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Following a sudden outbreak that turns victims into bloodthirsty, rage-driven killers, UN Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) contacts ex-employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) in hopes that his skills can stem the tide of a pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself. Gerry, his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and their two daughters, Rachel and Constance, are saved from the chaos via helicopter and taken to an aircraft carrier off the coast of New York. With his family safe, Gerry is sent on a country-hopping journey to find a cure.

World War Z
Every year, there is at least one movie that is berated by the media for its behind-the-scenes distress. Quite often, it is impossible to critically separate the production drama from the film itself, because the problems tend to appear on screen, usually in the form of half-finished narrative ideas, easily avoided plot holes, and emphasis on special effects extravagance over thematic resonance. But, given the benefit of time, some of the biggest Hollywood fiascos (John Huston’s The Misfits, Cleopatra) are reevaluated as better than the sum of their production problems. Not enough time has passed to separate Marc Foster’s World War Z from the heavily publicized backstage problems, but I believe that missing the film on its theatrical release might work to my advantage here, though my affection for George A. Romero’s brand of zombie apocalypse may be hindering my ability to approach Foster and Pitt’s family-friendly, action-heavy version of it with a completely open mind.

Legal issues with Hungarian authorities and ballooning budgets aside, World War Z’s biggest complications pertained to the producers having no idea what to do with the original material. Max Brooks’ book, also titled World War Z, is not driven by a traditional narrative – it is ‘an oral history of the Zombie War’ made up of anecdotal recollections of a fictional apocalypse. It’s entirely possible to build a film around that concept (Barry Levinson made a pretty good mockumentary about a plague of parasitic fish with The Bay), but not a Brad Pitt-branded action blockbuster. Turning the book’s episodic structure into a standalone epic was originally tasked to star comic writer and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski and his script was later rewritten by mediocre political thriller machine Matthew Michael Carnahan ( The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, State of Play). But, apparently, no one was really satisfied with the proposed ‘ Parallax View with zombies’ twist and the amorphous storyline continued to evolve throughout shooting, eventually leading the filmmakers to hire Damon Lindelof (boo!) and Drew Goddard (yay!) to write a new ending, replacing one they’d already spent millions shooting. (For more in depth information on this whole debacle, check out this fantastic Vanity Fair article)

World War Z
The war between the book’s episodic structure and the script’s need for consistent characters and a through-line story is palpable, boiling the whole movie down to a handful of action set-pieces. The main character is repeatedly whisked from one videogame-inspired scenario to another without any substantial connective tissue. Many sequences work as standalones, due in large part to clever twists on the zombie genre, but, around the third and fourth times Pitt is tasked with getting from point A to point B, a persistent sense of déjà vu quickly sets in. Of course, this repetition comes part and parcel with the typical disaster flick (especially Roland Emmerich’s movies), but the writers aren’t dealing with the typical ensemble cast here – Pitt is very much centre stage – and this compounds the repetition. The multi-national angle generates political/social analogies, a defining element of Romero’s Dead series, and these come very close to working. They only fall apart when the film’s attempts at appealing to the largest possible audience neuters the message. More irritating is the focus on the scientific logic of the zombie plague. Besides being kind of boring, it strains suspension of disbelief. Romero was wise to not dwell on the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of a bite-bourne pathogen that motivates dead people to eat living people. He knew it would never stand up to scrutiny. Still, based on descriptions of the original ending, I’d say things could’ve been much worse and that the extra money spent on Lindelof and Goddard’s new ending probably paid off. For all of the obvious problems the re-writes caused (the last act is full of random coincidences), this is a surprisingly coherent film on a story level.

Zombies have been coupled with action before. Sony will probably keep churning out Resident Evil movies (live-action and computer-animated) until the actual zombie apocalypse hits and it’s even arguable that Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was an action movie (it’d be just as easy to categorize it as a comedy or drama). World War Z is notable for being the first zombie holocaust movie to maintain an apocalyptic scale in its action, unlike the Resident Evil movies or Land of the Dead, where the really big stuff is limited to a handful of brief sequences to save money. World War Z also ups the ante on the screaming, sprinting ‘infected’ seen in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later by turning them into CG-assisted, swarming masses of mouths and limbs that crash into architecture like waves (credit to Dan O'Bannon for establishing running zombies with Return of the Living Dead). It’s the sort of unnecessary extravagance that defines a summer action movie, but it is also a uniquely frightening image that helps set this movie apart in a very busy field.

World War Z
I’m unsure why anyone would want to hire Marc Forster to bring a colossal horror/action hybrid to fruition. He proved himself a decent director of small-scale drama with above-average movies, like Monster’s Ball and The Kite Runner, but his last two films, Quantum of Solace and Machine Gun Preacher, were nearly incomprehensible messes in terms of cinematic action. For what it’s worth, World War Z is easily the Forster’s finest achievement in terms of action direction, especially when he moves away from the Paul Greengrass-inspired stuff he leaned too heavily on when he was handed Bond. At the same time, it is still clearly a Marc Forster movie, baring the signs of his usual strengths and weaknesses. The opening zombie attacks start things off on the right foot by steadily building a bleak mood, then shattering it with sudden and frenetic violence. The camera work and editing is definitely herky-jerky, but this fits the chaos and contrasts nicely against the following scenes of Pitt leading his family through the burnt remains of Newark. This stuff isn’t as viscerally impactful as the similar (and more modest) pre-credit scene from Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, but it sets the blockbuster tone very well. While Forster manages to maintain suspense, he quickly loses control of further action whenever he’s not focusing on sweeping wide-shots of squirming CG zombies. The easiest comparison is to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which also approaches a science fiction holocaust from a ground-level perspective. Spielberg used handheld camera work, but he also reveled in unbroken shots and established his geography. In contrast, Foster’s zombie attacks lack clarity, despite their percussive shocks.

Now that I’ve got the pseudo-professional part of the review out of the way, I can indulge a bit in some subjective grumbling about how difficult I find it to relate to World War Z on the most basic conceptual level. I just can’t fathom choosing to adapt the Romero zombie menace for a PG-13 audience. I understand paring down the flesh-eating thing, so that children may enjoy the antics of the living dead (plenty of animated entertainment has cleverly found its way around standards & practices), but why press violence and intensity if you’re going to ultimately limit your carnage according to the arbitrary rules of the MPAA? A virus/contagious condition that turns people into cannibalistic monsters just isn’t the kind of thing you build a violent – but not too violent – movie around. Even on this Blu-ray’s unrated version, Forster is constantly, awkwardly pulling his punches – only a quick bit where Pitt chops off an Israeli soldier’s arm propels the gore into R-territory. Harrumph.

World War Z

Video


World War Z was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras (there were some Super 35mm inserts – I’m guessing these are mostly super-slo-mo scenes) and was presented in theaters in post-converted 3D. This 2D Blu-ray is full 1080p and framed at 2.35:1. Forster and cinematographer Ben Seresin aim for the generically gritty look, but also fully embrace the soft and clear look that the digital format affords them, especially during the quieter character interactions where lens flares and back-lighting blow-out the crisper edges. It is also common for the finer details to be smoothed over and out of focus. Sometimes, it looks like Seresin has slathered his lenses with Crisco. Still, patterns and complex element differentiations are tighter than an SD release could manage and the occasional high-contrast locations (Jerusalem, for example) are pretty sharp. Grain and digital noise is very rare, except for some of the roughest outdoor sequences. The palette takes full advantage of the format and is very stylized. The digital grading and faux-gels change-up from location to location – some places are greenish or brownish with yellow highlights, while others are caked in purer tones, like oranges and reds. These hues blend beautifully, but there are some seemingly unintended cross-colouration effects (along with some very minor banding along some of the backgrounds). The black levels are hampered by a blue/teal tone during the darkest moments, but are quite rich during the scenes with higher dynamic ranges.

World War Z

Audio


This Blu-ray comes fitted with a big, noisy DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. This track is designed for maximum dynamic impact and subjective immersion, which goes well with the film’s ‘man on the street’ approach to the apocalypse. There’s a rhythmic loud/quiet/loud/quiet technique used during the action that gives the track a lot of pop and the stereo/surround effects more of a chance to wrap around the viewer. All of the action scenes are potent and aggressive (the plane crash is especially loud), but the most impressive set-piece as far as stylish zombie action goes is the bit where the anti-zombie wall in Jerusalem is breached and Israeli soldiers mow down screaming masses of the living dead. The mix is also quite nice anytime Forster slows down the frenetic action so that the audience can take a breath. When he does this, the sound turns more abstract and subjective, like a moment where we experience Pitt’s ear-ringing shell shock following a brutal car crash. Marco Beltrami’s score (Muse also supplied two fitting instrumentals) is very nicely laid into the punchy destruction, rolling throughout the stereo channels and giving the LFE some throb to go along with the punch of gunshots and explosions. Given the total amount of noise, it would’ve been understandable if the music had been lost in the mix, but its aural elements remain discernable throughout even the loudest action scenes.

World War Z

Extras


As seems to be the case with difficult productions, the extras on this disc don’t really explore the more embarrassing behind-the-scenes hardships. These mini-docs are relatively informative, assuming the viewer doesn’t know anything about the production, but verge on EPK-levels of vagueness and self-congratulatory discussion (every piece could accurately be titled ‘Brad Pitt is Super Cool, You Guys!’). More telling and disappointing is the lack of footage from the original ending. I can’t say I’m surprised that the scenes weren’t included, but the footage would’ve made for an interesting companion piece.

The only extras are featurettes, including:
  • Origins (8:20, HD) – A general look at the pre-production process, including the development the script and Forster’s place as director.
  • Looking to Science (7:30, HD) – An overview of the film’s pseudo-scientific approach to the traditional zombie tropes and the ways the natural world inspired it.
  • WWZ: Production:
    • Outbreak (8:30, HD) – On-set footage from the film’s opening zombie attack on Philadelphia (filmed in Glasgow).
    • The Journey Begins (8:40, HD) – A break-down of the rooftop escape sequence followed by behind-the-scenes footage aboard the aircraft carrier.
    • Behind The Wall (9:40, HD) – Explores the film’s central action scene, the attack on Jerusalem (actually Malta).
    • Camouflage (9:30, HD) – A look at the airplane sequence and the W.H.O. scenes that close the film out.


Interviews throughout the featurettes include Forster, producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, co-writer J. Michael Straczynski, ‘Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!’ author Otto Penzler, biologist David Hughes, VFX supervisors Scott Farrer and Matt Johnson, science writer Carl Zimmer, production manager Michael Harm, 2nd unit director/stunt coordinator Simon Crane, stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, military advisor Freddy Joe Farnsworth, weapons master Simon Atherton, location manager Andy Buckley, costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo, and actors Mireille Enos, Fana Mokoena, David Andrews, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Daniella Kertesz, Ruth Negga, and Peter Capaldi (who is credited, funnily enough, as W.H.O. Doctor).

World War Z

Overall


World War Z ends up sitting somewhere between 2012’s high-profile, sci-fi box-office disaster, John Carter (which was actually a pretty great movie until it ran out of steam about 30 minutes too soon) and 2011’s high-profile, sci-fi box-office disaster, Green Lantern (which was pretty terrible the whole way ‘round) – it’s much better than expected, but still problematically uneven. The behind-the-scenes melodrama had a clear effect on the final product without ruining the entertainment value of gnarly herds of CG zombies. Paramount’s 2D Blu-ray release features a nice transfer that is slightly hindered by its occasionally ugly digital cinematography, a top-tier DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a disappointingly deleted-scene-free extras selection. The unrated cut pushes the ‘family friendly’ violence to light-R levels, but not far enough to please the Romero and Fulci fanatics in the house (or the people currently enjoying The Walking Dead, for that matter).

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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