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Entries in World War Z [2013] (1)

Thursday
Jun272013

World War Z (2013)

Pre-Animator

Max Brooks' World War Z is one of my all-time favorite books. Like The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, it's a rich sci-fi anthology whose stories start out strong and build to an almost unheard-of level of imaginative awesomeness by the last page. My stomach knotted up in the middle of both books, sure that a downturn was just around the corner. But, no, the authors' command of voice, plot, and drama created cinematic universes in my head that I doubt any filmmaker could do justice.

But they'll sure try, won't they? Like many others, I was skeptical when the World War Z movie was announced--believing it would be better suited as an HBO miniseries instead. Linked to this news was Brad Pitt's involvement (his production company, Plan B, had secured the rights), which turned that skepticism into full-on panic. If there was ever a project that screamed "anti-movie-star vehicle", surely this was it.

By the time Quantum of Solace's Marc Forster was tapped to helm, stories of Brooks' alleged dissatisfaction with the film's direction had already surfaced. These public concerns were compounded by scripting and budgeting issues, and I began to think the whole project was a hoax--or, at the very least, fodder for a new Lost in La Mancha-style documentary, perhaps dreamt up by Christopher Guest.

The movie came out last week, and even amid the mostly positive reviews and healthy opening-weekend box office, I remained doubtful that there would be anything to chew on. Forster and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof (with input from J. Michael Straczynski) ditched the novel's oral history structure--indeed, its entire narrative focus--in order to give audiences a man-on-the-ground action movie about surviving the zombie apocalypse. The book's richness stems from the variety of voices and locations that the faceless journalist gathers while piecing together a nearly world-ending tragedy ten years past. Hollywood's take on that premise seemed to involve Pitt running around the globe talking in concerned tones about vaccines and evacuations to an interchangeable supporting cast.

That's all in there, but getting to those locations and uncovering the "cure" for the undead threat makes for a really compelling, pretty smart summer movie. Like Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, the outbreak happens right up front. Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a retired UN worker who finds himself trapped in downtown Philadelphia with his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) when thousands of people begin attacking each other. The family seeks shelter, waiting for one of Gerry's old government contacts to fly them to safety aboard an aircraft carrier. In exchange for his family's continued stay on the ship, Gerry agrees to escort a young scientist (Elyes Gabel) to South Korea in the hopes of figuring out where the madness began.

Like the book, the film version of World War Z plays out in chapters comprised of exciting set pieces in various locales. From an overrun military base in Korea, to Israel's walled off fortress, and a spectacular plane crash* in rural Wales, the film has a definite episodic quality that keeps things fresh and in-motion from start to finish. The funny thing is, these stories have hardly anything to do with Brooks' novel.

Which brings me to the stunning revelation I had about three-quarters of the way through the movie: Forster, Pitt, and the rest didn't make a film adaptation of World War Z; they made a prequel to it. It's hardly a spoiler to say that the world is still turning at the end, or that Pitt closes his outbreak-post-script narration with, "Our war has just begun"--the perfect lead-in to a second film centering on the various conflicts that raged elsewhere while Gerry looked for a cure.

Not since Midnight in Paris has my skepticism been so thoroughly eroded by unexpected delight. No one, including me, had given this team of filmmakers credit enough to think they'd take the story in such a bold direction--while still leaving room for a more traditional telling later on.

But despite its wonderful spirit, World War Z suffers from a near-insurmountable problem: its PG-13 rating. I get that, after half a decade and (reportedly) $200 million riding on this mess of a production, the money-crunchers were understandably concerned about recouping their costs--which means getting the film in front of as many eyeballs as possible. But in eliminating the gore almost entirely from this picture, they've handicapped their audience's moviegoing experience. Worse yet, they seemed to have exercised more caution than anyone might have expected them to in working towards a broader rating.

When TV shows like The Walking Dead show graphic, full-on disembowelment week after week, is it really pushing the envelope to show the aftermath of an Israeli soldier (the remarkable Daniella Kertesz) getting her arm chopped off? Aside from a sort-of-bloody piece of gauze and some agonized facial expressions, there's zero indication that the actress did anything but step on a nail. As with all the violence in this picture, editors Roger Barton and Matt Chesse do an award-worthy job of cutting together the oddest, most awkward angles from whatever footage they had lying around--all in the service of making absolutely no one squeamish.

It's sad how frequently the heart-pounding moments of claustrophobia, panic, and desperation are cut short by bizarre, Puritanical cut-aways. When World War Z hits home video, I'm sure it'll make a great drinking game--if the participants can quit crying in their beer long enough to play. Actually, blu-ray is probably the only chance we'll have to see what Forster and company really had in mind, with the inevitable "Unrated Director's Cut" surely in the works.

And, no, you don't have to wait for a sequel to get to the good stuff. On its own merits, this is a surprisingly entertaining, smart summer movie that feels like a genuine roller coaster. My quibbles with the presentation aside, there's a lot to love here, and I now have confidence in this team's ability to actually adapt World War Z--someday.

*I wouldn't blame you for thinking of Iron Man 3 during this scene. I waited in vain for Tony Stark to show up and mistakenly rescue the zombies getting sucked out of Coach.