Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mother Nature is a serial killer.

A few weeks ago, World War Z was barely on my radar. I had no interest in a gore-free, PG-13 zombie movie, and the reports that the movie was basically an adaptation of Max Brooks' book in name only, as well as the much-publicized decision to scrap and reshoot the third act, did little to change my mind. That the film's director is Marc Forster - a director I consider not just bad but incompetent and bizarrely overpraised - was also not an encouraging sign. After reading a good deal of positive reviews and, especially, hearing good things from horror-loving friends, I decided to give World War Z a try. After about ten minutes, I was very surprised to find that, not only was World War Z not bad, I was actually loving it. The rest of the movie never disappointed me; it's not perfect, but if you can put aside your expectations, it's consistently thrilling, clever and often very creepy. I never expected to say this, but World War Z is the best popcorn movie I've seen so far this summer.
After a great opening credits sequence, with news clips about real-life fears like climate change and overpopulation set to a Carpenter-esque synth score (credited to Marco Beltrami and Muse - this piece sounds more like Muse), World War Z introduces us to our hero, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). We quickly learn that Lane used to work as an envoy for the United Nations, but retired to become a stay-at-home dad to his two daughters. As in Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds, just as much time as needed is spent on establishing the characters before we're hurtled into the action; the escalating sense of chaos as Philadelphia is quickly overtaken by zombies is very well staged, especially when Forster cuts away from the standard shaky-cam, rapid-cut coverage of the action to wide aerial shots that survey the scope of the rapidly spreading epidemic. There's never been a zombie movie with the budget of World War Z, and while the narrative doesn't reinvent the wheel, to see the a zombie movie unfold on a literally global scale is a treat for anyone who ever imagined what the original version of Day of the Dead might have been like if Romero had the money.
While World War Z doesn't match Romero's level of, er, biting social commentary, it works because it treats zombies as a credible real-world threat - even if it's not a faithful adaptation of the book, it's true to Brooks' straightfaced take on a seemingly ridiculous hypothetical situation, not to mention his emphasis on the importance of commonplace but essential components of survival like staying hydrated and preventing infection (the everyday kind, not just the zombie kind). The movie's also a nice antidote to the hypermasculine, increasingly dumb redneck soldier bullshit of The Walking Dead. It's not inconsequential that Lane works for the U.N., and as the film takes him to South Korea, Jerusalem and a W.H.O. office in Cardiff, meeting soldiers, scientists, and government officials attempting to deal with the zombie crisis, there's a subtle but surely not accidental emphasis on the importance of nations working together to solve problems that threaten all of humanity. Better yet, the movie consistently creates situations where resourceful thinking is a better survival tool than blasting one's way through a zombie horde. I'm not saying World War Z is An Inconvenient Truth, but with the voice of progressive activism represented by a badass, machete-wielding Brad Pitt instead of Jeffrey DeMunn in a Hawaiian shirt, a few zombie-loving kids might be inspired to learn a thing or two about the World Health Organization or the U.N., and that ain't bad.
Admittedly, the PG-13 rating and general lack of zombie carnage is noticeable, and the way the movie is carefully cut to pull its punches is distracting and sometimes irksome. On the other hand, what the movie lacks in viscera, it makes up for in intensity - there are action sequences in this, like the scene in Jerusalem or one set aboard a commercial airplane, that are among the most suspenseful and expertly staged I've seen in recent years (this doesn't make up for Monster's Ball, Marc Forster, but keep up the good work). And the movie doesn't shy away from its pulpy antecedents - I was pleasantly surprised that the word "zombie" is used frequently instead of "walkers" or some other dumb euphemism, and the movie isn't above classic B-movie scare tactics. I can't lie, I'd probably give the movie an extra half-star if it was rated R, but I also appreciate that this is a zombie movie I can share with my young, horror movie-obsessed son when it comes out on Blu-ray.
And, surprisingly, the redone third act works, focusing on a pretty clever solution to the problem and the emotional through-line of Pitt getting back to his family - as Damon Lindelof actually managed to save a screenplay, I hope the internet gives him a break for a while. The family stuff, in particular, rings very true, largely thanks to Mireille Enos as Gerry's wife Karen, who does a lot in her handful of scenes to build a convincing relationship with Pitt. And I also absolutely loved Daniella Kertesz as Segen, an Israeli solder who is a total badass even, or especially, after she's badly wounded. I can't explain why - we learn basically nothing about the character - but after one big action sequence, I was actively worried that Segen hadn't survived and very relieved when it was revealed that she did. Of course, a lot of the credit for World War Z working as well as it did goes to Pitt, who produced the movie and who stuck with it through its troubled production - if I hadn't read so beforehand, I'd have never guessed that the movie went through such drastic changes. And I have to assume Pitt is also largely responsible for the movie's humanitarian streak - the movie urges us to take care of each other and not lose hope, not just with zombies but whatever might be coming, which would feel trite if it weren't clear that its star and producer believes it. When most of the summer's movies have made a lot of noise but very little on their minds, it's refreshing to see a blockbuster that not only delivers on the spectacle but is actually about something that matters.

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