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…?