Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2013

World War Z

Zombies vs. international politics

'World War Z' averts disaster, but can't quite overcome its conflicting intentions

World War Z
Paramount Pictures
Director: Marc Forster
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Fana Mokoena, Daniella Kertesz, David Morse, Pierfrancesco Favino, James Badge Dale and Peter Capaldi
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 56 minutes
June 21, 2013
(out of four)

My honest admission is that I, like everyone else, was fully aware of the tumultuous production of World War Z before I ever saw it - the delays, the rewrites, the reshoots, the rumored behind-the-scenes drama, and everything else that so often leads to a lopsided, disjointed movie. My humble defense, however, is that I don't believe it would have mattered one way or another. That the finished product is more than a little uneven is difficult to deny. But, it must be said, it's also not all that bad. Especially compared to all the ominous pre-release hype.

The film plays like a series of trade-offs, each decision working effectively toward one end, but to the detriment of another. On one hand, the decision to jump almost immediately into the central crisis keeps us off-balance from the start and allows director Marc Forster to sustain a certain sense of jeopardy for nearly his entire runtime; on the other hand, the lack of getting-to-know-you early on prevents us from developing much of any human connection in a film specifically designed to be about one man's attempt to save/protect his family.

That man - Gerry Lane, a former U.N. researcher played by an excellent Brad Pitt - spends the bulk of the film on a globetrotting, fact-finding mission in the midst of a zombie outbreak, which not only gives the proceedings a less centralized, more global feel, but stacks things in favor of procedural suspense over gore. On the other hand, the fact that our main character is on the road the entire time basically means his family - wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two daughters - is reduced to being used as props rather than people. (They're used in particularly crass fashion during one late plot development.)

On the one hand, the rewritten, re-shot third act is one of World War Z's most impressive sequences, a extended piece of isolated suspense that puts the onus on the characters to think their way through and around the zombie threat - a pleasure to see in an era of blockbusters that all end with the same identical climax of mass destruction. (I'd name names, but then I'd just be naming every recent summer blockbuster, wouldn't I?) On the other hand, the sequence doesn't provide the film as a whole with any ultimate sense of resolution or even momentary catharsis, and it bleeds into a lazy, slapped-together montage over even lazier narration, seemingly doing more to set up a sequel than anything else.

Finally, the presence of the zombies on a mass scale heightens the drama in the sense that the pandemic can spread extremely quickly, giving the characters a rapidly diminishing time frame in which to take action. However, the requirement (this being a $200-plus-million tentpole and all) to go for a PG-13 rating strips the zombies of the actual danger they presumably present in the first place. The fact that their actual behavior - the biting, the flesh-eating - is constantly occurring off-screen can't help but start to come across as a tad conspicuous.

Some films can take advantage of that limitation, making the violence even more disturbing through suggestion than it may have been in more explicit fashion. World War Z does not fall in that category - and as Forster proved so thoroughly in Quantum of Solace, he's a poor action director, too. (I'm not sure how much control he had over the re-shot third act, but the whole sequence - built around slow movement, silence and careful choreography - is strongly constructed, as opposed to the messy, chopped-together, CGI-heavy nature of the film's earlier action scenes.)

As Gerry goes from place to place chasing clues about the outbreak's origins, the film takes on a fractured structure that it uses to its benefit, infusing the catastrophe with the scope it requires. While many similarly themed movies have the same ambitions of scale but end up pretty much just focusing on the pretty star actors, World War Z shows a real commitment to being an international drama (getting away with it largely on Pitt's star presence, of course). From location to location, we run across various characters who fulfill one key role or another - an Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz), an American military commander (James Badge Dale), a brilliant young virologist (Elyes Gabel), a Mossad leader (Ludi Boeken), an Italian medical researcher (Pierfrancesco Favino) and Gerry's friend and former U.N. boss, Thierry (Fana Mokoena). There is an impressive level of discipline in the way things are edited (action scenes notwithstanding), as the film never dwells in any one location more than it needs to and forgoes the common instinct to create artificial emotional digressions with side characters. This is a global catastrophe and the filmmakers know it. Despite the tamed gore, there's a level of ruthlessness to the way its characters are utilized.

The problem the film ultimately runs into is that there's clearly an earnest desire to take a measured, intelligent approach to blockbuster, end-of-the-world material; but like so many other similarly compromised big-budget films, it ends up finding an uneasy balance between smart, geopolitical thriller and summer action movie.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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