There are few sweeter phrases in the English language than “I told you so.” Maybe “Open bar” or “nymphomaniac cheerleader”, but it’s far more common to encounter a situation where you get to use “I told you so.”
Case in point, the entire internet is about to start yelling it at Brad Pitt’s latest movie, “World War Z.”
Adapted from Max Brook’s award winning novel of the same name, the movie has gone with the standard Hollywood formula for adapting literature, in this case driving up to Max Brooks’ house with a pile of money and saying “Cool title, how much you want for it?”
Early trailers for the film were pilloried by fans, and many predicted (correctly) that the film would have almost nothing in common with the book.
So it was written by netgeeks, and so it came to pass.
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With a direct comparison between film and book largely pointless, the film should really be reviewed on its own merits. Unfortunately, these are few.
Frustratingly, the minor points are in an almost perfect, yin-yang balance between good and bad. For every smart, cool idea, there’s a moment of forehead slapping stupidity to counteract it.
On the plus side, the movie treats the audience with respect and assumes that the average cinema patron is smart enough to notice something without having it rammed down their throats. It’s the first rule of storytelling; show, don’t tell. The film does well at this.
In an opening scene, as Brad Pitt and his generic nuclear family flee the chaos, a child’s toy is dropped and begins playing a pre-recorded counting game. As the plinking, kiddy-friendly music plays and the toy counts, Pitt watches a bite victim turn, allowing us to understand the speed of transformation between human and zombie.
Pitt’s character is also smart enough to almost immediately begin bite-proofing himself, taping magazines to his arms for padding, and therefore avoiding the “dead because he wore a t-shirt” fate that befalls hundreds of characters in zombie movies.
Despite this, Pitt never thinks to put on, say, gloves, or a thick coat, or a scarf, all of which would offer vital zombie protection. All of which, incidentally, also prove that zombies are basically an unusually aggressive form of inclement weather.
Additionally, despite his seemingly intelligent character, at one point Pitt has to enter a secure room, and decides to put down the crowbar he’s been using for defense in order to enter the security code. Pitt’s character is apparently the only human being in recorded history who needs both hands to enter a PIN number.
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As for the major points, they’re almost universally bad.
Whereas Brooks’ novel took the approach of “The World At War,” and strove to show the global impact of a war on multiple levels, the movie just sees Pitt flying to various countries, staying five minutes and then escaping again. Only briefly, in a montage in the final minutes, does the film hint at the global catastrophe that should have been depicted. As a minor spoiler, the finale takes place in the Welsh valleys. Whilst there are inumerable unwritten rules in Hollywood, one of the more important ones is “never set your multimillion dollar movie’s climax within fifty miles of Merthyr Tydfil.”
The casting, meanwhile, is an abject lesson in waste. Outstanding actors are under-used at will. David Morse (in his third project about an apocalyptic plague after “Twelve Monkeys,” also with Pitt, and “The Stand”) appears in one scene as a nameless ex-CIA operative, making his mark and then immediately disappearing. Peter Capaldi, whose Malcolm Tucker character in “The Thick Of It” is ten times scarier than the zombies on offer here, is used strictly as third-act exposition. Even Pitt, a better actor than often credited, is given absolutely no space to build a likeable character that we can root for.
All of these actors would, of course, be expendable if the zombies in this reputed zombie film were worth the admission price, but sadly, they’re anything but. Handicapped by a PG-13 rating in the states, there is nowhere near enough gore or violence to make them a credible threat, not least when you can see far more brutal, believable versions of the walking dead on TV in… well, in “The Walking Dead.”
Not that these creatures are exactly dead. Zombie geeks have been arguing for a decade now as to what constitutes a true zombie, ever since Danny Boyle’s definitive take on fast zombies/infected humans in “28 Days Later…”, but whilst “World War Z” is unusual in that it habitually uses the word “zombie,” and just as often calls them “the undead,” it’s never once stipulated that these things have died and returned. For once, they really do deserve to be called “infected,” and for once, ironically, they aren’t.
Visually, the “zombies” are a messy, CGI blur, no better than what was evidence in the trailer. Even individual zombies come off as either sloppy CGI or, in closeup, twitchy and vaguely comical. Several scenes drew laughter instead of terror.
Overall, the writing has been on the wall since the trailer in terms of book adaptation hopes. “World War Z” was never going to do its brilliant source material justice.
Sadly, even as its own movie, “World War Z” is nothing is not a hugely missed oppourtunity.
Whilst rumours of a troubled shoot and enormous re-shoots reached the public a long time ago, this is really a film where the good parts were in the already-mediocre trailer, and even with re-shoots, it will stand as evidence that you can’t polish – or CGI – a turd.
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