Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Film: "World War Z" (2013)

This is the film adaptation of Max Brooks' novel from 2006. The book was subtitled "an oral history of the Zombie War", which gives you some idea of its subject and how it is approached. In the book, a researcher interviews people around the world who describe what they did and saw during the recent war between the living and the undead. The book is an endlessly fascinating depiction of many different types of people in strange and terrifying situations that are nevertheless described with an unflinching realism.

The film is not like that. At some early point in its gestation, Brad Pitt came onboard. The problem with attaching a big Hollywood star to a film like this is that it has to start being about the star. The book has no single character that you could imagine turning into a heroic figure played by Brad Pitt. I had assumed that they would bundle a load of characters together to create one super-character for him. Instead they largely threw away the book and made his character the hero of a film in which people race around the world trying to find a solution to the zombie problem before everyone's brains are eaten. Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator.

So, if you had read the book and went to see this film in the hope of seeing something bearing some relation to it, you would be largely disappointed. There are nods to the book - Israel being one of the few countries to respond adequately to early warnings, the sense that something very strange has happened in North Korea (albeit something different to the book), people in North America being encouraged to run north. But the overall thrust of the narrative is completely different, making the end product less rich and satisfying.

But in its own terms, this is not such a bad film. The early scenes showing the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia are pretty terrifying, as are the following scenes in Newark to which Lane's family flee. After that the film largely becomes a succession of action sequences as Lane travels around the world, ostensibly trying to track down the source of the zombie outbreak though in narrative terms this is clearly a device to let us see how some other countries are doing.

In its own terms, this is broadly enjoyable, but there are still problems. The big budget means they have to go for a mainstream audience, which means the gore and horror are somewhat toned down. You never get that classic zombie horror thing of people having to kill their zombified friends and you never see too much of the undead biting away at people. The film also seems to trail off slightly. The last sequence is in a WHO research centre in Wales, where the surviving staff are all respected non-Hollywood actors like Ruth Negga, Peter Capaldi and Moritz Bleibtrau. There are some scary bits here but it all seems a bit low-rent for the climactic episode in a film about a world war.

To end on a positive note, the combination of music and sound design in the film is very atmospheric. There is particular creepy zombie noise they use a lot in the film to great effect, making everything feel edgy like something could eat your face at any moment.

As I exited the cinema auditorium, the film made me look more concernedly at the people waiting in the foyer, as their aimless loitering looked suspiciously like the shambling of the undead. And then I walked out from the Savoy into O'Connell Street, where the living dead walk among us.

Gratuitous Panda

An inuit panda production

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