Ahead of talking about the film World War Z, I thought it apt to touch on adaptation as a concept. I’ve not read the source material by Max Brooks and so I don’t have a frame of reference to draw from in terms of comparing the film to the book. From what I understand, the book operates somewhat as an account about a zombie plague in an almost documentarian style without a central narrative, touching on multiple cultures and areas of the world. The film, on the other hand, focuses primarily on a family story and all the trappings of political and social reaction and/or commentary mainly serve as background to the primary plot.
I bring this up because I’ve read some pretty angry responses to the film over the last year or so from all across the spectrum from those who take umbrage with the supposed liberties the film takes from the book. While I can understand a certain love for the original novel and respect those who have a fierce loyalty to it, this film really seems to operate as its own animal and, I believe, shouldn’t be completely discounted for the liberties and departures they’ve taken from Max Brooks’ novel. One of my all-time favorite books (and films) is L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy. The film is such a beautiful, dark and gritty take on morality and justice and violence and power; the novel on which it is based is ten times heavier. In fact, the book employs well over a hundred speaking characters, boasts nearly five hundred pages and spans over a decade of time. The film cannot come close to that level of density but still was an absolute crowning achievement in filmmaking. Adaptation is not demonizing-automatic: it is what you do with the source material that matters.
In the case of World War Z, director Marc Forster has crafted a mostly satisfying, big time action horror/thriller that builds upon the well-worn devices of both disaster and zombie films in some (at times) clever ways. The film’s primary focus is retired UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karen Lane (Mireille Enos from The Killing) and their two daughters. What starts as background chatter on the television about some odd goings-on in other parts of the world (in an opening scene with the Lane family) quickly becomes a very real threat here at home. The not-so-subtle comment about turning a blind eye to trouble around the globe by folks in the western world was well placed here. More, the suggestion that the lightning quick spread of the plague is aided by carelessness on the part of travelers coupled with the lack of engagement in world-trouble spots and possibly governmental disinterest is nothing if not relatable.
Anyway, most of us have seen the clip within the trailer of the traffic sequence involving the Lane family’s car mirror and the start of the madness (stuck in downtown Philadelphia traffic, motor cops acting weird, growing panic, explosions, people fleeing etc). This is essentially about ten minutes into the film and once it happens (and is much better in the context of the film than in the trailer) the film is off and running and doesn’t ever really shift down below fourth gear for the remainder of its runtime. This is equal parts fantastic and frustrating. Early scenes involving the hard charging and ever-growing swarm are pretty spectacular in the complete random, harried way they are edited. I tend to get a little stomach uneasy with too much jump-cutting stuff but here it aids the feel of panic and fear.
The pace from the traffic scene forward to about the halfway point is frustrating though because we’re never really given a chance to catch our breath and take stock of what has happened. This is the same for the characters on-screen and so you have to take on faith the choices they make and how things play would be the way they would happen in real life. As dumb as that might sound, it is a directorial/story choice that drains out a lot of the human loss and tragedy of it all which is odd considering the immense scale of human loss happening minute-to-minute. I tend to think the real impact of it would hit a little harder and be tougher to cope with and not being shown that and instead relying on the audience to assume it felt a little short-sighted. The only real humanistic anchor here is Mireille Enos’ Karen, a mother and wife having to brave and guess and bluff her way through this mess while putting on a strong face for her daughters. Her presence on-screen helps to thread the needle of humanity through the epic backdrop but does not employ unrealistic heroics to drive that point home. Credit to Enos for her work in this limited role.
Pitt’s Gerry is brought back into the governmental fold to try to make some sense of what is happening and help get to the bottom of it. Ordinarily this would (or should) be met with a large, resounding ‘yeah right’ but amazingly the suspension of disbelief over his being brought in holds up pretty well (his background in very dangerous areas being one qualification). That said, there are many things that happen during the middle range of the film that take a little more faith on the part of the viewer to accept. It feels like the midway point is the most bogged down in the film and suffers from pacing issues as well as some pretty large-scale leaps of logic. I recognize I said earlier the pace never really lets up and that seems to fly in the face of ‘pacing issues’ but somehow or other they were able to make the same frantic craziness seem sluggish. Thankfully, these issues don’t completely derail the film’s momentum and after some false starts we lock into the trajectory of the final act where the film really takes advantage of all it has done to set up its massive tragedy and disaster.
Gerry works against time and some pretty awful circumstances (a seemingly fortified city center at one stage, an airfield cloaked by rain and shadows in another) to try to get some plan together on how to stop the disaster or even understand it. This gives us the inevitable resident genius situation (you know, the scientist/doctor/hunter/shaman brought into a film to give it some chance of reaching a conclusion) but the way it plays out is not expected at all and I found to be pretty clever. On the other hand, this scientist character does do a bit of plot finalizing exposition that, quite frankly, I didn’t need. They even go so far as to play back some of his dialogue over earlier scenes just in case you weren’t paying attention, or are, say, six years old and couldn’t piece it together on your own. This whole bit might be fine for many but it made me a little nuts. I hate being treated as though I cannot remember 15 minutes prior and I certainly don’t like being told a bunch of stuff by one character to narrow the thing down. Show me, don’t tell me.
That grumbling aside, the final act of the film (either intentionally or by accident) gets into a larger meaning much more interesting than the social-political stuff early on. The roots of this threat are still bound by the laws of nature, of science and because of this, can be broken down and at least understood at a fundamental level. I absolutely loved that this seemingly obvious revelation carries the kind of common sense logic that doesn’t have to be discovered from an autopsy or a dusty ancient text. The way in which these creatures multiply their numbers, the way in which they interact with their environment makes a lot of sense when you look at it through the prism of how nature works. Fire ants, diseases, these things operate in a very specific way and to piggy-back onto that idea was one of the smartest things in the film, bar-none.
Now, I won’t go into how the final act plays out because it is better experienced first-hand. However, I wanted to quickly touch on a couple of things about the film that I feel are important if you’re deciding whether to see it or not:
1. PG-13 rating – Yes, one of the bigger drawbacks of the film is its PG-13 rating which renders the lion’s share of the violence bloodless and mostly at a distance. A scene involving a bus early on and later scenes in/around confined spaces (planes, labs etc) would’ve been greatly served with more creative freedom to really let loose with violence. However, I don’t think this completely neuters the film in the way some have suggested. Simply put, while the rating dials back the intimate nature of the violence and/or gore, the film still lays waste to wide swaths of humanity with blind disregard and I give them credit for that.
2. Script – I have seen many many big time films that are just completely undone by idiotic scripts and lousy dialogue written and targeted to, well, dumb people. Akiva Goldsman has made a damned career out of it. However, the script for World War Z doesn’t suffer from that dumbness and really only is hampered by some scattershot scenes that either were supposed to lead to something else but were cut, or, weren’t fully fleshed out to start with. Either way, it is not a perfect script but is certainly not a hack and slash mess that inspires nothing more than laughter.
3. CGI /effects – Those of you who’ve read a few reviews I’ve written might have noticed I’m very sensitive to the use/misuse of computer effects in horror movies. Trust me when I say that was on my mind when I walked into the theatre. Thankfully though, the effects are handled pretty well overall and didn’t give you those oh-so priceless moments of sitting in a theatre thinking ‘are they kidding? my nine-year-old could’ve done that’. There are a few scenes that I think could’ve been constructed better to minimize the full-on CGI in your faceness (and not, by the way, the human ant-pile thing from the trailers) but by and large it did feel real and not like a video game in the effects department.
4. The creature – The zombie of World War Z is a swarming, violent and very fast thing that uses the human body much more like a vehicle than a person. By that I mean that the infected people walking around do look like people but ultimately they are a vessel for the infection and regarded as such. This creates some great tension because their sensitivity to sound and amazing quickness are a real threat and not something that can be escaped by just being cute or clever (for long). The swarming scenes are pretty damned remarkable truth be told and while early effects shots last year might’ve not looked all that hot, the finished product is quite a sight to behold.
So to bring this all to a head, World War Z is absolutely not an overproduced, unmitigated disaster some have predicted it would be. It is, at times, a bracing and tense disaster epic that writes its own rules for not only zombies, but how to tell a zombie story. It does, however, lack some key moments of quiet contemplation that I think might’ve upped the human stakes and laid bare the emotional toll a disaster of this type would take. Taken as a whole, I enjoyed the film quite a bit and had a lot of fun with it for what it was. I’d definitely say the giant spectacle of it all is well worth the price of admission.