polish than it did in those early trailers.  Gerry gets out of Jerusalem with Segen (Daniella Kertesz), a dedicated Israeli military officer, and the two board a departing flight and direct it to Cardiff, Wales, the location of the nearest functioning World Health Organization facility. They barely make it after a zombie stowaway infects most of the passengers on the plane, which conveniently crashes just before reaching Wales, with Gerry and Segen the only survivors.  Once at the WHO outpost, Gerry tells the doctor in charge (Pierfrancesco Favino) that he's witnessed some living people being ignored by the dead.  Gerry believes these people are terminally ill and that the zombies can sense it and therefore don't attack them.  He thinks that if they can develop a vaccine using deadly bacteria to camouflage signs of "life," that they may be able to move among the dead, who shambles about like old-school zombies if there's no one around to pursue.

By now, it's no secret that Lindelof's restructuring of the plot begins once Gerry and Segen get on the plane to Wales.  That plane was originally going to Moscow in Carnahan's version of the script, and that's what was shot until no one was happy with how it played out.  The entire Moscow section of the film was cut out and everything that happens from the plane to the end was concocted by Lindelof and/or Goddard.  The epic feel of the film gets whittled down to a more traditional claustrophobic, George A. Romero-style zombie movie as Gerry and Segen team up with the WHO doctors (Favino, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, and Ruth Negga) to outwit the zombies being kept in a quarantined part of the Wales facility where the deadly bacteria and viral samples are conveniently being stored.  WORLD WAR Z gets off to a solid start and it's fast-paced and mostly engrossing, but one of its biggest problems is the recurrent utilization of ludicrous character stupidity to get the zombie set pieces in motion.  Whether people are forgetting to turn off their phones, letting doors slam, carelessly banging into things, or not closing doors behind them (or, on the plane, Gerry lobbing a grenade from first class into coach and watching the non-infected passengers get sucked out of huge hole he just created in the aircraft), a good chunk of the mayhem that takes place in WORLD WAR Z is because its characters act like idiots for the sake of plot convenience.  The finale in the Wales facility feels like it belongs in a different movie and seems designed more for Pitt to play an action hero than as a natural extension of the story, and it's amazing how well he can navigate his way around the maze-like building that he's never before visited.

WORLD WAR Z's messy production is apparent by what's on the screen, but it gets a lot right.  The first 40 or so minutes do a very effective job of conveying the chaos and the terror of a zombie outbreak and provides a rare example of the jumpy shaky-cam technique being used in a positive way.  A lot of these expansive shots of city-wide devastation in Philly, Newark, and NYC are very impressively done.  But after that huge opening, the story focuses on Pitt's Gerry, and this is a bland character that could've been played by anyone.  There's a reason Pitt hasn't had a potentally huge action franchise dropped in his lap before:  he's not that kind of an actor.  For all his fame and Brangelina tabloid ubiquity, he's an actor who, as he's gotten older (it's hard to believe he's going to be 50 this year) and more serious about his craft, feels more at home in character-driven pieces like THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD or KILLING THEM SOFTLY, or in auteur exercises like Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE.  Pitt doesn't seem at ease in a $200 million action/horror zombie movie, and it's not helped by the patchwork nature of the film where, particularly in the second half, everything seems like it's in imminent danger of coming apart at the seams.

Just for comparison's sake, it would be nice if the eventual Blu-ray edition included Forster's original cut with the Moscow ending as a bonus feature.  WORLD WAR Z is entertaining as a mega-budget spectacle, but it leaves hardcore zombie fans wanting more.  There's hardly a drop of blood spilled onscreen--these aren't flesh-eating zombies--and you can see more splatter in a TV commercial for the AMC series THE WALKING DEAD than you'll see here.  When Pitt, Kertesz, and Favino are making their way down the dimly-lit corridors of the Wales facility searching for the undead, it brings to mind similar sequences in European zombie classics like Jorge Grau's THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (1974) and Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND (1981), both of which will undoubtedly enjoy a longer shelf life with genre fans than the diverting-while-you're-watching-it-but-forgettable-afterwards WORLD WAR Z.  Will zombie fans still be talking about WORLD WAR Z 30 or 40 years from now?  Will they even be talking about 30 or 40 days from now?

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