So, after all the hype and rumours of disaster, what’s World War Z like? Well, even though it’s directed by Marc Forster, it reminded me of the action films made by Roland Emmerich, which range from the nearly sublime (Independence Day) to the totally ridiculous (10,000 BC).
It’s slap-bang in the middle of that quality spectrum, round about the level of Godzilla.
Movies don’t come bigger than this, and zombie flicks usually come a lot smaller. In Shaun Of The Dead, the undead had to content themselves with snacking on a handful of British actors in a deserted pub. Here it’s the future of humanity that’s at stake. This time, instead of Simon Pegg, Brad Pitt is available to save us, and the skies are soon full of crashing helicopters, screaming jets and stunt people being sucked out of aircraft.
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Gerry and the peacemakers: Brad and friends leap into action
Lacking depth: About all we learn about Pitt’s character Gerry in the film is that he loves his family
The film is impressive in its big set pieces. The initial panic on the streets of Philadelphia is thrilling, as is the fall of Jerusalem to the undead horde and an airborne sequence that might easily have been called Zombies On A Plane.
But the film is horrifyingly feeble when it comes to characterisation. All we know about Pitt’s Gerry is that he loves his family, but no one has given this hero any exceptional qualities. The same goes for the other characters: as uninteresting a lot as I’ve seen in a disaster movie.
We never know why the powers-that-be at the United Nations think so highly of Gerry. He’s resourceful, but doesn’t seem particularly brave, bright or knowledgeable. It is a central weakness that, without any particular expertise, he solves the mystery of how to fight the zombies before anyone else.
Negative reaction: The last 40 minutes of the film where rewritten and reshot while some parts of the movie appear to have been filmed to ensure it gets a family friendly certificate
World War Z had what might euphemistically be called a troubled history, with producer-star Pitt publicly at odds with Forster, who shows here once again that he is more confident with small-scale projects (such as Finding Neverland) than action adventures.
After negative reaction within the studio, the final 40 minutes were rewritten and reshot, at an unprecedented cost of £125 million. It’s hard to know where the money went. The climactic sequence inside a Welsh research laboratory looks about as lavish as the average episode of Doctor Who. Pitt introduced the screening I attended and called the film ‘original’ and ‘genre-bending’. If only it were.
OK, the zombies are not the slow-moving undead of yesteryear: they’re sprightly, aggressive and eager to bite. But they’re not original. They were like that in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead.
If you’ve read Max Brooks’s original book, published in 2006, you will know that Pitt’s character is a UN worker trying to piece together the truth from a variety of sources.
Apparently, the first draft of the script, by J. Michael Straczynski (who wrote Changeling, the classy drama starring Pitt’s partner Angelina Jolie) was faithful to the source material.
Producer Pitt and Paramount junked that investigative structure, which might have turned into a movie along the lines of District 9, All The President’s Men or even Citizen Kane, in favour of a straight-forward hero-to-the-rescue scenario.
That version was written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who scripted the undistinguished Kingdom and Lions For Lambs. Despite numerous others being recruited to rework the ending — I understand there were seven of them — Carnahan receives the main credit, shared with Drew Goddard (who directed The Cabin In The Woods) and Damon Lindelof, head writer on Lost.
None of the writers is at his best, and the film bears unmistakable signs of having been assembled by a Hollywood studio preoccupied with earning a family-friendly certificate.
Virtually all the violence takes place fractionally off-screen. That’s not going to please the gore-loving fanboys.
Some of big set pieces in the movie are impressive, including the initial panic in Philadelphia and the fall of Jerusalem
Disappointingly, the final product is much more conventional than the book. Brooks’s purpose was to satirise the bungling of government, the excesses of survivalism at all costs and the dangers of corporate power. He took a particularly cynical stance on George W. Bush’s ‘shock and awe’ tactics in Iraq; like Muslim extremists, his zombies are too obsessed with slaughter to be shocked or awed.
In the book, the zombie virus spreads from China via refugees and an illicit trade in human organs. Pakistan and Iran destroy each other in a nuclear dispute over border controls, while Cuba becomes the world’s most thriving economy.
The people at Paramount evidently think all this political stuff is too difficult for a cinema audience. Maybe they’re also nervous about how it might go down in China, Pakistan and Iran.
So they’ve played safe, cut it all out and turned the story into a one-man triumph for an American UN operative blessed with movie-star looks.
World War Z isn’t terrible. Parts are impressive and exciting. But the incredibly long distance it falls short of its source material means it is a woefully wasted opportunity.
It has been estimated that the movie will have to gross £350 million merely to break even. Yet its lack of ingenuity and personality — all avoidable at the script stage — means it has virtually no chance of making that back.
Last year’s most under-performing blockbuster, John Carter, is said to have lost Disney more than £125 million and resulted in regime change in the studio. If I were a senior Paramount executive, I would be afraid. Very, very afraid.