Tag Archives: movies

Why World War Z Wimped Out

I eagerly awaited this week’s release of World War Z, the film based on the Max Brooks novel. The New York Times Bestseller is an oral history of mankind’s war against the zombie apocalypse, written in the style of a report with interviews from survivors all over the world. While American characters are frequently the focus of the story, readers get perspectives from South Africa, China, Russia, South America, and all over the world. The tone is realistic and journalistic. The novel is remarkable in several ways:

  • There is no main character. The narrator is almost completely removed from the action. If anything, mankind is the main character. That’s some feat, pulling off a compelling book without someone to root for. But Brooks keeps the tension by making readers wonder how humanity will overcome the challenges from both zombies and from other humans.

  • Social commentary. Most zombie stories carry the same moral: what makes humanity special is the ability to reason. Zombies represent humans minus this gift. But World War Z digs a lot deeper into more cutting issues, including America’s dubious role as “world leader,” the savagery that humans will employ to save themselves, and the power of unconventional thinking.

  • The novel avoids many zombie clichés. Some elements are common to all zombie fiction: the viral origin, the brain as a target, the general uselessness of conventional weapons, worldwide epidemic. However, Brooks puts his own spin on a lot of things (hint: zombies don’t need oxygen, so the sea ain’t safe!). He did incredible amounts of research, so not only does the novel feel realistic, it is actually based on solid information.

I saw the film this afternoon. My expectations were…wary. First bad sign: a PG-13 zombie movie. I certainly don’t need blood and guts to be entertained. But what makes zombies so fearsome is the visceral way they attack and devour. For a zombie film to be effective, viewers need gore. Sure enough, the film featured lots of cutaway shots and off-screen brain-munching, and was therefore bloodless and only occasionally scary. And from what I saw of the previews, it appeared to have all the soulless sheen of a Big Hollywood Production.

After seeing it, here’s why the film wimped out:

  • Main character. The film attempts to make a main character of Brooks’ narrator. Brad Pitt plays the character ably, but there’s not much of interest to him. He’s a generic, Big Hollywood Hero. And the characters around him are totally forgettable. They emerge long enough to move him (and the plot) forward, then die or are abandoned.
  • Complete lack of all that cool stuff from the novel. All the edgy stuff from the novel like pharm companies getting rich off of fake vaccines, a snarl of political issues, and the brutal efforts to reclaim the world are all missing. The focus of the film is on finding a cure, so the “war” against zombies never actually happens (or at least viewers never see it).
  • The film embraces clichés. Good guy hero with emotional scars, called on to save the world? Check. Worried, ineffectual wife and whimpering daughters to fight for? Check. Swarms of secondary characters, human and zombie, to aid/annoy the hero on quest? Check. Unfunny wisecracks by tough guy commandos to lighten the mood? Check. Disproportionately white cast? Check (Side note: there was only one black character in a grocery store in Newark. Come on!). Overall, the film took every opportunity to make a predictable, safe, Big Hollywood Blockbuster. May the production company enjoy their millions.

I am NOT one who demands that a film adhere strictly to its source material. Many fine films have been made from fine books. Some films are better than their novels. (The Prestige). But everything that made the book an engaging read was eliminated in this film, and that’s what left me disappointed.

The film wasn’t a disaster. Brad Pitt makes the character sympathetic, if not interesting. And I was excited to see Marc Foster at the helm—he’s done great stuff in the past. And his artistic touch was evident in some of the lighting and some intense dream sequences. And the band Muse contributed to the more ambient sections of the soundtrack, and they’re the band to write a soundtrack for the apocalypse. It wasn’t a terrible movie, just a disappointing, wimpy one.

Here’s what I’d love to have seen: a mock-documentary. Make it much, much closer to the novel. It’s not like mockumentaries are unprecedented or even all the unusual to American audiences. It would lack a main character (and a Leading Man Role), so I can see why Big Hollywood would back away from that idea. But I would be riveted to my seat watching a series of interviews serving as voiceovers to the scenes from all over the world. Show me Patient Zero in a peasant hut in China. Show me the massacre at the Battle of Yonkers. Show me zombies, frozen in Minnesota in the winter. Show me the damn underwater zombies, pounding on the submarines! It would not have been an easy film to make, but it would have been a more compelling and much braver one.

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An Unexpected Blog Post

My first blog post here was back in August, about the announcement that The Hobbit was being made into not two, but three films.
Well, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has now been out for nearly a month. Most of us who have hoped to see it have seen it. What did we see?
Ian McKellan is Gandalf again, and his portrayal of Gandalf is a touch lighter, more playful than in the first films. The two principal character newcomers—Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin, are both very believable. Armitage’s proud portrayal of Thorin was compelling, as well. Thorin is proud and prickly, but sympathetic, and Armitage evokes all those feelings. When I heard Freeman would be Bilbo, my first thought was “My God, he already LOOKS like a hobbit. Just give him prosthetic feet and a wool coat and I’ll believe it!” And sure enough–.
The scene stealer (as usual) was Andy Serkis. His Gollum performance is right on par with what he did before, perhaps even better. The Smeagol/Gollum split is distinct, both facially and vocally, and he uses it to great comic/horrific effect. Though Gollum isn’t on screen long in the film, his presence dominates my memory of the film.
All the other goodies are abundant, as well. Lush New Zealand landscapes, sweeping musical score (including some refreshing updates on old themes) from Howard Shore, and seamless visual effects. There’s so much to love about the film.
So…much…
And that’s also the chief complaint against the film, that there’s just so much. The Hobbit, the novel, is a story for children, told in 300 pages with a single narrative. It’s an epic, but a small, focused one. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is a three-volume, multiple narrative, sprawling epic across Middle Earth. Sure, it took Peter Jackson three films to tell the story, but it took Tolkien three books to tell it, as well. The Hobbit should be small; The Lord of the Rings should be big.
But this film feels as big as the LotR films, or at least it’s stretching on its tippy-toes to be so. And here is where the film feels tedious. There are scenes when old characters are introduced that interrupt the narrative flow, such as an unnecessary stop in Rivendell to see Elrond and Galadriel and bicker with Saruman. There are scenes where new characters are introduced (Radagast the Brown) who only seem to bog the story down with additional back story and information, and distract from the quest.
“But wait!” you protest. “Be patient! Jackson is surely setting up developments for the next two films!”
I agree! But there’s just…so…much.
I don’t blame Jackson entirely, though. He’s kind of been pushed into this. The first three films set the bar very high for Quality (which he could have matched with The Hobbit) and for Size (which he couldn’t). If he’d made a single-film version of The Hobbit, even it were great, people would leave feeling unsatisfied. So his choices were to leave the audience feeling hungry or leave them feeling overstuffed.
No, I don’t fault Jackson for cramming The Hobbit with unnecessary stuff. My only objection to his direction was his tendency to blur the line between the heroic and the ridiculous. In the heroic mode, seemingly average, normal individuals take on tasks bigger than themselves and rise to the challenge. Bilbo represents this. However, there are moments in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when I found myself doubting the plausibility of the characters’ actions. This was most pointed in the Goblin caves. The dwarves, who had been set up as a group of ragtag refugees, definitely NOT warriors, slay dozens upon dozens of useless goblins. Sometimes, to make things efficient, they simply take ladders and other parts of their environment to sweep the foes into the pit. I’m not looking for Black Hawk Down here, but battle scenes should leave me pumped up and breathless, not scoffing.
That said, go see it. You probably have already. Just be sure to stock up on popcorn and patience before you go in.

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