Behold the Three-Headed World War Z!
World War Z Film One–The Book Adaptation: The first World War Z is the book lover’s worse nightmare: a complete and total failure to capture even a fraction of the rich, dark pleasures of Max Brooks’ 2006 “oral history” science-fiction novel about the zombie apocalypse. (I guess I should say, a zombie apocalypse—we have so many to choose from these days.)
In fact, aside from a few tidbits sprinkled here and there, little of Brooks’ novel made it to the film’s final cut. Which begs the question, why option the literary property and call your film World War Z, if it has little to nothing to do with the book of the same title? Which brings us to…
World War Z Film Two–The Budget Debacle: That’s where marketing and branding come in, as always. Because the second World War Z movie is a huge financial boondoggle in which upwards of $200 (maybe $250?) million were spent to create a world-wide horde of CGI ghouls who chase superstar Brad Pitt… well, all across the wide world.
That ridiculously big budget (thanks in part to a complete third-act re-shoot that not only cost extra, but left a lot of expensive location footage—some of it more in keeping with the novel’s plot points–on the cutting-room floor) means the resulting film has to a) remain connected–at least in name–to Brooks’ well-known bestseller for marketing purposes, and b) sport a very zombie-unfriendly PG-13 rating so the teenagers can flock to it. It becomes an abject lesson in how more is less and how throwing money (and dozens of screenwriters) at the creative process rarely helps, only hurts.
World War Z Film Three–The Actual Movie: And finally there is the 1 hour and 56 minute, PG-13, zombie-apocalypse flick that plays out on the screen, divorced from how much it cost, how many problems the shoot had, and how much great stuff from the book has been left out. This third World War Z is… pretty well done.
For starters, I’ll admit upfront that Brad Pitt can do little wrong by me. I not only think he’s a good (if not exactly transcendent) actor, but we think of him as “Brad Pitt Movie Star” so effortlessly, it’s easy to forget one of the world’s biggest stars doesn’t really make “big” mainstream movies anymore. Since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the only popcorn stuff Pitt has done was ensemble work in Ocean’s Thirteen (and that’s with Soderbergh, so it gets an indie-cred pass) and supporting-character voice work in Megamind and Happy Feet Two.
Some of the results are laudable misfires (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Babel, Burn After Reading), some of them are among my favorite films of the past ten years (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Inglourious Basterds, The Tree of Life, Moneyball, and last winter’s Killing Them Softly). All of them are noble creative endeavors that suggest an actor more interested in doing quality, boundary pushing films than making box-office bank.
Pitt produced World War Z through his Plan B production company, and in the “he said/they said” aftermath of its troubled production history, it remains unclear who wanted it to be what kind of movie. But leaving behind the behind-the-scenes drama, between producer-star Pitt, director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace), and the revolving cast of screenwriters (primarily Matthew Michael Carnahan of The Kingdom and Lion for Lambs, but including Babylon 5‘s J. Michael Straczynski at the start and Lost’s Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard at the finish) the film that ended up on the screen is for the most part respectably mature and engrossing.
The film drops the book’s segmented Studs Terkel-Meets-George-Romero reportorial structure and instead focuses on one family man Gerry Lane (Pitt), a former UN investigator dragooned back into globe-hopping service to find the plague’s Patient Zero. Taking the desperate mission means Gerry has to painfully leave behind his family, including his wife, played by The Killing’s Mireille Enos. (That his family’s security aboard a zombie-free warship is conditional on Gerry’s aid to the cause is one of the film’s few echoes of the book’s themes: that government bureaucracies suck.)
A crackerjack thrill fest of an opening has Gerry’s family fleeing the streets of Philly (where the zombie outbreak arrives suddenly and viciously, the fast-moving undead attacking like packs of wild animals) for the collapsing social order of Newark, New Jersey. From there, the film’s second act pinballs around the globe.
Driven by a very 28 Days Later techno-throb on Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack and seeming to ride a wave of escalating global chaos, Gerry hops over to South Korea with a SEAL team (where they are seemingly required to both land and take off at an abandoned airfield during the zombie-friendly, audience-spooking night), then to Jerusalem (the only direct lift of setting and characters from the novel), and finally off to Moscow for the film’s big, climatic finish.
Except the massive third-act Battle of Moscow was half shot and then abandoned for a more intimate closing at a WHO facility in Wales, with an emphasis on finding a research solution rather than all-out, grand-scale zombie slaughter.
(Through all this, a grimly humorous pattern begins to emerge: Gerry gets on a plane or helicopter; something goes horribly, zombily wrong either before, during, or after the flight; lots of folks die; Gerry survives; and it’s off to the next pin on the map. You’re forgiven if after a while World War Z seems less about the collapse of civilization and more about Adventures in Aircraft Taking Off.)
I personally would love to have seen an all-out, epic, human-on-zombie battle scene (the novel’s infamous Battle of Yonkers is one of the most missed omissions), but the Wales laboratory finale works just fine, slowing down the film’s helter-skelter globe-trotting and bringing the focus back, as was intended, on Gerry the Family Man instead of Gerry the Anti-Zombie Warrior. As much as I wanted to see oodles of military might unleashed on the zombie hordes, the cinematic minimalist in me loves the idea of a big summer action thriller that climaxes with [MILD SPOILER] someone walking down a hallway.
Which is to say World War Z isn’t a bad film at all. It has its flaws to be sure. Gerry’s defining traits are he worked for the UN and loves his family, and while Pitt’s performance sells a number of increasingly outrageous scenes, it doesn’t shade in any extra character layers.
In a jarring Hollywood big-movie shift from the fine small-screen work she does on The Killing, Enos gets to play out some hefty dramatic bits early on during the flight from Philly to Newark, but then becomes Gerry’s wait-here-dear movie spouse; asked take care of the kids and look worried for her man while he tries to single-handedly save the world. Enos’ absence from second and new third act, except as home-and-hearth motivation for Gerry, is alleviated somewhat by the addition of Daniella Kertesz as a tough and stalwart Israeli soldier–the somewhat transparent gender tokenism offset by Kertesz’s solid performance.
Visually Forster does well with the intimate moments (as would be expected from his resume) and a large team of special effects experts competently manage the giant vistas of zombie destruction, but during the up-close action, the film is, like so many “action” films these days, a poorly-shot, badly-edited middle-ground muddle.
But once they sorted out their third act, Pitt, Forster, and the writers brought the film back around to Contagion-style focus on the zombie apocalypse as a world-health crisis. There are still plenty of chills (if few outright scares–this is a thriller, not a horror film) as we see the plague spread and the undead come a running. But there’s also an admirable overall thoughtfulness to World War Z’s larger tone and execution that, pleasantly, feels more fitted to a winter release (as was originally intended) than the brainless (no zombie pun intended) cineplex action of summer. (Though you have to ignore occasional pseudo-intellectual claptrap dialogue like “Mother Nature is a serial killer.”)
While the PG-13 rating was enforced for crass commercial reasons and has the hard-core zombie fans in an undead tizzy, for the most part it works in the film’s favor. The zombies move in disturbing ant-like swarms (one impressive scene seems lifted directly from Carl Stephensen’s classic short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants”), and the less-seen violence is still tense, threatening, and disturbing without the often silly distraction of buckets of blood and gore.
It’s odd to call a zombie film “refreshing,” but it’s nice to see a big-budget summer movie that—ironically, given its rating–doesn’t feel written entirely for adolescents and isn’t afraid to take its time. (Far too many critics have hackily and unfairly dubbed it World War Zzzzz—ironic, since many of these same wags have no doubt complained about the Meth’d-out pacing of most action films these days.) For all its faults, this is a zombie film that admirably tries to feel different.
We aren’t supposed to judge films based on what we want them to be. We’re supposed to approach them on their own terms, where all that counts is what ends up on screen–in this case a solid, relatively savvy summer action-thriller with an effective superstar at its center. But here’s why those first and second World War Z films I mentioned at the start matter; why it matters that the film didn’t use the book and ended up costing so much.
Just as copyright lawyers carefully measure how much a film “borrows” from existing source material to make sure all the creative players down the line get their share of credit and financial rewards, there needs to be an opposite cadre of literary umpires who determine at what point your film has so little of the original book’s creative DNA that it can no longer legally sport the same title. World War Z is not a bad film, but it’s a terrible “adaptation” of Brooks’ novel, to the extent it’s simply, misleadingly not.
Brooks book hit a sweet spot because it presented numerous white-knuckle terrors amid a tapestry of social, cultural, and political observations. Granted, the movie’s original Battle of Moscow ending was intended to set up a trilogy of World War Z films, and presumably the next two movies would have covered more of the book’s best bits, including its many martial threads.
That said, there was no reason this had to be a $200-250 million epic blockbuster film—a price tag that, ironically, has probably smothered any opportunity for those once-promised, wider-ranging sequels. One thing we’re learning as we move into the digital age is that film makers with ingenuity and visual savvy can make very impressive-looking science-fiction films on digital shoestrings.With a little creativity and a lot less money, a smaller, documentary-vérité style film might have maintained the book’s reportorial stained-glass structure by way of talking heads and nicely crafted flashbacks.
But no need to go fully micro-budget—for a relatively sane $75 or $100 million, you could make an amazing World War Z film that still featured plenty of zombies and a few big-scale set pieces. At that price it could have been a dream adaptation that stayed centered on human stories not CGI ghouls, while better encompassing Brooks’ themes of geo-political tension, rending social fabric, suffocating bureaucracy, and spirited survival.
Still, just as there are three World War Zs, I came away from the movie with three reactions. As a fan of Brooks’ book, I was deeply disappointed at all the missed opportunities. As a fan of small-scale genre film making (especially of what Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow dubbed “low sci-fi”), I was appalled by big-studio, big-budget creativity-smothering bloat the film accumulated on its way to the theater.
But as a fan of smarter, more grown-up horror-action, I was pleasantly surprised by the film and supportive of its genre-bending choices. So my advice is leave the others at home and take that version of yourself to see World War Z.