Monday, 10 March 2014

Z For Fake?

I watched World War Z last night and, since it came under such fire from fans of the original novel, I thought it might be worth sketching out a few points from the perspective of someone with a fair working knowledge of zombie fiction but who hasn't read the source material.

Alas, from this particular vantage point, there's really very little to say about the view.  This is probably the zombie film to date which has had the most money thrown at it, and that money hasn't been wasted exactly, but the effort has clearly gone into spectacle in a way that doesn't particularly seem necessary.  We've seen fast zombies before (in the far superior 28 Days Later and the wonderful Dawn of the Dead remake, to pick the two most successful examples), so whilst the frenetic pace might involve more explosions and helicopters than we're used to, it would be hard to argue these add all that much to the dish.

On the other hand, the sense of scale here is genuinely affecting.  The coming together of various ships on the ocean to create fleets of uninfected might seem an obvious idea, but it gets across the sense of humanity's downfall in a way that other zombie films are only capable of hinting at. The globe-trotting aspect works better than one might assume - the same old undead tricks pasted onto a map of the world gives the carnage a new dimension.  It reminds me of Eldritch Horror as compared to Arkham Horror; the two share a theme, a lot of their artwork, and very similar game mechanics, but trying to get from Australia to the Canadian wilderness to deal with a threat just somehow feels different to heading from Arkham's train station to its southern woods.  It's an illusion, of course, but then what part of film-making isn't?

Besides, with so much of zombie horror concerned with the basics of survival in a world without hope, it's nice to take time out with a film explicitly concerned with considering the big picture, dealing with the plague and trying to reclaim the globe. Purists may find this too optimistic - sneer at this as not a real zombie flick - but that's the problem with purists; ultimately reiteration becomes more important than imagination.

(Spoilers below the fold)

The various different ways in which individual nations deal with the encroaching hordes also provides interest, though there are problems here. I've no problem with the idea that the North Korean authorities are mad enough to have their entire country's teeth pulled within 24 hours (now that's out of the box thinking, my friends).  The Israeli response is a good deal more problematic, at least potentially.  The fact that they were able to finish building a wall around their country in time to keep them safe from the zombie threat initially struck me as kind of a bad message to be sending, it being a common opinion on the left that this policy is ultimately self-destructive.

Then, when it was revealed the Israelis were letting others in to Jerusalem, I got confused.  Is the suggestion that the Israelis will become less paranoid over their neighbours once they finally feel their country is secure?  Was it because no film that wants a healthy US box-office gross would be stupid enough to suggest Israel would shut out the world and leave it to die when the undead come knocking?  Or was it just that Israel is the obvious choice for a country that could lock itself down like that, but the filmmakers didn't want to make a cynical political point off the back of that (though if so, cynical or not, I'd note I find it hard to believe the idea that an international zombie outbreak would make the Knesset less isolationist than they are now).  Similarly, was the mountain of bodies made by the zombies to get inside Jerusalem and slaughter its population a criticism of contemporary Israeli policy - the higher you build your walls the more you encourage those outside to climb over them? Or was the fact that the assault was precipitated by Islamic newcomers praying at high volume a suggestion that letting Muslims inside Jerusalem would inevitably court disaster.  I guess you can choose your foreign-policy-critique poison here.

But that's just a few minutes from the film as a whole.  If we're going to criticise so short a span, it should really be the ending, no?  There's some nice direction and atmosphere in the chase through the darkened WHO facility, but it's let down by the final dilemma. It's hard to feel any tension over which bottle contains the disease Pitt needs to camouflage himself against the zombies and which ones will kill him when he's in a room with a vid-feed to the medical experts, who have access to a phone (complete with blinking light), and he can send them messages on a pad through the camera.  Why ask them to tell his family he loves them when he could write "SHOULD I INJECT MYSELF WITH DENGUE FEVER? RING ONCE FOR YES, TWICE FOR NO".

It's easy to backseat virus-pick, I guess. The larger problem is really one of an opportunity missed rather than anything else: I think the political calculations and ramifications regarding who got the camouflage vaccine first (and thus could begin retrieving their lands and efforts and accidentally-on-purpose claiming other countries' cities in the name of "helping out") at least thirty times than coming up with the original idea was. Indeed, the entirety of the closing montage rather drove home the fact - even for those of us who haven't read the original - that there is far more one could do with a worldwide war against the undead than we've been shown here.

Still, a disappointment is not a disaster. There's not enough here for World War Z to truly distinguish itself, but as a rare example of an optimistic take on Romero's original bleak-as-shit template, it's an entirely adequate palette cleanser.

(Also, we should commend the film for its prescience.  Peter Capaldi heads to Wales to help save the world?  That's something that ended up catching on...)

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