Sunday, October 27, 2013

No one should try to defy "Gravity"

As wonderful a genre as science fiction is, 99.9% of movies made under that label lean a lot more heavily on the “fiction” part than the “science,” so it’s a rare treat when we get one that relies on some scientific fact-based scenarios to produce dramatic effect.  When pitching 2001: A Space Odyssey to MGM all those years ago, Stanley Kubrick said he wanted to produce the first “good” science-fiction film, with his definition of “good” being “believable,” as he wanted to tell a compelling story in a setting that could easily be our own world. Of course, he very famously did so, and the lack of similar efforts by other filmmakers through the years could be evidence of how difficult a task “realistic” science fiction is.

Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity, however, belongs in any discussion with Kubrick’s master-piece.  By saying such a thing, I don’t mean to imply that they are equals (2001 is such a unique film that almost anything will pale in comparison to it), but I do mean that Gravity is such an absolute technical marvel, like 2001, that its being a very good human story is like icing on the proverbial cake.

The film opens with an uninterrupted seventeen-minute take depicting a space shuttle repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are two members of the crew we see performing extra-vehicular activity (that’s space-walking to you and me) when NASA radios an emergency abort alert, as a field of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is in a direct orbital path with their shuttle.  This cloud of metallic fragments travelling faster than any bullet ever could does indeed find them before they are able to change their orbital path, destroying the spacecraft and leaving Kowalski and Stone adrift in space.  What follows is an engrossing, fascinating story of loss, bravery and the discovery of a will to survive, told by Cauron in such a stunningly beautiful way that any audience member not feeling fear and anxiety, and happiness and joy, is almost certainly a fairly dark-hearted individual.  

By the end of the first act, Gravity essentially becomes a one-woman show, a story of a woman’s decision to survive, not only her current predicament, but her lonely, emotionally empty life in general.  Sandra Bullock’s performance is a statement that her Oscar win two years ago was no fluke, and I fully expect to see her name listed amongst the Best Actress nominees again come February. There are so many scenes in which she is the only character, and yet even without anyone to exchange dialogue, she conveys so much about Stone’s fear, and pain, and depression, that we know this character intimately by the time the film ends, and her fate is all the more emotionally impactful for it.

As amazing a story as Gravity is, the concept of a massive storm of orbital space debris could be the impetus for several other fascinating stories, as we could imagine how our society would react to a severe crippling of, if not outright elimination of, global telecom-munications that would result from such a scenario.  Imagine television and radio broad-casts being interrupted, international telephone calls being impossible, and internet connec-tivity being all but stopped.  Hell, the loss of world-wide Twitter access alone might be the beginning of Armageddon.  Cauron, to his credit, does not distract us from the story he chooses to tell, not even once, trusting his audience to understand how there’s a wave of chaos going on down on Earth, which makes the solitude of Bullock’s character all that much more profound.

At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll reiterate that Gravity is worth the price of admission as a visual treat alone.  Cauron’s use of computer-generated effects is extensive, but done with such great skill that not once are we under the misguided notion that we’re viewing some sci-fi space opera. Cauron’s lighting and camera movement constantly amazed me, and the moments of suspense and danger the astronauts faced got physical reactions from me that most movies can’t get out of me anymore.  Even the sound design of the film was fantastic, as we heard the radio transmissions from Earth differently when we were inside the astronauts’ helmets than we did when we were outside their suits (yes, you read that right - Cauron takes us all sorts of places in this film), and the silence of space is punctu-ated by the thuds and clunks that would be heard when the characters were in enclosed spaces with atmosphere.  

Now I did see Gravity in IMAX 3D, and yes, I’ve just raved and raved about how beautiful it was to watch, but I continue to believe this format to be a waste of a filmgoer’s money, and a lesser viewing experience than traditional two-dimensional film presentation.  With the ex-ception of Avatar, I’m yet to see a 3D film that didn’t have muddied or unbalanced colors, and I would even include Avatar when maintaining that the 3D effects have not yet added anything absolutely necessary to a story being told on-screen.  That being said, to each his own, and your tastes and experiences may differ, but I don’t think there’s really any debate needed when saying Gravity is the best picture of 2013 so far.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"The Wolverine" gives us nerds a reason to keep living.

I once read a magazine article (in OMNI Magazine, I believe, but it was so long ago that I can’t swear to that) that described a study where certain folks were hypnotized into believing themselves immortal.  The purpose of the study was to determine what behavioral changes these folks would exhibit towards those they believed to be “mere mortals.”  The surprising results were that the newfound “immortals” promptly lost all initiative to do much of anything, becoming lazier and more slothful, and pretty much turning into couch potatoes.  After all, since they now had all the time in world, what’s the big rush to get motivated and accomplish anything? 

It’s an interesting question, one of many that mankind has pondered about the possible pitfalls of immortality, and similar to the train of thought plaguing the mutant superhero Wolverine in this latest solo film for the member of the X-Men. 

Although not explicitly stated, The Wolverine appears to be a direct sequel to 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (not that any of us were really wanting THAT cinematic experience to continue, mind you…), as the movie starts with Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in all of his bulked-up, gym-freak glory) trying to come to grips with the losses he experienced in the second and third X-Men films.  Before finding him choosing to live alone in the wilderness after the events that concluded that film, we see via flashback how Logan was interred in a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp just outside Nagasaki during the closing days of the Second World War, and since we all know what happened in Nagasaki that second week of August in 1945, we aren’t surprised to see Logan’s mutant healing abilities put the the ultimate test when the “Fat Man” bomb comes a-calling.  During the firestorm, he manages to save a Japanese soldier, who over the next seventy years becomes a billionaire industrialist, and never forgets the debt he owes to the mutant stranger. 

Flash forwards to the present day, and it seems Logan has come to think that immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if it means he outlives everyone to whom he may grow emotionally attached.  He lives unsheltered in the Canadian wilderness, avoiding human contact save for an occasional visit to a small town to obtain supplies.  Out of the blue appears Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mysterious little Japanese Sprite of a girl with ninja-level swordsmanship skills who insists Logan return with her to Japan, as the man he saved from nuclear fire all those years ago is now dying and wants to see Logan one last time to offer him a gift of thanks.   That “gift” turns out to be the possibility of a way for Logan to lost his super-healing powers and become mortal, which he refuses, but soon finds his healing ability greatly reduced, if not stripped away completely, anyway.  Throw in some Japanese culture clashes, some big-business political intrigue and a bunch of ninjas, and you have all the makings of a slam-bang comic-book movie for grownups. 

Although I was surprised by the selection of director James Mangold to helm this movie when I first heard the news more than a year ago, it was certainly a welcome one.  His body of work would not necessarily make one think of him when looking for somebody to make a Superhero movie, but he has done action movies before (namely the Tom Cruise vehicle Knight and Day), and I loved Walk the Line and his remake of 3:10 to Yuma, so I had total confidence that his vision of a Wolverine movie would be nowhere near as cartoonish as the last attempt turned out to be.  Sure, this film follows the superhero-genre’s current trend of being more introspective and less bullets-and-profanity (well, except for “The Avengers,” but who am I to nit-pck?), but the big action set-pieces here are definitely exciting and do serve to propel the story, not interrupt it.  Wolverine’s fight along the exterior of a speeding bullet train in particular is probably the highlight of the movie’s second act.  The fight scenes are a bit more rooted in reality than, say Superman’s might be, which helps keep the tone of the movie a bit more in the vein of a character study - not necessarily like Ghandi or Lawrence of Arabia, but you get my drift. 

Hugh Jackman slips on the claws-and-funky-haircut for a sixth time in this film, and he wears the role as comfortably as an old suit.  Not that he ever overplayed the character in any of his previous performances, but perhaps he is (and we, the audience, are) so familiar with this role now that there’s almost no effort involved in projecting the character anymore.  The well-written script certainly aided Jackman by giving him interesting things to do and say, and I found the Yukio character very interesting as well, all the more impressive because of the performance of the relative newcomer Rila Fukushima, a young actress with virtually no film acting experience at all.  The only character that struck me as being a “comic-book” character was Viper, seemingly played as cartoonishly as possible by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova.  Her beady eyes, vampish body language and garish costumes projected a bit more “ham” than the material warranted, but this was the exception in the cast of characters, not the rule. 

I consider myself fortunate to be the age I am, maturing in my nerd-taste as apparently those who make films to cater to these tastes mature as well.  I have loved comic books and related material all of my life, but contrary to some evidence, I am a grownup now, and while the Richard Donner Superman and Tim Burton Batman films were entirely satisfying to me in their day, it takes more effort now to give me “superhero” material that doesn’t seem better-suited for the Disney XD channel.  Given how silly the first Wolverine solo film turned out to be, it wouldn’t have taken much to make a sequel that wasn’t a great improvement to me, but The Wolverine is definitely a great improvement, one that can (and should) make you all but forget the first one. 

…and if I end up living forever, maybe I’ll find this sort of filmmaking getting better and better and continue having a reason to live.  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Another look at Woody Allen's "Manhattan"

One of the things I find difficult in being a self-taught student of movies is when I can’t seem to understand or appreciate what other, supposedly more-learned folks than me see in the “Great Films.”  I understand the greatness of Kurosawa, Kubrick and Hitchcock, but I’ve never quite figured out what’s so great about Woody Allen.  I watched Interiors while I was in college and felt something close to disgust for all of the characters in that film, so I’ve avoided Allen’s movies in the years since.  However, a documentary about Allen that Turner Classic Movies ran not too long ago got me to thinking: maybe being a whole lot older would give me a different insight into his movies. Well, Manhattan is on several critics’ lists of the supposed “Best Films Ever Made,” so I found it on Netflix and gave it another shot.  Let it be known that while I still don’t get why Woody’s films are held in such high esteem, maybe getting older is making me more tolerant of them.

Manhattan follows the ordeals of Allen’s character, Isaac, a neurotic (gee, big surprise there), twice-divorced television writer who dreams of writing some great novel as a means of proving that he is a man of substance in a superficial world.  Or at least that’s what he pretty much tells us in the first three minutes of the movie.  His most recent ex-wife (Meryl Streep) has recently realized her homosexuality, left him for a woman and is now writing a book detailing her relationship with Isaac and her newfound happiness as a lesbian.  He’s currently dating Tracy, a 17-year old girl (Mariel Hemingway, in her film debut) who adores him, but he can’t bring himself to have deep emotions for a girl so young.  Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy) is somewhat happily married, but has taken up a dalliance with Mary (Diane Keaton), a horribly insecure writer who puts forth an intellectually snobbish front because that’s just how one behaves in New York.

Isaac spends most of his time with Tracy explaining to her how their relationship can’t possibly last.  Yale and Mary spend most of their time wracked with guilt over the adulterous nature of their relationship.  Isaac’s ex-wife spends most of her time dwelling on how lousy her relationship with Isaac was.  Mary spends most of her time with Isaac explaining how awful she is at relationships in general, yet wishing she could find one.

In much simpler and fewer words, this is a movie filled with screwed up people, and that sounds like just about every one of Allen’s films since Annie Hall.  Of course, real life is filled with screwed-up people and life is what happens when you’re trying to overcome your problems, a shocking realization to which I’ve come in my advanced age.  Allen’s screenplay, written with Marshall Brickman, is filled with wonderfully entertaining dialogue that harkens back to his stand-up comic days.  The film does have a dry sense of humor about the problems these people have, but perhaps my Bible-Belt upbringing keeps me from having a lot of sympathy for the New York characters with which Allen populates his films.  The characters here, with the possible exception of Yale’s wife (Anne Byrne, who was once Mrs. Dustin Hoffman), are all lacking a basic understanding of emotional fidelity, something I learned from Mom and Dad, and in Sunday School.  Maybe New York synagogues don’t do as good a job, I don’t know.

Allen is a wonderfully gifted writer of dialogue.  It’s ridiculous not to acknowledge that.  In the above-mentioned documentary, he states that everything else he does as a filmmaker is merely as a means to bring his writing to life, and that he is first and foremost a writer.  I’ll even go so far as to grant that he is a better-than-average director.  His choice of black-and-white photography for Manhattan was perfect for this story, as New York is the most black-and-white of cities, and the characters here all lack an understanding of the black-and-white issue of emotional commitment.  He laces the soundtrack with the music of George Gershwin, who filled Tin Pan Alley with the sounds of his songs during the Roaring Twenties, and songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You” cast a sense of love’s simplicity over the lives of these people who must complicate everything they feel.  They wander through lovely scenes of horse-drawn carriage rides in Central Park and watching the sun rise over the 59th Street Bridge while they bemoan their existence.

Is it a good movie?  Yes, I think it’s a wonderfully made movie with a fairly interesting story, but I can’t recommend it.  The story ends leading us to believe that the only character who understands the human heart is the one we should least suspect of having such wisdom.  While Isaac does come to a realization about his deepest feelings by the end, Manhattan, in typical Allen fashion, doesn’t give us any hope that any of us deserve to be loved.  I, for one, need that from my movie-watching experience.  I guess I’m just too much the sucker for happy endings to constantly expose myself to Allen’s world, where there aren’t any.  The real world is enough like that as it is.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

You want an unusual concept? Try "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World"

You want a novel concept for a romantic comedy?  How’s this?  Two people meet just as the world learns that a 70-mile wide asteroid will destroy the Earth in three weeks’ time.  Nothing says “light-hearted romance” like THAT scenario, huh?  You might think that any movie trying to combine or cross genres as diverse as romance, comedy and Armageddon would sway one way or the other to such a degree that the result would seem like satire, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria has managed to avoid that pitfall with a great premise, great dialogue and great performances by her cast.

As the movie begins, we see Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife hearing news on the radio of a failed attempt to divert the asteroid, and how the End is now a foregone conclusion.  She instantly leaves him to find the man she’s always really loved, never to be seen again.  It seems most people are taking the opportunity of this remaining time to indulge in all of the lawlessness and hedonism from which we restrain ourselves every day, as the yuppies spend their last days snorting heroin and having orgies, and the street folk loot and riot and vandalize.  Dodge, however, copes by making his way to work the next day, one of the few people who are even bothering to do so, even though there’s probably little sense in selling insurance policies that can’t last for another month, but primarily because there’s really nothing else left in his life. 

As the riotous masses begin to swarm over his neighborhood, Dodge escapes with Penny (Keira Knightley), a downstairs neighbor, and the two begin something of a road-trip; he resolving to find the “One Who Got Away” and she trying to find a way to get back across the Atlantic to her family in England.  They meet all sorts along the way, from Ecstasy-fueled servers at an overly-friendly restaurant, to survivalists who don’t totally “get” the impending Doom, to a clueless local policeman who still takes his job pretty seriously.  Of course, they come to learn a good bit about each other along the way and form a bond that more than likely would never have developed in more-normal times.

Everybody loves Steve Carell, primarily from the American television version of “The Office” (and while I’ve always been a fan of his, too, I am almost certainly the last person in the entire nation who has never seen that show).  What I find interesting about his screen presence is how, while he’s not traditional leading-man material, he can carry a movie while serving as sort of an emotional fulcrum – he may not always be the one doing the deeds the carry the movie, but he can be what other characters act upon, steering him into situations that drive a story (see The 40-Year Old Virgin and Dan in Real Life, for example).  His portrayal of Dodge is of such a hapless nice guy that when he tries to do something as simple as release his Hispanic cleaning lady from the responsibility of her last few weekly visits so that she can be with her family and await The End, even that attempt at a kindly act falls on its face.

Knightley’s portrayal of Penny is just as impressive (and she even gets to chain-smoke while onscreen, which seems to be a prerequisite to her accepting any role anymore, but I digress…), as she convincingly conveys the notion of this person who has lived such a care-free lifestyle finally realizing there are things she should have been caring about all along.

I’m reluctant to outline the plot in any more detail, as seeing the details in black and white make them seem almost like satire, but the screenplay rises so far above whatever the mere reading of a synopsis would lead you to think.  There are no action-film clichés about some heroic means of avoiding the cataclysm (at least onscreen, anyway).  No, this film is more about how fairly ordinary Joe-Schmoes might behave in the days leading up to The End than it is about The End itself.  Carell and Knightley, an unlikely cinematic pairing if there ever was one, keep a focal point of relative sanity throughout their quest as they approach the inevitable end.

The premise does make one think about how awful it would be to know exactly when you’re going to die (a character who gives Dodge and Penny a ride even says, “it’s not natural for a man to know”).  As awful as that knowledge must be, multiply it by about seven and a half billion, and surely whatever civil disorder portrayed in this film or any other would pale in comparison to what we human degenerates would actually commit.  Sure, some of us would behave badly, but some of us might do as Dodge and Penny do, and spend the last of our time focusing on those we love instead.

I’m sure we’re supposed to feel some sort of happiness that these two people might end up together, but my desire for a “happy ending” (as happy as the End of the World can possibly be) is at conflict with my more rational understanding that these two people aren’t actually in love, and in more normal times, never would be.  I did find it sort of uplifting to know that these two lonely people find an emotion, and possibly even a true friendship, to share in such a way that neither must face the End alone.  Seeking a Friend… is a very unique movie experience, as even with the knowledge of how it must end, there are still lots of places where the movie made me smile and enjoy getting to know these characters, if only for their few final days.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Reminiscing about the "Grindhouse."

(All this talk of zombies of late got me to remembering a ghoul-filled flick that was a lot more fun than one being forced upon us this summer.  These were my impressions of Rodriquez' and Tarantino's "Grindhouse," originally published April 7th, 2007)

I recall the heady days of the tin-roofed hangout my friends and I used for our weekend-long fests full of Frito-Lay products, carbonated drinks, Dungeons & Dragons and poorly-recorded-pornography-off-of-satellite-television.  These were the dark ages of VHS tapes, portable 13-inch televisions and VCRs as large as a shipping crate, all dragged down to that shack and rigged for watching crap only teenage boys could love.  My fellow geeks and I watched Mad Max this way, we watched Trinity is Still My Name this way, we watched Flesh and Blood this way.  Ah, good times… 

It turns out that, halfway across the continent, Robert Rodriguez was watching some of these very same movies in much the same way, and on the other side of the continent, Quentin Tarantino was doing the same.  Unlike me and my friends, however, these two fellows later took the next few steps up the geek-evolution ladder and began making their own schlock movies (well, “schlock” is a subjective term; some would use “masterpieces” – I’m not saying I would, but some might), and Grindhouse is what seems to be a culmination of that evolution. 

Tarantino and Rodriguez, great friends and frequent collaborators, have produced an un-usual event for today’s commercial cinema – and that’s exactly what Grindhouse is – an event.  We are presented with a true double feature, two movies for one ticket price, along with trailers for other similar (and non-existent) movies directed by directors such as Rob Zombie and Eli Roth, fellow members of the current class of schlock/slasher directors to which Tarantino and Rodriguez also belong.  This is more than three hours of hoot-and-holler entertainment, and if you can accept it for what it is, and have the good fortune to see it in a theater with other reprobates who shared similar adolescent experiences to mine, you’ll have a blast seeing it. 

Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, his homage to the countless zombie movies he loved as a youth, and Tarantino’s Death Proof, his addition to the great muscle-car flicks he loved, are paired as a double feature and titled with the term applied to the poorly-run and –managed theaters that once showed these type movies to hormone-fueled boys, and the girls who for some reason would accompany them, so often that the prints would eventually become unwatchable.  Both movies are bad.  I’ll put that out there up front, but I must admit that they’re both good-bad, if that makes any sense.  Both segments are bad in the sense that they’re enjoyable, and I really believe that was the intention of both filmmakers.  There are scratches and dust and lint on the prints, more so in Planet Terror than in Death Proof.  We hear projector noise.  We see burnt cells throughout the print.  There are missing reels from both features, intentional on the parts of Rodriguez and Tarantino, as sometimes happened in those old grindhouse theaters, something that would be greatly frustrating in more “serious” pictures, but somehow doesn’t matter all that much in this pulp fare. 

Planet Terror leads off the twin-bill, and the opening titles sequence of Rose McGowan go-go dancing is almost worth the admission price (please excuse me, my teenage hormones seem to have returned for a short while…).   The plot is not terribly important, because it seems to me that if you’ve seen one zombie movie, you’ve pretty much seen most all of them, so I won’t waste space here summarizing it.  The 90-minute movie is full of pus, ooze and gore from start to finish, along with bad (read: funny) one-liners and lots of explosions.  How this film escaped an NC-17 rating is beyond me, but I guess, as the old saying goes, what should you expect from a pig but a grunt?  If I didn’t want to be grossed out, I shouldn’t have bought the ticket.  Long on action, short on exposition and moving quickly from beginning to end, Planet Terror is the more exciting of the two entries overall, but Tarantino’s contribution certainly has its merits, too.

Before Death Proof opens, however, are trailers for “upcoming attractions,” as the title card calls them.  They are for similar examples of cinematic genius (cough, cough…), with titles such as Werewolf Women of the SS and Don’t, and while these movies really don’t exist, I’m sure folks who frequent such movies wish they did.  One of these trailers even features an Oscar winning-actor, but I’ll leave it for you to discover who that may be.  The gore factor is prevalent even in these, as the trailers for Machete and Thanksgiving are over-the-top repulsive almost to the point of being ridiculous.  Again, of what drugs the MPAA was partaking when screening this for a rating is beyond me.

Finally, Death Proof begins.  If Tarantino has done nothing else for me and my geek brethren with this film, he has given us back Kurt Russell.  It’s so nice to see the man who was Snake Plissken and Jack Burton back on the screen, and not the guy who was in that horse movie with Dakota Fanning or the guy playing the Olympic hockey coach.  Russell is Stuntman Mike (no other names are really necessary), who stalks a group of pretty girls with his “death-proof” Hollywood-equipped stunt car and uses it as his murder weapon.  The second group of girls he stalks turns the tables on him with their own muscle car, culminating in a fantastic high-speed car chase/battle that, in my humble opinion, is at least worthy of discussion alongside those from French Connection, Bullitt and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.  Again, like Planet Terror, the plot is not terribly important, and is actually even less-developed than Rodriguez’ film.  It left me with a few unanswered questions about both Stuntman Mike and the film’s heroines, but I personally enjoyed it more because of the climactic chase sequence and Tarantino’s wonderful dialogue through-out the 85-minute film.  If you were as enamored of some of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s conversations in Pulp Fiction as I was, you’ll find the female equivalents here to be almost as entertaining.

So, is it worth seeing?  I think so, and I really think you should.  I still have enough geek in me that I find three-plus hours of bullets, profanity, fast cars and scantily-clad women enjoyable, and if you know me well enough that you’re reading this, you probably do, too.  All in all, Grindhouse is the movie-going equivalent of a roller-coaster ride: dumb, but something that some people find to be loads of fun, especially if experienced as part of a loud crowd.  I don’t really see this double feature being anywhere near as much fun in your own living room, no matter how large your television, as the oohs and aahs and gasps and yelps coming from fellow viewers in a darkened theater are a large part of the fun here.  But, I could be wrong.  After all, I sure had a blast with that little 13-inch television showing a VHS copy of Enter the Dragon all those years ago.  Now please excuse me, I’m suddenly having a craving for a Mountain Dew and some Funyuns…

Sunday, June 23, 2013

World War Zzzzzz...

What does $200 million of Paramount’s money get you these days?  Certainly not a fantastic Star Trek movie – that was proven last month.  World War Z proves that it can buy you a gaggle of screenwriters, if you define a “gaggle” as five or more.  The completed movie, however, proves that said gaggle of screenwriters can’t guarantee you an interesting, much less coherent, screenplay.

It’s been said that when a popular genre reaches a point where filmmakers are producing comedies or parodies of it, that’s a sure sign the genre has all but “played out.”  While World War Z may not be a parody (Warm Bodies, from earlier this year, would better fit that bill), it’s at least a sign that the zombie genre is almost dried up from a dramatic viewpoint.  If the old saying about too many cooks spoiling the broth is relatable to filmmaking, then a slew of names under the “written by” credit should be taken as a cause for concern.  Brad Pitt’s production company won a bidding war five or six years ago for the rights to Max Brooks’ (son of Mel) novel about the oral history of a worldwide zombie pandemic.  Of course, this film bears no resemblance whatsoever to that novel, outside of its title and the fact that there are zombies in it, but Hollywood knows best, so out goes all the introspective, human stories and in goes swarms and swarms of computer-generated zombie termites, crashing helicopters, artillery fire and nuclear explosions.  Heaven forbid should somebody make a movie about people describing their experiences in such a fantastically terrifying time as a zombie apocalypse – nobody would want that, right? 

Pitt cast himself in the lead role, that of one Gerry Lane (a name which, for some reason, planted a Beatles’ song in my head and never let it go), who before his recent retirement, was some sort of go-to investigator-type guy for the United Nations at one point, although the movie doesn’t bother explaining any more than that to us.  He, his wife and two daughters manage to escape Philadelphia, by way of Newark, as the pandemic breaks out, narrowly and miraculously avoiding swarming death several times before being rescued and taken out to a helicopter carrier which serves as… Oh, screw it.  None of it matters, because you’ve seen all this before!  Did you see 28 Days Later?  Then you’ve seen this.  Did you see the pilot episode of “The Walking Dead?”  Then you’ve seen this.  The filmmakers have spurned a totally original take on the zombie-movie provided to them by the source novel for which they paid an astronomical sum of money, and instead chosen to make a zombie flick as they imagine Roland Emmerich might have.

Okay, sure, the zombies here evoke “hive” or “swarm” behavior, similar to flocks of birds or colonies of insects, presaged by images of those creatures in the opening credits.  This could be construed as slightly different from some other zombie flicks, but why do they behave this way?  Well, not only is that never explained, we’re also never even given a hint about what actually started all of this.  Oh, sure, there are couple lines of dialogue about somebody biting a doctor in Korea, and the Indian Army “fighting the undead,” but those plot points are never explored.

Gerry’s wife and kids? What about them?  They’re nothing more than a plot device, giving Gerry a reason to call back to the command ship and serendipitously get information that leads him to the movie’s next CGI-created set-piece.  Heck, for all we learn about those characters, “wife and kids” is really all the identification they require.  When a senior military official refers to them as “non-essential personnel” at one point, I wondered for a second if it was meant as a joke.

Why Brad Pitt would be so devoted to such a project that he would throw a good chunk of his own money at it sort of baffles me, too.  Don’t kid yourself, folks – Pitt considers himself a “serious” actor, and maybe with exception of Troy, has never done the “summer blockbuster” movie before.  What’s even more baffling is how the movie we finally get to see is a lot LESS a spectacle picture than was originally intended.  The final forty minutes of the movie are a complete rewrite/reshoot, eliminating a third act that would have centered around a massive zombie battle all throughout Moscow (a good portion of which was actually even filmed, but now won’t see the light of day) into the more intimate, thriller-type ending we get now.  I’ve read of how the original ending played poorly with test audiences, as well as Paramount executives, and how screenwriter Damon Lindelof, the man who made such an absolute mess of the Prometheus script last year, was brought aboard to formulate a new ending.  While that ending is the most zombie movie-like story arc of the entire film, it’s too little/too late by that point.  We’ve learned so little about Gerry, much less the characters who inhabit the medical research facility in which he finds himself, that it’s hard to feel much dread over what possible horrible fate may await him.

I’ve said in some previous review that once you’ve seen one zombie movie, then for the most part, you’ve pretty much seen ‘em all, and that remains so.  Given that semi-debatable fact, the only thing that can differentiate one zombie flick from another is the stable of characters inhabiting the story.  Since I really don’t know any more about Gerry Lane, his wife and/or his kids at the end of this movie than I did at the beginning, much less any cause for the pandemic, was their any point in my seeing it, other than to see that Paramount was willing to spend $200 million to convince me zombies can clickity-clack their teeth and swarm like ants…?