I actually saw this movie the week it came out–no, before, as I caught a Thursday sneak preview showing–and came out of the film burning up with criticisms. By the next morning I had forgotten about reviewing it, because the movie was, for me, that forgettable.
However, as there were some interesting narrative-structure flaws, I have decided to go ahead and tell you what I didn’t like about this film. Spoilers ahoy.
A quick word about the movie itself: might as well have been Transformers X: Decepticonomicon. Lots of action sequences, quick-cuts and big explosions and fires and CG-generated panoramas to try and show the scale of the zombie horde. As with most computer effects, these left me unmoved. The scale felt sterile in its vastness, and for all the deaths there was very little sense of it mattering–or concern that it did not matter. This was an action movie, not a vivisection of human psychology the way, for example, The Walking Dead is.
My first problem with this movie is the scale of it. We are asked to believe that one guy manages to single-handedly save the world. Literally. He flies around the world twice in search first of Patient 0 and then safe haven and finally a potential inoculation that would give humans the chance to fight back. One dude does all of this. He spots patterns no one else spots and puts together information no one else has and instead of passing his theory as far and wide as he can he goes to test it himself in person. One dude.
My second problem with the film is that it’s built on a string of near-escapes and coincidences. I know the near-escape is part and parcel of action flicks, but these were…not even good near escapes, by which I mean situations the hero survives on his own wits. These were near escapes that in any game and any other kind of movie would have been certain death. Caught in a city overrun by zombies? No problem. Just call your friend from the UN and get a helicopter sent to you, which will reach your rooftop just as the zombies break through the door, but don’t worry, the clingers are easy to shake from the bottom of the chopper! Caught in a different city overrun by zombies? No problem. Just convince an escaping jet to stop and pick you up by sticking your gun out on the side of the runway instead of your thumb. They’ll be delighted to pull over and let you on board! Caught on a plane with a zombie that turns the entire coach cabin into a new horde? No problem. Shoot a hole in the hull with said gun and hope for the best–this is a movie so you and your friend will miraculously be the ONLY survivors! Remember, everyone: always buckle up!
It was ridiculous. Just moment after moment that should have ended in catastrophe for the main character, and didn’t only because doing so would have ended the story right then and there. This film was a classic example of stakes and consequences, and how you have to have both in order to make your story seem realistic. This story had stakes, but no consequences. There was never a sense of real threat to the characters (or at least not the main character), because the first rescue set up that this was the hero of the story and therefore nothing could touch him before the end of the story. Say this for Game of Thrones – no character feels above the reach of consequences, and that’s the real reason Ned Stark lost his head at the end of the first book. Brad Pitt’s head was never in danger, and that lack of threat made the story weak. Again and again, coincidence and luck rule the outcome of these “impossible” situations. If the only way for the story to advance is via deus ex machina, you’re doing it wrong. Either have the courage to let the character get caught in the trap you sprung, or back up and choose a different plot twist.
I want to go back to something I mentioned but did not expand upon above, and that was the hero being the one to piece together a potential neutralizer for the zombies. This guy had a conversation with a disease expert who talked about how in nature, a weakness is often portrayed as a strength, and then observed a couple people whom the zombies just ran right past as if they did not exist. He concluded they were terminally ill and that zombies didn’t register terminals and cripples as viable food sources, ergo they didn’t even “see” them. He then takes this knowledge to a WHO lab and has to test it on himself to escape from a zombie inside the lab. Triumphant and validated (and infected with God only knows what, because he sure didn’t stop to look), he gives humanity the means of salvation. Yay. Or not. I mean…you really expect me to believe that not on single other person on the entire planet observed that zombies didn’t eat everyone? That no one else saw such a phenomenon enough times to put together that the people being ignored were sick or defective in some critical way? That there were not, like, I dunno, entire wards of cancer children who were left intact while their doctors and nurses were savaged? (THAT would have been a way more interesting story, a platoon of sick and wasted children taking to the streets and killing zombies with their last weeks of life.) Or that, I don’t know, the 30% of the entire continent of Africa who are infected with malaria couldn’t figure out that they were safe from the zombies and realize what all of them had in common? Come on.
I don’t even know whether to call that coincidence, that he was the first to put it all together/be in a position to do something about it, or just a plot hole. I lean toward plot hole. This is why you take your zombie story out for beers with your friends. I guarantee someone would have pointed out that flaw if this screenwriter had shown it to his friends. It took me approximately 5 seconds after the credits rolled to wonder how on earth he was the only one to even hypothesize about it.
All that said, I didn’t want to walk out of the film, so for a popcorn flick I guess it was’t bad. It just wasn’t good. If you want good zombies, well, any number of other, better movies or shows are out there. If you want a good modern plague movie, I highly recommend Contagion. WWZ seems to draw heavily from that film, except where WWZ is unbelievable (and not because of the zombies), Soderbergh’s film is full of both stakes and consequences and has real heroes–multiple, because it takes more than one person to save the world from a plague.
My biggest complaint about World War Z the movie, though, is that the movie that got made was not the story of the book, and that the story of the book likely never will get made because this film was such a big-money picture. Blocking the creation of an actual good adaptation of what is, by all reports, a very good book is the film’s biggest flaw. Maybe in a decade HBO can buy the rights and make a series that consists of one story per episode that, one by one might not mean much, but in aggregate show the scope and tragedy of the zombie war.
For now, alas, all we have is an overblown hero movie that ultimately fails because it cut all tethers to reality yet expected the audience’s disbelief to remain suspended in the face of all manner of improbabilities. Haven’t you heard? You only get one free suspension, so use it wisely. After that your story has to carry its own weight. World War Z most emphatically does not.