World War Z: The Movie – One Goal, No Soul

Alright, I wrote a really long pre-amble to this post, but then it went on a little too long, so I posted it as its own thing. So, for this one, we’re getting right down to business!

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If you want to see a zombie movie, then don’t go see World War Z. If you’re a fan of the book and want something equally as intelligent, then don’t go see World War Z. This is not the utter condemnation it sounds like. It’s a recognition of what World War Z is; in many ways, it’s not your traditional zombie movie. There are things it does right and things it does wrong. So, by now, you’re waiting for me to do my “I know it’s not horror, but it has zombies, so swiggity-swool, I think it’s cool,” but no, we’ve got to get right down to it. Right now. Now. …

Contemporary pop-culture wisdom states that zombie movies are not about zombies. You could replace the zombies with anything (flood, bandits, slow-moving, overly-aggressive girl-scouts), and it would still ring as a zombie movie. Zombie movies are, at their core, about the walls of society breaking down. That’s a bit trite, so let’s elaborate. They’re about the decisions people make when no decision looks good. They’re about selfishness, avarice, hope and courage. The outside world is hostile and bursting to get in, but you do everything you can to keep it out. Meanwhile, your society is rotting away from the inside. Think “The Divide.” That’s a zombie movie that includes absolutely no zombies. I’m not recommending that you watch it, because it’s incredibly depressing and so focused on delivering a message that it skips right over character depth. It explores interesting portions of the human psyche, but it does not explore gestalt humans. The complexity that the characters do have isn’t complemented by much. It’s just all bad, all the time. Even the light that manages to squeak through is yellowed with grime and fly corpses. Then again, terrifying situations do tend to focus your priorities a bit. I’m just not sure it’s as black and white as all that.

That’s the freedom that zombie movies give us. They let us take people to the edge and comment on what they find there. World War Z is a bit… unusual, in this respect. First of all (and SPOILERS, btw), it’s all about Brad Pitt flying around the world looking for a cure and appreciating different set-pieces. Its schizophrenic presentation is a bit reminiscent of Modern Warfare, which isn’t necessarily bad, and it’s helped by a fairly decent framing mechanism. The problem is that World War Z, the book, is told in vignettes. They’re small pieces of exposition, told within a larger short story, that combine together to form their own story. Making a movie out of this chaotic approach would be impossible, unless you went full-on mockumentary (truth be told, I wanted THAT movie, but…). They did the best they could. They wove in references and set-pieces fairly competently, even if the driving plot is a bit absurd. I mean, that’s a lot of resources to be spending on one man, especially one without the means to posit a solution.

Speaking of plots, they stripped out references to the Redeker Plan. I think it’s because it didn’t fit in to the world they were trying to create. If you’re familiar with the book, then you know that the Redeker Plan is the extremely pragmatic, controversial solution to the zombie apocalypse and that it was implemented during World War Z. Essentially, it talks about who to save, why, and how. Then, it talks about who should be sacrificed and why. It’s about the greater survival of the species, even if the survival of our humanity is a bit more questionable. The book was an indictment of popularity and policy. It was a harsh criticism and a noble celebration of our greatest endeavour: politics. You can laugh at that statement all you want, but working on the level of “society” is incredibly complicated. It’s like House on Haunted Hill with a room full of socio-paths, and the occasional psychopath. However, this approach would have been a little too dark for the movie we got.

The World War Z movie, as it stands, is about the hope and bravery inherent in the individuals working to make society run again. It’s about the small acts of kindness that can mean everything to someone. It’s about what we can accomplish when the world bands together. (If you’re familiar with the book, then it’s one of the two versions of The Hero City movie.) It’s incredibly saccharine, but that’s not a bad thing. I’ve got loads of movies about how people suck and only your best friends will help you kill a werewolf, but in the serious AAA world of adult zombitainment, I haven’t seen anything like World War Z in a while. Once in a moon, it’s nice to have someone rip off the cowl of cynicism and talk about how good people can be. When we approach the apocalypse, we often talk about how shit humans are going to be to each other. Maybe that’s true, but it’s nice to see a little something from the other side. (Maybe we won’t be the architects of our destruction. Maybe there are things larger than us) Yeah, it’s tragic and all, but it’s sparkled with so much bravery and magical realism that I can’t help but feel that the events of the movie are being held at arm’s length. It’s like I’m literally watching a baby eat his mother’s face, while she holds him close and smiles, and all I can think is, “Aww, wook at his wittle teef!”

So, that would be a bit detrimental to any oppressive atmosphere it could try and build, but there’s more than that. The movie goes about itself with a sense of camp that’s charming, despite being occasionally cringe-worthy. There was some brilliant advertising, as well, that pulled me out of it still more. For me, though, the zombies killed the feature more than anything. They don’t make sense within the book’s own universe, or ours. If you read my post on realism and its uses, then you’ll be familiar with this, but offering an explanation is always a huge risk. It’s extremely important that you do it right, because, otherwise, you risk breaking the covenant you made with your viewers. Let’s look at a small scene from the movie…

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The Israeli wall scene. Visually, it’s quite striking. Even in the movie, this scene is pretty well executed. For those of you worried about CG zombies (like me), then be happy that they actually used it to do some good. They didn’t use CG because they were lazy (in terms of production costs, that doesn’t even make sense) or totally technophilic. They did it because scenes like this one would be impossible without CG. To put your mind at ease a bit more, they used practical special effects whenever they could. As you would expect from the budget and talent on the project, they did a great job. Most movie extras ever, I think? Any ways, the reason this pile doesn’t make sense, and another reason I don’t think this qualifies as a zombie movie, is because it’s not zombie behaviour. It’s hive behaviour. The zombie behaviour in this movie was modelled after locusts. It’s pretty cool watching the tides of humans race around like insects, but, zombies, they are not.

Each individual zombie, according to the canon I’m familiar with, is a unit onto itself. However, all zombies have exactly the same desires and response-patterns, so you’ll always get predictable, centralized behaviour. It’s kind of like how fan-site message boards work. For this scene to make sense, the zombies would have to all be drawn to one spot on the wall. Fair enough, but these zombies are climbing in a controlled fashion. Sure, maybe they’re following a single stream of least resistance, like water, but that’s not really very zombie. Zombies are stupid, mindless drones. These drones are quite intelligent. In fact, and I’m about the spoil the end of the movie, so be wary, they’re intelligent enough to surge, in a coordinated manner, around sick children, so that they don’t run into them. That’s right, zombies won’t bite terminally ill people, because that would weaken the strain. What terminally ill means here, and how the zombies know you’re terminally ill, is tactfully avoided. We’ll get back to that in a second…

Why is this important? It implies an awareness on the zombie’s part that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Water behaves in patterns because of the rules governing it. Locusts communicate and behave in tandem because of an awareness of their surroundings. Zombies, on the other hand, walk off the edges of buildings. This scene right here is problem solving. It’s an efficient path. So, that doesn’t make much sense. The zombies that surged around the crouching child, ostensibly, did so to avoid being slowed down or hurt by him. Earlier, I saw a zombie leap – catapult, really – through the air to catch a helicopter. Continuity would be nice.

That’s the risk we run when we explain ourselves. You have to, otherwise you’re not really saying much, but it’s a careful, treacherous undertaking. World War Z shows how tactful it can be by not getting into the specifics of how zombies sense the terminally ill or what terminally ill means. That would have been a clusterfuck, especially since the pretense didn’t make much sense to begin with. The zombie virus kills them. No heart-beat, no infection. That’s almost a direct quote from the movie. So… yeah… science and continuity aren’t the movie’s strongest points, but, in the post-apocalypse, at least zombies will be able to become part of the triage process.

These aren’t haphazard changes by lazy artists, though. The book was an epic tale about humans in the zombie apocalypse. It represented the looming dread of a coming menace and our inadequate ability to face it, initially. It’s about growing. It’s about keeping the outside at bay while your society rots from within. In short, it’s a zombie story on a global scale. The movie is NOT that. So, the rest of the movie had to change to reflect the differences in pace and scale. Fast zombies kept the action and the infection-spread intense. When you’re trying to explore a world as large as that of World War Z, there’s not a lot of time to wait at the gates for the zombies to surge in. In many ways, it’s difficult to imagine a slow-moving swarm taking out a city in the time it would take to read the book, let alone the world, in the span of the movie.

Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. You can’t make the movie about Redeker because of the tone you want to set, the themes you want to explore and the amount of time you have to express it. So, you have to find something new. It’s the beginning of a proposed trilogy, so you can’t solve the whole thing, either. However, you’re only making another one if there’s interest and you (blessedly) don’t want to leave anyone hanging, so you need something vaguely end-worthy. Medical research is an arduous process, and you want to depict it with some respect, so you don’t make Brad Pitt a researcher.  There would be no reason for him to be out in the field. They even kill off the crazy guy whose idea it was to find patient zero, like you could actually do that in the zombie apocalypse. Like it would actually matter in this case. His death is pretty silly, look for it. What do you do? You glom on to something that sounds sort of scientific and has a background that makes sense, even if it’s mechanically ridiculous. You don’t explain that, though. You just run with it.

And why not? We don’t berate Frankenstein for the weakness of the science in it. We don’t roll our eyes at Osmosis Jones too much. Yes, the movie was about science and relied on science for an explanation that didn’t make sense; and that’s grating, but let’s allow them some creative license.

It’s politically correct as butts. It’s saccharin, wholesome and scientifically inaccurate to a startling degree, but it’s a good movie. We can’t look at things and just judge them by the standards that we have. Sometimes, we have to create new standards with new labels to discuss them properly. Meet them half-way. I don’t have a new label for this, but I’ll reiterate one thing, World War Z is not a traditional zombie movie.

Addendum: …but that’s okay; it’s still awesome.

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5 Responses to “World War Z: The Movie – One Goal, No Soul”

  1. I plan on watching the movie, but I’m waiting for a rental. Reading your extensive review on the movie and how it compares to the book makes me interested in reading World War Z now. I’m not a zombie fan by any means, but I do love reading well-written, thought provoking types of books.

    • Editing this comment because it posted incorrectly humdeedumdeedum.

      • What? No, that’s not even half of what I typed! I love the book! It’s really worth a read; it’s one of my favorite titles.

        Whenever someone’s going to read an old favorite of mine, I always wanna be a little gnome on their shoulder, poking at them, going, “What do you think of that part? This one?!”

        Trivial Gnome… >.>

  2. Was a lot better than I expected it to be, however, the script tears it down from being amazing. Good review.

    • Yeah, there’s a certain irony in the fact that movies based on books have to compromise their writing to fit with the original vision. I feel like if it hadn’t tried to reference the book as much as it did, then it would have been better. BUT, if it didn’t follow the book enough, fans would have revolted. They already kinda have for the liberties it took.

      Definitely better than I was expecting, too. It helps going in with the right mind-set.

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