Yes, I know it’s Tuesday, but I only watched the movie Saturday night and was busy with the NFL all day Sunday and had my hands full yesterday. And Movie Review Tuesday lacks any alliterative quality.
First, let’s forget for a moment that the movie World War Z is based on the novel by Max Brooks and that for the most part, the only thing the movie has in common with the novel is the title.
Let’s also forget that in terms of a World War against zombies, that never materializes until the end of the film. I believe the only mention of any type of war is in the voice over just before the credits start rolling.
Finally, let’s forget that most Hollywood action films are no longer made for an American audience but for a foreign audience (since foreign revenues now make up more than 70% of Hollywood profits), and that special effects and action trump pathos and plot.
Instead, let’s focus on storytelling.
Stupid Human Tricks
Let’s start with the opening scene in Philadelphia. Good stuff. Lots of action and excitement right off the bat. I’m hooked. And I’m on board when Brad Pitt—a former UN employee and someone who comes across as smart and capable—gets his family into an RV and suggests that they get out of the city.
Smart move. In the event of a zombie invasion, it’s best to avoid large populations. And although he doesn’t know it’s a zombie invasion at this point, he knows something weird is going on because he took the time to watch a dead man come back to life after twelve seconds and start killing people.
So yes. Get the hell out of this shit storm. Maybe head back home, which from the opening scene prior to the family trip into the city appears to be somewhere in the suburbs of Philadelphia. That might be an option. Or maybe head out to the country. Someplace less populated. Anyplace but the city. Instead, they end up going to…another city. Newark, New Jersey.
Granted, their oldest daughter is having an asthma attack and they don’t have her medication. They probably have some at home but apparently that’s not an option. So they have to find a pharmacist. But instead of going to a nearby pharmacy in one of the smaller nearby towns, which shouldn’t be a problem using smart phone technology, they drive 90 miles to Newark and end up in the middle of another fucking mess.
Having your main character, who has been established as a smart guy, put his family in danger by going to another city rather than going someplace safer seems like a contrivance to get the plot to go where you want it to go rather than having the story make sense.
Keep the Engine Running
Oh, and when you’re on the run from some kind of inexplicable riot where people are rampaging and killing and reanimating, I think it’s safe to say that if you pull over on the side of the highway to attend to your daughter who is having an asthma attack, you put the RV in park and keep the engine idling. You don’t turn off the fucking ignition. And if you are going to have the movie cliche where the car won’t start, at least give us an immediate threat that ratchets up the tension. Don’t just have it be an “uh-oh” moment and then have the engine catch a minute later.
Flying Zombies and World Building
After getting the requisite supplies from a Newark pharmacy and finding shelter for the night in an apartment building with a trusting Hispanic family, Brad Pitt and his family head for the roof the following morning to get airlifted to safety courtesy of Brad Pitt’s UN buddies. While on their way to the roof, they’re detected by a bunch of zombies in the apartment building and are chased up the stairs.
Prior to this scene, it’s been pretty well established that these zombies are able to run at superhuman speeds and even launch themselves through the air like zombie missiles, flying through windshields and other hard objects. Yet for some reason the zombies can’t seem to catch Brad Pitt and his wife and two small daughters running up a few flights of stairs.
Consistency, people. If you’re going to make your zombies into reanimated cheetahs, you need to give Brad Pitt and his family a bigger head start. Shoving an old refrigerator down the stairs isn’t really much of an obstacle when your zombies can fly. You can’t make the zombies go slower when it’s convenient to the survival of your hero.
How About a Little Pathos for the Orphaned Hispanic Kid?
After fleeing the apartment where they were sheltered by the Hispanic family, the zombies break into the apartment and kill almost everyone in the family off screen (which is usually also a no-no, but Pitt apparently wanted to make a zombie film his kids could watch, so no George Romero gore to be found.) The son, Tommy, escapes and makes it to the roof to get rescued by the helicopter with Brad Pitt and his family.
Yes, I know Brad Pitt hugs the kid close in the helicopter, so maybe that’s enough sympathy. But nowhere in the film does anyone in Pitt’s family mention anything about the fact that the kid’s family is dead or offer any form of condolences. When Pitt says goodbye to him on the aircraft carrier before heading off to save the world, he calls Tommy a champ or something to that effect. No, “Hey, I’m sorry everyone else in your family is dead.”
Oh Dramatic Tension, Wherefore Art Thou?
Once Pitt and his family land on the aircraft carrier and Pitt goes off to save the world in search of a vaccine, the dramatic tension disappears, like the film has had an orgasm and everything that follows is just an extended refractory period. There’s not even any cuddling. The film just rolls over and goes to sleep.
This happens because there is no real concern for the safety of Brad Pitt’s family or of Brad Pitt. While throughout the rest of the film he’s under an almost constant threat, we know he’s not going to die, so there’s no dramatic tension. How do we know he’s not going to die? Because he’s the fucking star, that’s why.
Yes, I know Brad Pitt has died in films before. And I know sometimes the main character dies in films. But this isn’t Sunset Boulevard or American Beauty. And it’s not Troy or Kalifornia or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, either. This is a PG-13 film that Brad Pitt wants his kids to be able to watch. So Daddy is not going to die.
What About That Airplane Elevator?
Pitt and an Israeli solider he’s saved flee Jerusalem on an airplane which is diverted to Wales at the urging of the UN (I won’t even go into the issues of how Pitt and the Israeli soldier were allowed on to the plane). Miraculously, no one on board is infected with the zombie virus. But as the plane is making it’s final descent to Cardiff, one of the flight attendants hits the button on the airplane’s elevator, which is used to carry meal service carts and personnel between decks. A zombie has stowed away on the plane in the elevator and is now loose in the first class cabin.
Class warfare commentary aside, Israel and Wales aren’t exactly geographic neighbors. It’s a 14-hour flight from Jerusalem to Cardiff. And during those 14 hours, we never see the elevator operated before this moment. If you’re going to use a device like this, it’s a good idea to introduce it earlier before you get the payoff. But since they only show the elevator being used the one time, the implication is that this is the first time the elevator is called up from the lower level.
So over the entire course of that 14-hour flight, apparently there was never any reason to call up the elevator before the airplane made its final descent into Wales. Considering that these elevators get used multiple times throughout a flight, especially one of this length, I have a hard time believing the elevator wouldn’t have been accessed earlier, which would have allowed the zombie to find its way into the main cabin not long after takeoff.
Instead, it seems the writers found a convenient way to introduce the zombie late enough to allow the plane to crash while at a lower altitude so Brad Pitt is more likely to survive. Or else they cut out an earlier scene showing the elevator being used earlier and this is a case of bad editing.
That’s A Wrap
Now come on, Scott, you might say. Aren’t you nitpicking just a little bit with this last complaint? And aren’t you being kind of a dick about some of these other points you make? After all, it’s only a zombie movie. It’s just mindless fun.
Maybe it is only a zombie movie. But as a writer, things like consistency and believable storytelling matter to me. If my main character is going to make a decision that seems stupid, it needs to make sense. If I’m going to do world building, it needs to be consistent. And if I’m going to introduce plot elements, they need to arise as part of the natural storytelling rather than deliberately inserted for the sole purpose of getting the story where I want it to go.
When convenience and contrivance conspire to move the plot forward, that’s lazy writing. And it’s bad storytelling.
If you’d like to see another take on World War Z, check out the Honest Movie Trailer below: