or: Guess what just came out on Netflix!
So, I never go to the movies. I think the last time I went to an actual theater was for the second part of Deathly Hallows in 2010? Anyway. This means that I’m always pretty behind on recent movies. Usually, I get excited about a movie, wait for it to FINALLY be released, don’t see it, and then get excited when I see it pop up on Netflix a year later. So, I’m starting a new series where I’ll review movies that have been out for a long time but only just came out on Netflix. Because there’s got to be a niche market for that, right?
Thus it was with World War Z, Brad Pitt’s adaptation of Max Brooks’ zombie classic of the same name. When I first heard about this movie I was both extremely excited and righteously angry. Excited because I love the book. Angry because I didn’t think a movie adaptation could capture the spirit and depth of the book.
Brooks’ story is told from the perspective of a dozen characters from all corners of the globe and all walks of life; doctors, soldiers, bureaucrats, mercenaries, and all sorts of others. Most of these people are trying to answer the question “How could this happen?” These days, we take the plausibility of the zombie apocalypse for granted but only because we’ve seen it on screen so many times. When you think about it, though, wouldn’t it be pretty easy to prevent such a worldwide plague? We have vast amounts of medical knowledge, disease control centers, and government protocols for such emergencies. Here in the US, we have huge armies with sophisticated gear, a colossal infrastructure, satellites that can read soup can labels, and technology that can spread information across the globe instantaneously. Surely we could stop a few lumbering zombies. How could something like this happen?
The book and movie give very different answers to this question. For Brooks, the answer is complex; the very things we believe will protect us – new technology, government oversight, global media – can end up bringing disaster. One compelling example Brooks brings up is the 1918 flu pandemic, or Spanish Flu. Less than a hundred years ago, this is the perfect example to support Brooks assertion that a worldwide plague could absolutely wreak havoc today. The 1918 flu killed upwards of 100 million people worldwide, mostly adults in their prime. The disease spread rapidly with WWI troop movements by train and transoceanic boat. Government efforts to hide the severity of the flu to protect morale worked to keep people oblivious to the danger. Doctors who prescribed excessive dosages of aspirin may have actually increased mortality. In light of such examples, Brooks attempts to show how scientific hubris, ease of global travel, government inaction, and military ineffectiveness could all contribute to a global zombie crisis.
To this same question -”how could this happen?” – Brad Pitt’s answers, “Yo, these zombies CRAZY FAST. Lol, looka these dudes running!” In general, I think fast zombies are annoying. But they’re especially bad for this book. Instead of Brooks’ complex and sophisticated explanation of how a pandemic could rapidly spread across the globe, the movie just shows the apocalypse as inevitable because, well, zombies are really, really fast and strong and there’s no way you can escape.
All that aside, Pitt did a good job of providing a human presence to a book without any main characters to root for. Mostly he achieves this by adding a wife and some kids his character has to cart around. For us zombie aficionados with children, this was a welcome addition. As someone who can literally run a hundred miles at a time, grow his own food, skin and cook most small animals, and always keeps his machetes sharp, I like to think I stand a pretty good chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse. On my own, that is. But I wouldn’t be alone. My wife and I would have three kids in tow. Kids who can’t really be quiet and aren’t known for their strength, endurance, or survival skills. So, it was nice to see Mr. Pitt giving it the old college try with a couple younguns. One scene that especially hit home for me was his daughter’s asthma attack. I’ve been on both sides of that panicked moment so I easily understood the sense of terror the movie tried to create.
Unfortunately, once Mr. Pitt was off on his own, WWZ became much less interesting. Watching terrified people run away from things just isn’t very exciting. And this is mostly what happens on an army base in South Korea, a fortified Jerusalem, and on a flight to Wales. The last act of the film takes place in a contagious disease lab where the brilliant Mr. Pitt figures out how to save the world from zombies. This ending is heroic but… rather boring.
The focus on the search for a vaccine is another major departure from Brooks’ novel which never discusses a cure. In fact, the idea of a miracle cure is contrary to the themes in the book which question the arrogance of science and our blind trust in medical technology. According to the novel, the zombie pandemic simply runs its course and the survivors slowly fight their way back to civilization. Again, there is a similarity here to plagues of the past. The black plague disappeared only after devastating Europe’s population and economy. There was never a cure; just a slowly decreasing mortality rate and a fading terror. Similarly, scientists never created a vaccine for the 1918 flu. It simply mutated into a less lethal strain (we guess). That pandemic spread to every corner of the globe (the only population center without repinorted cases was the island Marajó off the coast of Brazil) and wiped out between 3% to 6% of humanity. And then…it was gone. Of course, this narrative wouldn’t work for Hollywood. There’s a subtle horror there; an unstoppable ravaging force that just…stops. This is the same terror that haunts us in a dark house; a sound whose source we never see, a quiet that could end at any moment. Brad Pitt shines a light on that sound, solves the problem, and ruins the moment.
On the other hand, I thought Brooks’ really began to show a fantastic imagination with his description of the aftermath of the zombie plague. He details the social, political, and economic changes brought by the world wide plague. His book is about human failure and human ingenuity, our weaknesses and our strengths in the face of adversity. Brad Pitt’s movie is about….Brad Pitt solving our problem.
I’m kidding. I enjoyed the movie. As zombie action movies go, this one was watchable but mostly because of its budget. Some of the effects and cinematography stand out from other movies in the genre. But money can’t buy a compelling story and that’s what the movie lacked. This is especially unfortunate since it was supposed to be based on book that’s full of compelling story.
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