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Review: World War Z: Unrated Version (2013)

By Andrew Wells

World War Z: Unrated Version (2013) **
UR, 122 min.
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, J. Michael Straczynski, Max Brooks (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kurtesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Matthew Fox, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, Mortiz Bleibtreu, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove

In the year since the theatrical release of Brad Pitt’s big screen adaptation of Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse fictionalized history novel “World War Z”, the general consensus on the film version has been that of disappointment. This is despite the fact that the film grossed over $200 million in the U.S. theatrically after an expensive reshoot of the film’s original ending. In fact, it was more like a reshoot of the entire last act of the film, which was totally rewritten.

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Much of the disappointment comes from the fact that the movie’s plot is nothing like the novel, which remains unread by myself. I can stand a movie that doesn’t really follow the book. What I have trouble with in “World War Z” is the complete lack of any dramatic development whatsoever, including but not limited to characters, plot, and even environment. I don’t even know what kind of a world it is in which this story takes place. I suppose it’s presented in an ultra realistic way, so we might believe that this could actually happen in our world. I think that’s what all the news feeds that play over the opening credits are supposed to establish. These news reports allude so vaguely to some strange developments about a worldwide plague, I’m not even sure if the family we’re introduced to in the film’s opening scene is aware of what’s been happening even though we witness Brad Pitt watching one.

Soon the action has the family in downtown Philadelphia. We don’t know where they are going or why. For some reason, screenwriters often seem to think that a lack of exposition gives the audience an impression of realism. Even if that were so, does a zombie movie on this global scale really need to sacrifice such integral storytelling elements for the sake of realism when it really is a form of fantasy horror? It seems to have become assumed that audiences know so much about zombie culture these days that it isn’t necessary to explain the rules of the zombie creature anymore. The characters in this movie certainly seem to have a good understanding of how zombies work despite their bafflement as to how such a thing could happen and their reluctance to even categorize what is happening as having anything to do with “zombies.”

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Anyway, Pitt is a former UN investigator who is put back into the field after he successfully navigates his own family to the safety of a military aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic. The mobilized fleet is one of the few truly safe places left on Earth, and although he has no desire to return to service, it means a safe haven for his family. Soon he is globe trotting, trying to track down the origin of the zombie virus. This involves a cadre of locations, non-stop action, and a plethora of special effects.

The movie looks great. Although I felt the 3D in the theater did little to enhance the story development, it did look slightly better than it does on home video. Its non-stop pace is also effective in keeping the audiences attention. However, there are some gaping holes in the structure of the story. It almost feels like its three-act structure might be cobbling together three acts from different movies. First our hero is accompanying a scientist to find the virus’ origin. That scientist is killed so quickly we wonder why they even bothered. Then he’s off to Israel to find out how they knew the plague was coming before it arrived. Then he’s in Cardiff looking for a World Health Organization facility to manufacture a cure even though he never looked back into finding the origin after the scientist was killed. True, he learns key elements that go into developing a way to combat the virus at all these stations, but they’re all pretty awkwardly fit together.

I did like the inclusion of some elements that are often ignored in the zombie genre. The global scale is appropriate for how the zombie virus operates. I’m always skeptical when zombie filmmakers find a way to isolate the plague to an island or some such thing that would leave the door open for an organized force to come in and save the day. I liked the scientific and strategic approach the writers took in finding a solution for such a devastating set up. The zombies themselves, however, are not designed to distinguish themselves from those of other films.

In the past few weeks, the movie has become available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Netflix is even offering the Unrated Cut of the film, which includes six extra minutes. I decided to watch this version hoping it would close some of the gaps I felt existed in the theatrical cut. Frankly, I couldn’t tell of any difference between the two versions. Maybe some of the action sequences were extended. Perhaps there was a little more gore added back in that the MPAA took umbrage with in a PG-13 movie. I’ve always wondered just what the point of a PG-13 zombie movie could be. The main horror action element of a zombie flick involves dead people eating the flesh of living people. How can that be presented in an appropriate manner for children of any age?

Despite the universal disappointment and boosted by the world wide box office totals, a sequel was announced before the film’s U.S. theatrical opening weekend had ended. I’m not sure where they can go with the film’s conclusion, which is obviously constructed to produce possible sequels but leaves little to explore in terms of the zombie plague itself. The makers of the far superior “28 Days Later” left more on the table by not hinting at a sequel than this one does by all but declaring it.

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