The stakes have never been higher for the Hollywood studios as Paramount finally releases Brad Pitt and Marc Forster’s beleaguered $200 million zombiepocalypse epic “World War Z” (June 21). Critics are divided (see below). Some find it a limp addition to the zombie genre, lacking “strong meat” and bogged down by “elaborate uselessness.” Meanwhile, others are impressed, calling the film a “total rush,” admiring Pitt’s “stoic grace” and Forster’s handling of an “impressive horde of flesheaters.”
Now that a release schedule rests on more high-risk tentpoles that statistically yield more returns than smaller bets, and viral word-of-mouth can kill a movie no matter how much a studio pummels the public with marketing, it’s essential to deliver the goods. (THR lays out the logic for why studios are more willing to push their dates around, from “Where the Wild Things Are” to “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”). Yes, they’re making the movies better. But add in global marketing costs and these pictures are too big to fail, finally.
This is part of what Steven Spielberg is railing about when he says the industry is imploding (Indiewire Influencer Russ Collins’ must-read response here). Spielberg’s argument is that one summer the studios high-stakes gambles will yield a spate of flops on the scale of “Battleship” and “John Carter.” So far in 2013 only Sony is really hurting with “After Earth.”
When the studios lay all their resources on a smaller number of down-the-middle blockbuster plays, that leaves less money for the likes of Spielberg to make what he considers a mainstream adult movie–period drama “Lincoln,” and of course he was proved right–which the studios deem high risk. If Hollywood can’t afford to make “Lincoln,” and DreamWorks itself is backed by an Indian company, Reliance, then we know something is terribly wrong.
On the other hand ideally studio resources are plowed into something that is actually reaching a tad higher than formula commercial fare. Yes, “World War Z” is a zombie movie. And we have no idea if Paramount will make back its considerable investment. But at least “World War Z” is not based on a comic book, but a thoughtful novel by Max Brooks. And this sci-fi projection into the future, like Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” is grounded in some semblance of reality. Sure, in the movie we’re hanging on the fate of the world, placed in the hands of our impossibly handsome globe-trotting hero Gerry Lane (Pitt), a brainy action-trained investigator on a mission for the U.N. to discover the source of a deadly fast-moving “zombie” plague that is swiftly over-running the planet. Too many grunt soldiers lose their lives trying to protect him as he outruns the hordes. The movie is efficient, even at two and a half hours, expertly manipulative, throwing jolts and blurry flesh-biting zombies in your face in 3-D.
Forster & Co. alternate noisy chaos and calm silence, frenetic action and solace, family and danger. Forster (“The Kite Runner”) knows how to elegantly stage large-scale crowd scenes in exotic locations–the sequence in Israel is as well-wrought as anything in recent movies. And he gives “The Killing “star Mereille Enos some action beats to show that she’s more than a teary wife. When she calls her husband, the ringing wakes up a pack of zombies and they almost get him. But he never tells her this; he croons in her ear that he’s OK, and does everything he can to get back to her and his two daughters. Pitt is in fine form as a protective uber-Dad. He’s also a detective, watching for behavior and mystery clues–the countdown when we learn that the bitten become zombified in 12 seconds is brilliant.
What happened on “World War Z” is that the final act didn’t work and Paramount and producers Pitt and Dede Gardner went back for $20 million in reshoots. (See Newsbeast, Vanity Fair.) You can fuss in the editing room–and this movie revels in the most advanced VFX, editing, sound and music you can have these days–but if you leave the audience walking out disappointed with the ending you’re screwed. Bad word-of-mouth follows. The entire 40-minute final sequence in Cardiff, Wales is new; Peter Capaldi wasn’t even in the first version of the movie.
UPDATE: Time, the Village Voice and Indiewire are now weighing in. Roundup below.
Brit Idris Elba has now seen the film, and had an appreciative tweet for it: “I just saw World War Z and it was a decent approach to the genre… Best zombie acting I’ve seen… And I’ve been in a zombie film…”
Here’s the oddest element in this tale of Hollywood
fine-tuning run rampant: the movie is pretty good — the summer’s most urgent,
highest-IQ action picture. The movie hurtles authoritatively from Philly to Newark to
an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic to South Korea to Israel to Wales, like
Richard Engel on a worldwide assignment. And on the personal side, Gerry’s
relationship with his wife (Mireille Enos of Big Love and The Killing) and two
young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) shows all the care and
concern — and the sensible sense of humor — that one would like to think Pitt
lavishes on his own large family. It’s a smarter, more organic display of
affection than the daddy-love scenes in Moneyball, as well an antidote to the
stern father Pitt played in The Tree of Life.
It’s all pretty noble, and if nothing else, World War Z
shows off some horrifically effective filmmaking: An early sequence, in which
Pitt’s Gerry figures out something has gone terribly wrong as he’s driving his
wife (Mireille Enos, of Big Love and The Killing) and two generically adorable
daughters from here to there in Manhattan, is that rare evocation of chaos that
isn’t chaotic itself. Shot and edited with chilling clarity, it shows us
vehicles colliding in seconds that feel like eons, or vice versa; metal
crumples like paper and glass shatters as if invested with demonic life.
But Forster’s meticulousness—coupled with ample excuses to
blow stuff up—isn’t enough to turn World War Z into one of those class-A
end-of-everything movies that leaves you feeling just a little bit queasy,
momentarily uncertain of your own small place in this unmanageable world.
In its quest to smarten up the genre, the filmmakers also
stiffen it. “World War Z” may wear its intellect proudly, but also
consciously translates the zombie premise into a safer context for wider
audiences. It’s not the smartest zombie movie ever made, but might be the most
Waves of startling action counterbalance standard one-man-saves-the-day Hollywood heroics in World War Z,
an immersive apocalyptic spectacle that tosses the viewer into the deep
end of a global zombie uprising and doesn’t let up until close to the
end. A bunch of impressive set pieces stitched together rather than a
good story convincingly told, this gargantuan production should ride Brad Pitt‘s
name, teeming action scenes and widespread interest in all things
zombie to strong box office returns, particularly internationally.
Whether it will be enough to compensate Paramount and the assorted
producers for the $200 million-plus investment and all their production
headaches is something they’ll have to sweat out.
Rising from an early grave of negative pre-release publicity, director Marc Forster and producer-star Brad Pitt’s much-maligned “World War Z” emerges as a surprisingly smart, gripping and imaginative addition to the zombie-movie canon, owing as much to scientific disaster movies like “The China Syndrome” and “Contagion” as it does to undead ur-texts like the collected works of George Romero. Showing few visible signs of the massive rewrites, reshoots and other post-production patchwork that delayed its release from December 2012, this sleekly crafted, often nail-biting tale of global zombiepocalypse clicks on both visceral and emotional levels, resulting in an unusually serious-minded summer entertainment whose ideal audience might be described as comicbook fanboys who also listen to “Democracy Now.” Opening a week apart from the more four-quadrant-friendly “Man of Steel” in most markets, “World War Z” should post solid enough numbers at home and abroad, but with a rumored final cost well north of $200 million, it’ll need more than a bit of kryptonite up its sleeve to push far into profitability.
What we get is a collection of moderately violent action
set-pieces untroubled by humour or broader coherence… Forster, who directed the
Bond film Quantum of Solace, has done his best to piece together a story from
these incompatible parts, but the final product has an elaborate uselessness
about it, like a broken teapot glued back together with the missing pieces
replaced by parts of a vacuum cleaner.
Despite a lavish budget heading for $200 million (£131
million), World War Z borders on a damp squib for traditional zombie fans. More
an action blockbuster than a horror squelcher, it contains spectacular crowd
scenes that have an Hieronymus Bosch quality, but the film lacks strong meat —
of the emotional and bloody zombie-cannibal sort.
Pitt leads us through the carnage with suitable stoic grace,
but WWZ doesn’t really care about anyone with a pulse.
Forster’s zombies aren’t really zombies at all, and they
often look more like an angry football crowd on a Saturday night – but there’s
never been a more impressive horde of flesh-eaters on the big screen.
Sprinting, gnashing, leaping and head-butting their way through civilisation in
a swarm of thousands, the Zombie apocalypse finally looks big enough to be
believable. Globetrotting from one epic set-piece to the next, WWZ is at its best when the screen is filled –
with CG hordes pouring through crowded streets, piling high at city walls and
overrunning helicopters like ants.