Jun 25 2013 10:00am

World War Zzzzz...

What can I tell you about World War Z? It is a motion picture that exists. I paid money to see it. It has actors, dialogue, possibly a director, and may have even had a real script at some point. As legend has it, it was based on a book by Max Brooks.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the premise. People are being infected by a rage disease that’s spread by a bite from victim to victim. The scientists keep calling the pandemic a virus, but I’d argue it’s more like a parasite than anything. Frankly, there’s no real evidence that the “zombies” are even undead in the first place. You get bit, you convulse on the ground for a few seconds, and then you develop an insatiable biting fetish. Regardless, Brad Pitt is sent on a medical mystery tour to a bunch of nations onto which he is clearly trying to foist his geopolitical opinions. He wants to find a cure, and what he comes up with is a highly illogical and patently ridiculous stopgap. (Why the scientists couldn’t figure out over several weeks what he figures out in a matter of minutes is beyond me...I mean, if that’s the “solution” you’re going for then the scientists willfully ignored so much evidence that they should be tried for negligent homicide.)

On the way, he battles the zombie apocalypse with little more than a couple of magazines duct taped to his shins and forearms and a talent for making the loudest noises possible at the most inopportune moments. Note that Brad Pitt opts to protect his delicate calves rather than his thighs, where there is a major artery, or his neck, where there is a major artery, or his face, WHICH IS HIS FRAKKING FACE.

These zombies aren’t your typical cannibal corpses. They don’t eat people (or anything, from what I can tell, which begs the questions as to how they survive and what they intend to do after they’ve converted the global populace). The only way to spread the virus is through dental contact, not by bodily fluids or atmospheric contamination, which is just silly. To make matters more pathetic, the zombies are so inept that they can only hunt by sound. As long as you keep quiet you’re fine. Except when the plot dictates that they can smell you. Then they hunt by smell. But only until the plot remembers they’re supposed to hunt by sound.

WWZ’s “Zekes” seem to just like running around at top speed and nibbling exposed appendages for the sole purpose of spreading the disease. And that’s it. No ripping their victims apart in a feeding frenzy. In fact, there’s hardly any blood at all. Thank you MPAA and your asinine demands for a PG-13 rating. There’s an old story about how George Romero wrote Day of the Dead as this big budget trilogy finale, but when he was told to knock it down to PG-13 for a wider audience, he opted for a smaller budget and tons more gore. WWZ is what would’ve happened if Romero had conceded.

I won’t tell you if Brad Pitt dies at the end of WWZ or not, but keep in mind it is a PG-13 action movie in which he is the only major character. With every increasingly ludicrous, dangerous situation, he survives as long as he does because he’s the star. Everyone else dies because they aren’t the star, and if they live it’s because the movie either forgot about them or needed them to assist Brad Pitt with something important, like take a break during a zombie attack for a nice, refreshing Pepsi (HELLO GLARINGLY OBVIOUS PRODUCT PLACEMENT).

Did you ever read John Scalzi’s Redshirts? If you haven’t, it’s a great book and you should buy it immediately. In it there’s this thing called The Box. Whenever there’s a life or death problem, The Box dings out the answer right in the nick of time, no matter how nonsensical it is. Brad Pitt is a walking version of The Box. Everything that happens to him and every clue he uncovers is by perfectly timed luck. For a man who was supposed to be a really important dude in the UN, he relies far too much on happenstance and chance. The minor characters do all the intellectual heavy lifting, but Brad Pitt gets all the glory. Because he’s the star. Did you know Brad Pitt is the star? Brad Pitt Brad Pitt Brad Pitt.

Perhaps you noticed that I keep calling Brad Pitt’s character Brad Pitt. That’s because Brad Pitt isn’t playing a character, he’s playing Brad Pitt in a zombie action movie. His character is a complete blank. We get more personality out of the zombie he’s trapped in a room with at the end than we do out of the hero. You’d think the man who was largely responsible for this film making it out of arrested development, the man whose Plan B production company is running the show, the man who more or less handpicked the director would deign to attempt to act in his own movie. His only character-defining traits are his greasy hair and stupid scarf. I remember back in the day when Brad Pitt was a phenomenal actor.

The other characters are even less developed. Brad Pitt’s character has a family, but I couldn’t even begin to guess what their names were. Not that it matters anyway. Mireille Enos is completely wasted in her role. She does little more than fret on a cell phone and give Brad Pitt teary glances. His family exists to give the intro some emotional heft and, later, to force Brad Pitt to go off on his zombie cure journey. But, hell, you could’ve given him a beloved pet and gotten the same results. WWZ also cuts short James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, Peter Capaldi, and David Morse, which would be egregious if it wasn’t so insulting.

Technically speaking, the movie is well-crafted. Director Marc Forster—like Zack Snyder and, on the lower end of the spectrum, Michael Bay—relies too much on spectacle and bombast at the expense of choreographed action. The shots of swarming zombies were intense. The sheer numbers were overwhelming, often too overwhelming. The more times they showed the zombie frenzy, and the more zombies added to it, the less emotional it became. A few hundred zombies chomping on hapless Philadelphians is one thing; a million of them attacking a city of faceless, nameless refugees is meaningless. There’s this shot that is clearly supposed to be the emotional punch of the second act, where Brad Pitt helicopters over a city being overrun, but the zombies are reduced to indistinguishable killing machines. It’s hard to feel bad about a bunch of ants attacking another bunch of ants.

After years of troubled production, rewrites by just about every screenwriter in Hollywood (the 2008 script that first got Brad Pitt on board was a very different movie than what eventually was thrown up on the big screen), and extensive reshoots, WWZ really is the epitome of “death by committee.” (For more schadenfreude, check out a recent Vanity Fair piece and an article from The Hollywood Reporter from last year) Historically speaking, movies that are this difficult to birth tend to either fail spectacularly or are instantly forgotten about upon release. Unfortunately, WWZ has only been out a few days and the studio has already secured a sequel. Fan-frakking-tastic.

World War Z is basically a cross between the worst episodes of The Walking Dead and The Andromeda Strain movie, and yet is somehow even less than the sum of its mediocre parts. It isn’t a crime against humanity, like, say, the Twilight movies, but it is an affront to the genre. And that’s coming from a huge zombie fanatic. There’s a reason I keep slogging through TWD every week. Zombies are such a great concept, and there’s so many different ways you can go. You can channel Romero and use them to comment on society’s ills, or Kirkman and talk about survival against all odds. You can make them a slow moving menace or a global plague, roamers or lurkers, curable or unkillable, undead or magically hexed...

The central premise of WWZ is actually pretty intriguing, and I suspect that it’s the bloodied remains of Brooks’ original conceit. His book is an “oral history of the zombie war,” which is a whole new direction for a zombie tale. But surrounding that fascinating kernel is a rotten movie. As long as you don’t think about the film’s shaky logic, question its unsupported assumptions, or get bored with its thoroughly defanged zombies, you’ll have a great time.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

Deana Whitney
1. Braid_Tug
So it delivered on the low expectations.
Joy. Will wait for it on TV.
Mouldy Squid
2. Mouldy_Squid
Wait a minute. I am pretty sure Poe's Law is being applied here. There's no way this article is serious.

Brad Pitt was never a phenomenal actor.
Renee Hall
3. RCarterHall
Such an incredible waste of an awesome book.
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
It would have been useful if they had splashed something like:
"This is the set up piece for the next two parts. It is a prologue."
then I wouldn't have expected things to really happen. But, if I ignore that, there were some nice moments of tension as people creeped about and I waited for them to make noise, that they inevitably did.
I kind of liked the clacking jaws of the zombies. Maybe if Pitt had just had some chianti or fava beans?
So, an ok prologue--I'll have to see if anything actually happens in part 2.
5. Isingthebodyelectric
Just another librarian stepping in to say the book is awesome and if you haven't read it, you should. I love Brad Pitt but I won't be seeing this. Thanks to you (and Vanity Fair, actually) for the warning!
Alex Brown
6. AlexBrown
@Braid_Tug: The biggest crime an action movie can commit is to be boring. And this movie was. So boring. And insipid.

@Mouldy_Squid: Agree to disagree.

@RCarterHall, Isingthebodyelectric: If anything, the movie pushed the book higher on my reading queue. I want to see how Max Brooks did it right.

@stevenhalter: I doubt they thought it would do as well as it did ($66m is much higher than the projected $40m opening for North America, and worldwide their opening rises to $118.8m), but they're a long, long, loooooong way from the $400m they'll need just to break even on the shooting budget (not counting all the millions they spent on marketing...). They're basing their sequel on the expectation of a big international turnout and the fact that it had the best opening for a live-action tentpole since Avatar. I'm curious to see how much turnout drops off in the second week.
7. KF
Romero was asked to tone his Day of the Dead script down to an R rating in order to get more funding for the film. He chose to go unrated, accepted the much smaller budget, and instead reduced the scale of the script by quite a bit.
8. BrokenImages
You're so lucky you'll be reading the book for the first time. I wish I could go through that again! It's all heartbreaking psychological and socio-political commentary, and when you read it you'll see there was no way it could be made into a film (at least not even remotely faithfully) unless they made it a mockumentary...
9. sofrina
it was a very intense action movie. sure it raises flags on the zombie side but overall it was great. read the first 100 pages of the book and have to say that is quite a fascinating beast too. i'm surprised, so far, to see that whole parts of it - including passages of dialogue - are in the movie. definitely some heartbreaking tales.

i'm down for the sequel.
Walker White
10. Walker
I was amazed by how dumb the characters were in this movie. If these were the book characters, they would have figured out the importance of sounds in days (and the Israelis would have already known). They would be using loud speakers to strategically herd zombies.

Honestly, if s
Walker White
11. Walker
I really need an edit button for when I accidentally hit post.

Anyway, if sound is really that effective, why do they need the magic vaccine? Just heard the zombies into an area and hit them with flamethrowers from airborne platforms. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Deana Whitney
12. Braid_Tug
@ Walker, you have the "black", therefor you have an Edit button.

Look right under your name. After "Bookmark", should have "Edit."

13. Kevin B.
I just finished the book. It was great. It approaches the classic zombie pandemic from a different angle than any other zombie story I've read/seen.

It sounds like they didn't leave anything from it intact for the movie though. The description in the review sounds nothing like the book. They even changed "Zack" into "Zekes" ... Really what's the point of changes like that?
Alex Brown
14. AlexBrown
@BrokenImages, Kevin B.: It's a done deal. Have stolen a copy from a friend of mine. Once I get through my stack of Tor.com ARCs, Max Brooks is next :)

@sofrina: I'm lukewarm about the sequel. There's absolutely no info on it at this point, but originally the movie was supposed to be a trilogy, but when it was nearly killed a few years ago they knocked it down to a standalone with option to expand. If they keep telling the Brad Pitt story, then no way. If they take to world- and characer building then I'm all for it. Like TWD, WWZ has a great premise that it utterly squandered, and I'm somewhat willing to give them another chance.


@Walker: Yep. That's exactly how I felt about Brad Pitt's "cure." I mean, it's not like there aren't millions of sick people on the planet. Hell, the first time a swarm of zombies actively avoided a hospital, every scientist on earth should've gone "Well, that's curious." From what I gather, this is a movie problem, not a book problem.

Steven Lyle Jordan
15. Steven_Lyle_Jordan
I heard this really weird buzz in the air... apparently someone around here was trying to figure out why a zombie movie didn't make more sense.
Tabitha Jensen
16. pabkins
I will not be watching this in theater. I'm downright angry right now that my favorite zombie book was turned into this....appalled I say.
FRAKKING RIGHT rip it a near arse man!
18. Sternhammer
WWZ definitely has a few plot holes (much like most zombie movies) and bears little resemblance to the book barring the Israel location. The hunt for the origin of the disease in order to find a cure makes little sense. The virologist anthropomorphising the virus is typical Hollywood nonsense too.

That said, I loved it. The pacing is interesting. I like the changes in scale from the intimate to the large-scale and back to the intimate again. The non-cannibal zombies are a refreshing and fairly original take on the genre. There's room in a sequel to clarify how "undead" or "infected" they are. I'm completely OK with the low gore levels. Again it's refreshing to have the psychological horror of people turned unthinking beasts without the CSI-like fetishisation of dismemberment and gore. No doubt this is part of the reason for the movie's poor reception amongst traditionalists.

I've seen it twice at the cinema and will happily buy a copy on DVD when it's available.
Alex Brown
19. AlexBrown
To address commenters here and abroad who keep sarcastically exclaiming, "Plot holes in a zombie movie? No, really?" let me stop you right there.

First, your comment is indicative of a larger issue, where people automatically discount SFF as "lesser" than drama. People make the same claims of television, that it's meaningless fluff and no one should ever take it seriously. While that's certainly true of some TV and SFF, it's certainly not applicable to everything, to most things, I'd argue.

Second, plot holes aren't endemic to the zombie subgenre or the horror, action, sci-fi, or fantasy genres. Plot holes are what happens when a writer gets stuck in a corner and instead of figuring out how to get out, just teleports to another location. They also happen during production when a location suddenly becomes unavailable a day before the shoot, or a scene is cut in edits, or an actor walks off set, or a scene didn't work as well on camera as it did on paper, and so on. Everything ever written or filmed has had plot holes. It happens and you deal with it. A few minor holes are manageable, but a lot of big ones makes the whole thing fall apart. And you tend to see the latter when someone is more interested in the financial windfall rather than the art or the "death by committee" scenario.

What WWZ suffers from is worse than plot holes: a shoddy script and poor staging. Plot holes are a symptom of both diseases. WWZ fails to provide a personality to its hero, fails to provide any consistent logic to its Big Bad, and fails to provide a storyline behind "lots of zombies fuck shit up." Look at it this way, if you take away the action/horror sequences and visual/auditory bombast, what's left? Is there a story? (And "A dude goes on walkabout to find a zombie cure" isn't a story, it's a premise.) I know what the book (and the original 2008 script draft) was trying to say, but what about the final version of the movie? What is its point? Does Gerry grow as a person? Beyond the literal sense, how does the world change? The answers to those questions make a story. WWZ not only didn't answer the questions, it flat out pretended the questions were never asked in the first place.

If you're looking for something fun that you don't have to think too much about, then yes, WWZ is a fine summer tentpole. If you think it wasted a perfectly good premise and story, then it's a frustrating failure.
20. BrokenImages
I went to see the film with extremely low (ie negative) expectations and although I actually enjoyed it (probably thanks to low expectations?) I found myself more looking forward to the Pepsi scene you mentioned than to the actual finding of the cure. "Cure". That confused me a bit actually, because although the vending machine was full of just Pepsi, it looked like he was actually drinking out of some purple can of something? Pointless scene anyway. (One of many.)
The opening credits were fantastic, though. (Once we got past the 10-minute succession of production companies logos.)

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