Tuesday, 25 June 2013

World War Z: Brad Pitt is NOT a zombie, because that would take way too much energy

It's only when you get to the end of World War Z that you realise the most imaginative thing you've seen was the opening credits, which keep running dissolves across the action on the screen until you realise, after five minutes of jumpcuts, that they've been getting partly masked by the outlines of "WORLD WAR Z" in big sans serif text. Smartest moment in the movie, and as you can tell, I'm not convinced it was that smart. It was only when I checked IMDB to see what else the director had done that I realised that this was the same Marc Forster who'd managed to bugger up a James Bond movie with Daniel Craig in it. 

Well, it was run off to a zombie movie or have a long conversation about workforce planning, which really would have immersed me more in the living dead than I wanted to be in that exact moment. So off I went to the cheapass Tuesday show at  the Hidden City fleapit, because absolutely nothing I'd heard about this production made me think it was gonna be worth much more than £3.

Let me count the ways. On the one hand, World War Z had a hard time getting out of post-production. I was in Glasgow when they were filming there in 2011 - somehow it was cheaper to fly everything to Glasgow and pretend it was Philadelphia than it was to just stay in the USA - and here it is two years later and the thing has only just climbed out of whatever pit it's been in ever since. Rarely a good sign. And then, there was Brad Pitt. I made my mind up about Brad the first time I watched Se7en and saw him try to summon up a reaction to finding Gwynneth Paltrow's head in a box. It looked like he'd just heard that his cousin's hamster might be poorly. To add to the fun, he was pulling this weakass near-performance while bracketed on either side by Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey. As the scene went on, even Gwynneth's head seemed to be getting more done. Brad, I thought to myself, you're pretty, and you make a convincing jerk, but I am never going to be able to take you seriously again. Even Fight Club didn't really change my mind much (I take the view that we'd all be much better off if it turned out Brad was a figment of Ed Norton's imagination).

So the thought that they'd had to build an adaptation of Max Brooks' perfectly good zombie book around a marquee name, my first thought was "that won't end well" and my second one was "and did it have to be Brad?"

The Zombie Survival Guide, which of course has a place of honour on my bookshelf, is a very well executed gag that contains lots of perfectly good advice in and among the straight faced critiques of chainsaws as a social improvement tool (Brooks and I are of not of one mind when it comes to the chainsaw's potential for making the world a better place). Success being what it is, it had to have a follow up, and considering that he was probably being pushed for The Werewolf Survival Guide or such as, I was kind of relieved when it was a collection of short stories all set in a well thought out zombie apocalypse. It would have been hard to make it into a tv series; although short stories lend themselves to tv episodes, they're all set in different places and have different characters, and it would have been expensive to make and really hard to get an audience to commit to; we DO like our characters coming back week after week. 

Of course, all those problems are magnified to hell and back when you decide instead to turn the book into a single two hour movie with one big name star who you have to keep on screen as much as possible in order to justify his paycheque. So instead of adapting all - or any - of the tense little vignettes in Brooks' book, we got a loose narrative where Brad singlehandedly locates the cure for the zombie plague, because for some reason a retired war crimes investigator is better able to figure out epidemics than doctors. We get a series of set pieces, set variously in Philadelphia (Glasgow), Korea (an aircraft hangar that could be literally anywhere), Jerusalem (Malta! and a mountain of CGI), and Wales (Scotland again) and also the inside of an aircraft.

Does any of it work? Well, the movie's a travesty of the book (the Onion's AVClub rather wonderfully suggested that now that producers were talking about a sequel, they knew just the book they could adapt to show us more scenes from the zombie war). It's also not really that much of a plot even on its own merits. Some of the individual set pieces are pretty good; there's an impressive bit where zombies get loose on a crowded aircraft which really works at every level; it's exciting and horrible and pretty scary, and it doesn't end well, any more than you'd expect it to. 

Because no-one ever can just you know, keep to the canon, the movie's zombies are brisk and organised, and can form inhuman pyramids to overcome obstacles, which ups the challenge factor quite a bit. The engine driving the movie is Brad staying one step ahead of the tidal wave of doom running through community after community as he searches for a cure; but it's easier to believe in the living dead than it is to believe that so many people would drop everything and throw their lives away just to oblige the United Nations of all unlikely things. I found it particularly hard to believe that the Mossad would even give a UN operative the time of day. I'm not sure what to make of the whole conceit of Jerusalem holding the horde of ravenous subhumans at bay with a vast wall, only to have their defences overcome by the sheer weight of numbers; did anyone think about the subtext at all before they fired up the CGI computers? It's a great looking set piece, but I can't imagine that it's going to go without being picked to pieces in the sandbox.

And it looks almost as if trashing Glasgow and Valletta used up all the money, because much of the rest of the movie plays out in small confined spaces with small numbers of zombies and a bare minimum of big ticket effects. There's a hint, at the end, of what they might once have hoped for; little snapshots of the much bigger global struggle play out against Brad Pitt's voice-over about the struggle continuing; in those two minutes or so, you're seeing what a movie actually based on the book would have looked like.

Other stray thoughts; shoot the continuity person, because Brad sets off from an aircraft carrier on a lumbering four engined cargo plane (we will pass in lofty silence over the sheer impossibility of such a take-off) and in virtually every shot of the plane after that, it's visibly different from each other shot. I lost count of the different makes and models involved, but given that they were faking half of what was on the screen most of the time anyhow, it just seems sloppy that they couldn't keep the damn plane consistent.

I think Brad's character is supposed to be burned out from his experiences investigating war crimes, but he winds up playing one worn-out tone so consistently through the movie that it's tempting to speculate that they had to make the zombies move fast just for some screen contrast with their star.

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