Friday, August 1, 2014

World War Z: The World Ends With One Bang After Another

Okay, I’m just going to be blunt here. I am fucking sick of zombies. I am sick of zombies because zombies have been so overexposed that they’ve entered the realms of the comedic. They’re a pop-culture punchline, and the subcultural obsession with them is equally as much of a joke. The idea of a “zombie apocalypse” is nothing more than mental masturbation fodder, an opportunity for people to fantasize about themselves as badasses-in-waiting, some kind of narcissistic reverie that saps the possibility of anything apocalyptic or even genuinely frightening. The point of an apocalypse scenario is that almost everyone will die, and the world will be brutally hard for those who remain. The odds are not ever in your favor, and the living may envy the dead. I feel like that point has been lost.

It’s a shame, because zombies, handled well, can make for really good and startling commentary on the human condition, mostly because I think they’re one of the few monsters who work best in the background. You can’t talk to zombies, they aren’t criminal masterminds, their entire thing is that they don’t think, they can’t reason, they just keep coming. Night of the Living Dead knew this to tremendous effect, even today. 28 Days Later, for all the whining about “fast zombies”, knew this too. The Dead knows this very well. Zombies are best when they are handled like a force of nature, because then they become the background condition against which humanity can be explored and tested. In fact, one of my favorite zombie stories isn't even a movie, it’s the book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. It’s presented as an oral history taken many years after a zombie plague completely reshapes the social, political, economic, and geographical landscape of our world. It’s a collection of stories, some epic in scope, some highly personal, about people at all levels. Soldiers, politicians, children, bystanders, movers and shakers, and those moved and shaken. The zombies are almost the least important thing about it, as a thoughtful examination of what the real implications of a “zombie apocalypse” might be.

So I was pretty nervous when I found out that World War Z was being turned into a feature-length motion picture. I always thought the book would be best served by a Band of Brothers-style miniseries treatment, like a historical drama from an alternate universe. But nope, instead we get two-ish hours of blockbuster that manages to both capture the book’s virtues better than I thought it would and betray them by fitting them into something too close to the big action-movie template.

Gerry Lane is a loving husband and father, busy making pancakes for breakfast before taking his wife Karin to work and his daughters to school. Gerry used to have a really tough job that took him all over the world, but he doesn’t do that anymore, and Karin seems happy about that. They end up stuck in Philadelphia rush-hour traffic, and in their waiting for lights to change and cars to inch forward, Gerry - ever observant - notices a large number of police vehicles whizzing by. Eventually these vehicles become so careless that one clips his side mirror off. And then there’s more, and more, and then an explosion somewhere far behind. Something massive is moving up the street, some roiling chaos. People stagger down the street, lurching and twitching, attacking anyone they see.

And those they attack begin to twitch and lurch as well.

The premise is brutally simple: It’s a virus of some sort. It is communicated by contact with bodily fluids. It makes a person crazed, insensate, and violent. It also appears to keep the body animate after death. It takes hold quickly, within a matter of seconds. It propagates before Gerry’s eyes. From here, the movie moves very quickly. Gerry gets a phone call from someone very high up at the U.N. It turns out that Gerry used to be an investigator for the U.N., a job that took him to the worst parts of the world and showed him humanity at its ugliest. In fine action movie tradition, Gerry has a very particular set of skills, and he’s being called out of retirement to help tackle this threat. And it’s this basic premise that, to me, showcases both the strength and weakness of this film. It’s strong in that even though this is one of the oldest angles in the book, it’s given some teeth by the scope and desperation of the situation. Gerry and his family - after a harrowing escape through the streets and buildings of Philadelphia, culminating in an early-dawn helicopter lift - aren't whisked to safety because it’s the right thing to do, it’s because he’s useful to what’s left of order in a world collapsing at a frightening rate (as it would when you’re dealing with a virus that makes Ebola look like the sniffles), and he and his family are only allowed shelter on the condition that he do the job. Otherwise they get to fend for themselves. It doesn’t feel like contrived villainy - shit really is that bad and there really isn’t any room for dead weight. It helps the film feel like it really is dealing with an unimaginable pandemic.

On the other hand, it also sets up the narrative frame for rest of the film, which in broad strokes is exactly what you’d expect from a big-budget action film. Gerry is whisked from location to location in search of a potential vaccine, a desperate attempt to stem the rising tide of casualties. That’s not necessarily a problem, because I think on its face it honors the idea of the book - this is just one story out of many stories playing out over the course of the pandemic. What we get is a slam-bang story of adventure from the point of view of one of the major players in this point in history. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I can understand wanting to go with something like this instead of the story of Jurgen Warmbrunn (the only recognizable name from the book), which would have been a tale of...reports, and collating information. But the downside is that the middle third of the movie ends up being Gerry bouncing from location to location, punctuated by big action setpieces which feel, well, punctual, in the sense that they very clearly demarcate transition from one place to another, and it all feels pretty mechanical. This also serves to sap some of the tension from the film, because we start to know that it’s been X amount of time since something went really wrong, so here comes something bad...and that’s exactly what happens. If the filmmakers had trusted themselves enough to turn the volume down a little, to put more focus back on the people, it would have gone a long way.

On the other hand, I have to balance this against the positives that the film’s scope brings. Shuttling Gerry from place to place really does communicate the feeling that everything went to shit everywhere in a hurry, and the story doesn’t always take the turns that you think it’s going to, usually to a pretty fatalistic bent. It could have been so much more clichéd than it ended up being, and I like how they handled the idea of the zombies in the film - the rapid onset is something particular to the movie, and not typical for zombie films, but I think it helps underscore the idea that this really is a force of nature. Zombies are an overwhelming force in this film, appearing in packs that become hordes that become actual tidal waves, an insensate mass of appetite living only to propagate itself. When it works, it’s sort of breathtaking, And they work individually as well, in the tenser, quieter moments that dominate the last act of the film, the zombies are twitching, croaking, contorted things, entirely oriented by stimulus and unnaturally vital. They’re utterly lacking in humanity, and there’s nothing glib about confrontations with them - they’re ugly and scary and threatening. They’re as much a force of nature as sharks or wolves or avalanches or tsunamis, all things evoked by the representation of zombies here. It’s the sort of thing you need a blockbuster budget to pull off, and they do.

So it’s a tough call in the end. Sure, as a fan of the book there’s a part of me that sort of wanted to see key moments like the Battle of Yonkers or the formulation of the Redeker Plan or the reclaiming of cities once humanity regrouped, but I firmly believe that slavish devotion to the source material for the sake of the fans is a bad idea. So my problem is less with the lack of fidelity to the book than the imbalance between spectacle and human-scale conflict. It’s appropriately somber throughout, and the ending manages to avoid being a happy one without being gratuitously bleak. Sure, the second one has been greenlit (because of course it has), but I think I’m okay with that, because the sense I got throughout is that this is one story, not the only story. Maybe having introduced the idea with a lot of fireworks, subsequent efforts can tackle smaller, more intimate stories at all different scales. I know, I know, but a man can dream.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

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