Sunday, 17 August 2014

World War Z Review - AKA The Smashing Adventures of Normal Guy MacFancyScarf

"Damn, in this light I can't see if there are any more brown people to abandon."

Ugh, another zombie movie. As The Mariner in Waterworld didn't say: "man, we definitely need some more water around here." There seems to be an unwritten rule that at some point every cultural phenomenon must undergo a metamorphosis in which the very elements are bastardised until the point of complete corruption. Oversaturation is to be expected when an idea proves popular, and new ways to retell the same story are forced out; hence why Jason Voorhees has been to space before the majority of Earth’s nations. But holy hell, at this rate I’ll probably actually be bored to death in the event of a zombie apocalypse breaking out. The whole thing is simply overplayed, like ‘yo momma’ jokes at Oedipus’ wedding.

I understand it’s a natural process: people know what they like, and they like to get a lot of it – until they become sickened by it, like they’re that fat kid from Matilda. Very few series retain their original appeal and respectability - other than Breaking Bad which remains the Internet's third most popular thing after neckbeards and Twitch Plays. The Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises are evidence of this - celebrated movies which degenerated with each subsequent sequel, like dental hygiene in a small American town. And where there are gullible consumers, there are greedy businessmen who barely respect the product beyond how much money it can make them. Those bastards are as shrewd as Quark arranging an illegal Cardassian Vole fight.

The Zombie genre has suffered this a lot in the past couple of decades. Popularised by Romero with his ‘…Of the Dead’ trilogy, the genre steadily increased in popularity but, not unlike its eponymous monsters, has since stagnated and the insidious rot set in. You see, the best films of the genre either use zombies as the cultural ‘other’ to explore larger social issues and examine the human condition, or as grotesque obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. Dawn of the Dead, for example, served as both a rift on consumer culture and a hilarious blooper reel featuring zombies on an ice rink. Watch Lucio Fulci's 'Zombi' and you'll be treated to a deeply unpleasant experience featuring maggoty walking corpses and people being tore to death in agonising detail. 

Somewhere along the way zombies became cool. And as we know, when a horror icon becomes cool they lose their scare factor and become the equivalent of Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan forming a tag team against The Monster That Challenged the World. World War Z is the apex of this cultural shift; it's as devoid an experience as shagging the nihilistic ghost of a goth girl. It's the Battle: Los Angeles of zombie films. There are exploding planes, burning cities, collapsing infrastructures and mass death, but no personal struggles, no real fear, nothing of value to say about humanity. The zombies could be substituted for any action movie stock faction and the plot would remain virtually the same. 

The real challenge? Getting through that movie.

Still, vacuous entertainment is entertainment regardless. And even though the genre has endured more debasement than the English coin under Henry VIII, it is only fair that I judge it by its own merits. World War Z is a Zombie Disaster movie: think Roland Emmerich meets chucking out time on a city bar strip. Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a normal guy who happens to be incredibly proficient in all types of weaponry, works for the UN, and is practically invincible, politically and culturally insightful; he also happens to be more intelligent than WHO employed scientists, incredibly handsome and fashionable. In layman's terms, he is the epitome of the eHarmony version of you. 

Normal Guy MacFancyScarf is having a normal day with his normal family, when he and his family get caught up in an attack in Philadelphia. Turns out an infection which turns people into the shambling undead has broken out across the far side of the world, but bizarrely still manages to catch a western Super Power unaware. Even more inexplicable is how their continued ability to escape the swarming masses - dodging more flailing zombie limbs than a Woodstock attendee - and eventually met up with old UN contact (Fana Mokoena) of Gerry’s. They are placed in sanctuary on an aircraft carrier which, despite the obvious fart-trap nature of the structure and ominous hints that it might eventually be overrun, turns out to actually be a safe place. From here, Gerry learns his scarf wearing skills are the perfect fit for a mission to discover the origins of the virus and find a way to save the world.

That’s pretty much it as far as plot is concerned. The troubled production is evident in the vignette-style structure of the film. Gerry is sent around the planet to various nations, and the arc is almost invariably the same: he arrives just in time to discover his metaphorical princess is in another castle, and manages to witness the collapse of each civilisation. He’s practically Frank Spencer, bumbling through relatively safe locales and bringing nothing but destruction. Arguably none of it is his fault, but it does make the whole repeated storyline more enjoyable to imagine Gerry as being cursed to cause misery wherever he goes. A personified Superman Curse of sorts.

Pictured: An average dude doing average dude stuff

Most disparaging is the overwrought faux tension. Each perilous situation is played completely seriously, even though we know Brad Pitt’s not going to get killed off in such an inoffensive middle-of-the-road movie. Especially half an hour before the climax. So, Gerry survives plane crashes, infecting himself with a deadly disease, and being in at least two epicentres of wanton violence. Like a Nokia 3310, the guy simply refuses to bow down to the oppressive regime of Death. The insincere suspense reminds me of those old timey radio shows in which the protagonist would always be left in an easily resolvable cliff-hanger each week: “will the Scarlet Codpiece survive this mauling by Sock Gnomes? And do we even care?” No, no we do not.

Okay, so the plot is a nonsensical thrill-ride through the dying Far and Middle East, but at least the action is good, right? Right? This may sound like a strange complaint for an apocalyptic movie, but the pacing is rather chaotic. I enjoyed the swarming masses of zombies which seemed to act in a manner more befitting predatory insects than the undead, but I found there was simply too much happening at once for me to process it fully. For example, Gerry heads to a Jerusalem stronghold to learn more about Patient Zero, and within five minutes we go from being told how secure the massive walls of the city are and receiving an exposition dump on PZ, to the city being overrun forcing Gerry to flee in the streets to his plane. Which happens to crash a few minutes later.
This is an inherent problem with the fast zombie subgenre. Directors seemingly hold the belief that if zombies are terrifying enough already, then super-charged zombies should be up there with a dinner date with Nicky Santoro. So we get overly chaotic action setpieces, which ironically end up serving the opposite purpose and ruining the immersion. I'll point to one of my favourite fast zombie films (should probably codify that as 'infected', because internet nerds) - 28 Days Later. In Danny Boyle's 2002 effort
the infected were absolutely terrifying – tireless, strong and fuelled by rage – and their oppressive presence prevailed over everything. World War Z doesn't elicit this sensation. It's The Transformers in a sluttier skirt.

Marc Foster is a competent enough director, I'm sure, but the action is incomprehensible. Someone should point out that shaky cam is not a proper filming technique. You know who uses shaky cam? Single dads recording the tedious shenanigans of their children at the park. It serves its purpose in 12A rated films such as Hunger Games, teasingly hinting at violence like a nip-slip on a first date, but World War Z is a certified '15' so it's really just a shoddy artistic choice. The action sequences are too much. Cities topple in the time it takes to pull your jeans down. Masses of civilians are slaughtered in record despotic nation time. There's more explosions, twisted metal and vehicular death than a Carmageddon Let's Play.

The face of a man who owns a windowless van with 'Free Candy' sprayed on the side.

Ironically, this serves to create an emotional barrier between the audience and the carnage. There's a reason apocalyptic films either take place in the lead up to the end of the world, or during the last moments. Or if they do happen to take place during society's collapse, the narrative usually follows the individual. Heavy focus on the chaos and death creates what is known as the Warhammer 40k effect – the stakes are ridiculously high and life utterly expendable, it’s impossible to properly invest in the situation.

Not that any one character is particularly likeable. The only character who undergoes any kind of development is Gerry, and even then he's too perfect to be interesting. Everyone else lacks agency, existing as mere extras in Gerry’s stage show, people who step on screen to deliver a bit of expository dialogue or fall prey to the gnashing teeth. Ludi Boeken stars as Mossad Director (Jurgen Warmbrunn) whose entire purpose is ultimately to redirect the plot in such a manner that through a few unrelated and convoluted steps Gerry ends up at the WHO Head Quarters. And once Warmbrunn has carried out his function? He naturally goes the way of the Red Shirt wearing Dodo.

The most vexatious example is the deifying of his family; a global zombie outbreak threatens all life on Earth, yet he only gives two squirts about his douche wife and daughters. When anyone attempts to call him out on this he does the whole: “you don’t have a family so how could you possibly understand human emotion” routine. Because sticking your knob in a slot to produce what is arguably the world’s worst Gashapon toy, clearly grants you incredible emoting abilities us mere mortals could only dream of possessing. Forget years upon years of reflective meditation, just pork your way to Enlightenment. And his family only serve the purpose of providing an human counterpoint to the senseless carnage. But they are not developed enough as individuals to make us care.  

It gets a little bit colonial too. This is a world wide threat, as implied by the title of the movie, yet America's survival is the primary focus. The film tries to make us care about Gerry and his family, yet the thousands of Koreans, Israelis, etc are reduced to mere cannon fodder. "Screw the natives of these foreign shores, it's the white Americans we care about," said the World's biggest fan of 2012's The Impossible. At one point in the film Gerry even gets a sidekick – a soldier, played by Daniella Kertesz, known simply by her rank of Segen – who serves little point other than a weak attempt at giving a face to the anonymous thousands slaughtered in Jerusalem.  Though as Segen is a female Israeli soldier she’s probably really there to serve as a poster child for the Liberal Left. 

World War Z isn’t a irredeemable movie, just one that suffers from a thorough homogenisation. It has nothing new to offer, made with a strict adherence to blockbuster formula; as by the book as a Captain Murphy endorsed 'Paint by Numbers' canvas. I see it as more of a time succubus than a must view film. If it's on Film4 and I've broken every bone in my shitty body then I'll watch it; but it's not something I'd recommend to the bloke from work who I'm sure is a serial killer.

As is usually the case, Hollywood took a book that is considered by many to be The Bible Part II (it's by Max Brooks, check it out), bastardised it and then screwed up their own vision through Hollywood politics. It lacks introspection. The movie presents a world wide pandemic, and yet, largely denies us the opportunity of seeing differing cultural attitudes and beliefs towards the situation. For a film that wants to be taken seriously, World War Z has little interest in answering the questions it sets up. How does a highly infectious virus (with no incubation period) spread across the globe with impunity? I know airport security and their lack of scruples often get flak - they are essentially one step above a sleazy hobo in an alley behind a boozer - but I'm sure even they could rig together some form of quarantine. Not that it would matter. Where exactly does the film have left to go after that ending? There's not exactly anything left to salvage from this incredibly devastating war.

Still, there were elements I enjoyed. The hivemind collective mindset of the afflicted - swarms pilling up to clamber over walls and reach helicopters, for example - was cleverly realised. It's logistically ludicrous of course, but an impressive stylistic flair regardless. I also enjoyed the much slower third act. Gerry explores the dimly lit WHO labs with the Twelfth fucking Doctor (see what I did there?) and the pace resembles a traditional zombie movie. It was glaringly evident that a lot of rewriting had gone into the last twenty minutes, but it demonstrated a significantly more thoughtful approach than the incoherent mass that had encompassed the previous hour and a half.  

Whilst we are encroaching the subject, the ultimate resolution to the outbreak is certainly unique - if somewhat akin to battling house spiders with a flamethrower. Gerry realises that the virus naturally desires a healthy host and those infected with give the ill a wider berth than a businessman avoiding a Big Issue seller. Injecting yourself with TB, Smallpox, or AIDs, is certainly an effective way of escaping the clutches of the undead. Just like how using the bastard Monkey in Timesplitters 2 deathmatch is an ‘excellent’ way to make friends.

We all knew that one kid. Dick.

Also, whatever happened to reanimated skeletons? Back before zombies made the transition from Voodoo lore to the back of maths books everywhere, magically resurrected skeletons were all the rage. They’d appear all the time in swashbuckling fantasies, brought to life by Ray Harryhausen’s legendary approach to Stop Motion animation. I remember spending one Sunday afternoon sat with my grandfather and watching the awesome fight scene between Jason and six skeletons. But I can’t think of any film made in the last fifteen years to feature them. There's Army of Darkness, but that's twenty-two years old now. Which is a shame as there aren't many things creepier than the human skeleton. In particular: the vacant hollow stare similar to those pertaining to the youngling creatures featured on Educating Yorkshire

And let's face it, more films should be like Army of Darkness

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