World War Z was one of my least anticipated summer movies and it ended up being one of my favorites. I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment about how lousy this summer’s tentpoles were. They were, but I would have been impressed with World War Z had it come out in 2007, 1997 or 1994 too. And I wasn’t put off by any of the behind the scenes buzz. I just thought the trailer shots of CGI zombie hordes looked boring, but in context they were way more exciting.
Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former military man who goes back to work for the military in return for securing his family shelter during the zombie apocalypse. They send Gerry around the world investigating a possible cure for the zombies, or a weapon to use against them. Whichever.
What first grabbed me about World War Z was how practical a lot of the action looked. The escape from Philadelphia looks like they’re crashing real trucks, and if they’re not then they’ve certainly given the CGI the weight of real destruction. I have to attribute it to director Marc Forster that he allows his film to explain so many of the details visually. There’s scripted exposition for sure, but a good example of visual narrative is the supermarket looting.
Gerry sees a cop approaching and holds up his gun in surrender. The cop passes revealing he doesn’t give a damn what Gerry is up to. We can imagine the cop has more important business, or maybe is just a looter himself now, but either explanation conveys the situation without talking it out. The scene where Gerry counts to 12 is a phenomenal moment of directorial confidence and real acting in a blockbuster scenario.
I always hate the shaky camera style but I think Marc Forster is better at it than Paul Greengrass. It’s his editing. I always know where I am in his sequences and what actions are affecting which consequences. In the Israel sequence, a medium shot of a zombie horde cuts to a wide shot and matches seamlessly so we know where the crowd is headed. The cornered soldier uses his grenade and we see it collapses the alley and scaffolding. Yes, in the opening sequence the truck comes out of nowhere, but it’s supposed to. Once the action starts, we see how Gerry is following the path the truck cuts.
People found Forster’s Quantum of Solace problematic and personal preference is certainly valid, but I consider Quantum of Solace an editing masterpiece. I don’t begrudge anyone disliking the style for a Bond movie but when I watch it I see shots that flow into the next shot and create a deliberate rhythm. It’s a less recent example, but the construction scaffolding fight in Quantum leads each shot into the next. The much-maligned opening car chase is clear to me too. I see Bond shoot his gun, I see an enemy driver get hit, I see a car drive off the cliff and I understand Bond shot the bad guy and he crashed his car. I guess I just speak Forster.
Also, Brad Pitt made a zombie movie. Let’s take a moment to appreciate that for a minute. His presence probably assured the film a lot more care and attention than the zombie film usually gets, no matter how popular “The Walking Dead” is. There is a real sense of the global scale of this outbreak, because they go as far as Israel. Hence the World War aspect of it, I know, but a lot of global movies focus on one place in the western hemisphere. The context made that wall scaling shot more suspenseful to me, because now it represents a sort of cultural hubris. They thought they’d fixed it, their wall would keep the zombies out, but foolish pride in your accomplishments will come back to haunt you.
World War Z still has third act problems. If this is the fix, I wonder how bad the original climax was. As it stands, the finale cribs from the same old contained space tropes of the familiar zombie movies, and horror movies at that. It’s smaller than the global epic the film had established, but what do you do? There’s really no ending to a zombie outbreak. That was the whole point of the Romero movies. So they’ve got to do something, and they do make that science lab as big as they can with lots of corners behind which zombies can hide.
On the Blu-ray, I couldn’t really tell what was added to the unrated version, though seven minutes is not insignificant. You definitely see blood spraying on the arm chop, but that doesn’t add any running time. It’s the same sequence, they just add (or don’t take away) the blood spray. If there’s a lot more blood in the zombie scenes I didn’t notice, and there couldn’t have been seven minutes worth of split-second gory additions. Clearly there is more gore, but that wasn’t what I was watching the movie for.
The Blu-ray looks like a perfect new release Blu-ray. The picture is clear throughout, and frankly looks 3D without even the 3D version. I don’t have a 3D set and I’m watching the 2D Blu-ray but I feel I can see all the way into the city streets. You get all the detail in the chaotic debris and zombie makeup, and each destination on Gerry’s adventure has a unique look. There’s the gritty city, the golden desert of Israel and the cold industrial chambers of the WHO.
Whoever is editing DVD extras has got to learn to cut out all the parts where they talk about the plot of the movie and their characters. Those are sound bites for promotional spots before the movie is released. Now that we own the movie, it’s really insulting to dumb down the bonus features so much that you have to retell us the entire plot again. And these are produced by Laurent Bouzereau! That’s Spielberg’s DVD producer so he knows what he’s doing! I’m sure the mandate from the studio is to keep it simple and use the basic sound bites, but someone has got to say that’s hurting the quality of the enhanced experience.
But the real disappointment is they have not included the original ending of the movie. It’s widely known they rewrote and reshot the entire third act of the film. And hey, it worked! Great job! You made a great hit movie! But we all know what happened and we want to see what you fixed. There’s even an extra about the finale in the WHO lab and Forster talks about it as if it was the plan all along. If you’re really not going to show us what came before, at least have the decency not to talk about it as if you always intended this conclusion. Maybe in a future ultimate special edition they will finally show the original ending, or maybe it will be this generation’s “Eric Stoltz in Back to the Future” footage.
Perhaps this is more of a review for the digital copy edition of World War Z. I think the movie is great and the high definition 2D version is stellar, but the bonus features really add nothing except for some specific examples of where they changed London to Philly and where they put in animated zombies that you may have thought were real actors. We’re at a point in home viewing technology that if I’m really only recommending the movie, there’s a way to have it without paying for unnecessary fluff.
The bottom line is we got a great zombie epic from a big star and a big studio. For that we should be happy, and the movie is what matters. Just remember that it’s still the same big old machine producing the bonus features so keep your expectations reasonable, and maybe just watch the movie by itself.