Thursday, March 20, 2014

WORLD WAR Z (2013)

I'm told (by people who would know) that Max Brooks' "World War Z" is an exceptionally good book, an epic, globe-spanning "oral history" of an apocalyptic uprising of Romeroesque flesh-eating zombies (modeled on Studs Terkel's "The Good War"). Definitely my cup 'o tea, and one I'll likely imbibe in the near future.

I have, unfortunately, already seen how Hollywood treated the tale. Conceptually, the creators immediately disposed of the successful book, putting it through the usual creative gang-rape--I'm told the biggest similarity between it and the eventual film is its title--and rendering the film adaptation as a typical Hollywood tentppole, a huger-than-huge action extravaganza with a Big Name Star in front of it (Brad Pitt), shot on a budget that more closely resembles the gross domestic product of a small nation. As with anything on which an American studio spends that kind of money, it's made by a committee,[1] filled with computer-generated effects spectacles to ooh and aah the bumpkins, plotted, shot, and edited in Attention-Span-Optional mode, watered down to a PG-13 rating so as not to keep the kiddies away, and dumbed down to serve the needs of the dumbest son of a bitch who may wander into a theater to watch it.

I've lived long enough to have seen the birth of the tentpole pictures. The ones that caught fire in my youth and created the trend made their big piles of money because they were actually good, or that's what I'd like to think. Am I wrong in that? The pictures were good and all these years later they hold up, but was this really a relevant factor in their success in those days? Were people really just paying for empty spectacle all along? To see the sorry state of this kind of movie now and contemplate the paradoxically obscene piles of money the pictures make anyway... it makes my head hurt. With few exceptions, I don't watch these kinds of movies anymore.

I do watch zombie movies from time to time, though, and this was the most expensive film ever made in that particular subgenre. Not that its creators wanted you to know it was of that particular subgenre. I saw WWZ because my uncle inexplicably bought it, and something I noticed in looking over his copy is that nowhere on the packaging does it mention that it has anything to do with zombies or that it's even a horror picture.[2] The full description on the back reads:

"'The suspense in killer!' raves Peter Travers of Rolling Stone in this fast-paced, pulse-pounding action epic. Former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is in a race against time to save both his family and the world from a pandemic that is toppling governments and threatening to destroy humanity itself. David Denby of The New York Times calls World War Z 'the most gratifying action spectacle in years!'"

I was surprised to read, there, that Peter Travers was in the movie--the revelation does make you wonder why a studio that spends $190 million on a movie can't pay someone a few bucks to write competent ad-copy for them. That aside, the DVD cover reflects the description--it's just Brad Pitt with a gun, looking like he's dressed for action while helicopter gunships fly by in the background. The studio suits apparently decided to conceal WWZ's zombie-ness in order to up its "mainstream" appeal. Because, y'know, zombies aren't "mainstream." That's why no one paid to see the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake or ZOMBIELAND or the infinite RESIDENT EVIL films, no one watches THE WALKING DEAD, no one read Brooks' "World War Z," and no studio spent $190 million to turn the latter into a movie. Twice.

Though only one film was released, WWZ was, in effect, filmed twice. It wasn't just made; it was remade. Officially, there was only a round of "reshoots" to fix the ending. In reality, the suits saw the finished film, realized it was a disaster, and, in effect, ordered it remade. The "reshoots" had a seven-week shooting schedule and cost something between $20 million and $65 million. That's a remake. Looking over the version that was released--an utterly moronic piece of shit that wasn't worth the guitar picks that were precluded birth in order to make it--one shudders at the thought of how bad the original cut must have been. Only the eventual theatrical release made its way to video.

WWZ chucked the shuffling ghouls of Brooks' book and, instead, followed and expanded upon one of the least fortunate trends in contemporary zombie pictures; the dead are hyperactive, rocket-fast sprinters. Rather than being a disadvantage, death supercharges them, and WWZ ups the ante by making them more like ants; they're dead and supposed to be dumb, but they seem to have a hive mind that lets them work together toward a common goal, and they run all over one another like ants from a hill in ways that are physically impossible for humans and look even more comically absurd on film than they would sound if I described them. There's no humanity in them. They aren't particularly ghoulish in appearance, either. They don't eat people like Brooks' zombies, because that kind of carnage would kick the whole affair above the contractually-obligated PG-13 rating. Instead, they just bite folks. Bite them in order to spread the disease. Central to the film's plot--WWZ tries to make a big mystery of it--is the fact that the zombies ignore people with terminal illnesses. They only bite healthy people, because that's what the disease infecting them wants. But the disease kills its victims in, quite literally, 10 seconds.

If that makes any sense to you, you're probably of WORLD WAR Z's target audience. And shame on you.

--j.

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[1] Depressingly, the director of record for WWZ is Marc Forster, who, at one point in life, made flicks like EVERYTHING PUT TOGETHER (2000) and the incredible MONSTER'S BALL. Marc, you break my heart.

[2] Filmmakers who make horror pictures then explain they aren't really horror pictures have, of course, been a running joke in horror fandom for literally decades.

UPDATE (22 March, 2014) - As I posted this in some venues around the internet, one of the responses that came to me more than once was that I didn't outline a lot of the particular idiocies of the film itself. It's true one could write a long article indeed cataloging WWZ's many idiocies. Throughout the film, for example, our hero travels around the world, and the situation with the zombies goes to shit as soon as he comes on the scene. The zombies had to wait for the star of the movie to arrive, you see. That's the kind of "plotting" at work in WWZ. As someone on one of the IMDb message boards observed, if Pitt's character had just stayed away, all that mayhem could have been avoided. Another example of idiocy is when Pitt's character is trying to be stealthy and sneak past a gaggle of zombies and he leaves the ringer on his sat-phone on. And--wouldn't you know it?--his awful wife chooses that very moment to call. The ringing alerts the creatures and Pitt's team is wiped out. And so on. In WWZ, these inanities are ubiquitous. They're also ubiquitous in nearly every big Hollywood "tentpole" film, and my article was really a lament over how bad that kind of film had gotten and over the process that gives birth to such rubbish. I understand why readers of an article of that nature might be skeptical of building on that kind of premise without quantifying it with specifics. That's why I just decided, at nearly 4 in the morning, to tack on this little update.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Since your on a movie review kick. Why not write a thesis on 1985's 'DAY OF THE DEAD'.
A 90 minute movie better then two seasons worth of walking dead.

John said...

I definitely agree with you regarding the quality of earlier tentpole films. There's been an incredible, tragic fall from grace for the modern blockbuster, and while the reasons for this are multifaceted and well-documented by countless writers, if pressed I would have to say that the biggest factor that ruins the enjoyment for me would be the overabundant CGI.

Over the past few months, I've been re-experiencing the 80's and early-to-mid 90's movies from my childhood--Ghostbusters, Die Hard, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Crow, and various others that range from impressive, to mediocre, to enjoyable purely from nostalgia--and I'm amazed at how much quotable dialogue and memorable set pieces exist per capita. The inherent constraints of a pre-CGI world forced filmmakers to not only use their spectacle more sparingly (and with more buildup), but to supplement those signature moments with inventive lines and performances.

The Raiders Of The Lost Ark gave us the legendary scene where a henchmen draws his sword and issues a challenge to Indiana Jones via a complicated and menacing series of flourishes, only to have Harrison Ford promptly draw his gun, plant a bullet in him, and nonchalantly go about his day. Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, on the other hand, gives us an aggressively boring sword fight between two characters standing on opposing Jeeps traveling side-by-side through a painfully cartoonish forest. In the 80's, a situation where an exhausted actor didn't want to try a stunt for the twentieth time led to a creative solution that became one of the most iconic scenes in action movie history. In the 21st century, all it leads to is having stunt doubles mechanically engage one another in front of a green screen, with the actors' faces pasted on via CGI in post-production, like swapping doll heads.

And for all of the impressive-at-the-time special effects of Ghostbusters, what sticks in my mind isn't the final showdown between the god Gozer, or the building-sized Stay Puft marshmallow man, but Bill Murray saying "back off man, I'm a scientist," with that cheerful, psychotic twinkle in his eye. I can't imagine what that movie would look like if it were made today, but I'm sure moments like that would be replaced by lengthy green screen sessions that are as expensive as they are exhausting.

It'll be fascinating to see how our current era is viewed 50 or so years from now. Nothing ages faster than special effects, and blockbusters that are built exclusively around green screen indulgence may be nothing more than the synthpop of cinematic history.

Anonymous said...

Wheres your review for this weeks walking dead did your leg get stuck under a rock. Or twist your knee. Or maybe its taking 3 days to travel to your computer you had to stop and drink some moonshine.

cinemarchaeologist said...

John, I started a reply to your thoughtful comment, it ran a bit long and I opted to turn it into a full-blown article. It's here:
http://cinemarchaeologist.blogspot.com/2014/04/cgi-its-discontents.html