People complain about movies based on comic books. They say there are too many of them. That their stories are too simplistic. That the resultant films are all too similar.
Once you’ve seen World War Z, you’ll want to ask those people what’s wrong with their heads.
It’s in the nature of comic books for the stories to be direct and visually-led. That is to say, the kind of stories that make entertaining Summer blockbusters. Not all comic books conform to that type. But enough to support the generalisation.
There are other types of book that are significantly harder to adapt.
World War Z, the book, is not especially visual. There are a few set pieces that you might think would lend themselves to film, but much of the book’s time is spent on exploring how it might feel to live through a near-extinction event and the kind of things people do to survive.
If you haven’t read Max Brooks’s book, and I hope that one day you do, it’s set after a zombie outbreak has come close to snuffing out civilisation altogether. A journalist is travelling the world collecting survivors’ tales. It’s not the kind of book you want to try to make a film out of. If you were picking a director to bring that book to the screen, you’d probably choose Ken Burns. It’d be a cool movie, but it wouldn’t be a Summer hit.
You can see why Paramount went another way. They hired Marc Forster, best known in action terms for the sometimes thrilling but somewhat shapeless Quantum Of Solace. Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski turned in a script that dispensed with all but the core of Brooks’s idea. Instead they told a story based in the same universe as the book, with a brand new character. Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane, a retired UN trouble-shooter asked back for one last mission — to save the world.
If the film’s title had been something like ‘Tales From World War Z: #1, Gerry Lane’ I think fewer devotees of the book would be so incensed that the movie had very little to do with the source material. It would just be perceived as a stand-alone film.
Regrettably Carnahan and Straczynski’s story, as crafted for the screen by wildly popular Buffy The Vampire Slayer writer Drew Goddard and Lost alumnus Damon Lindelof doesn’t, in my view, feel like a film script at all.
In terms of plot, World War Z feels more like a superior videogame. The flits from country to country feel like we’re progressing to different levels, but the story doesn’t advance, exactly. It just happens.
The opening action sequence where Pitt and (briefly) his family get swept up in a major zombie panic on US soil is great. There’s a strangely pointless episode in Korea. A thrilling set-piece in Jerusalem. And the annoying ‘stealth level’ that all Call Of Duty instalments have by law to include takes place in Wales. It’s a strangely bloodless zombie flick too. Like a videogame with the ‘blood and gore’ setting turned off.
It certainly isn’t dull. Things start happening pretty early on and they don’t stop happening for quite some time. But there’s no discernible arc to Brad Pitt’s character. He starts the film as a supremely capable, unusually observant special ops superman with admirable sang-froid and my mother–in-law’s haircut, and he ends it the same way.
The other characters aren’t even secondary to Pitt’s central performance. They don’t get to do or say very much at all. Daniella Kertesz gets the most to do as a ‘right hand woman’ Pitt picks up along the way but even then it’s a somewhat minimal rôle.
That’s not to say World War Z is a bad film. It’s a perfectly entertaining 3 star actioner that you’ll be happy to sit through. The three or four set-piece engagements with twitchy, high-speed ‘rage virus’ flavour zombies are terrific.
The blending of real performers with the ravening CGI horde is seamless. The way the zombies throw themselves off buildings and through windows, heedless of the damage it might do, is an arresting innovation. The 3D is about the best conversion I’ve seen, with a couple of ‘look at this’ moments to make you feel like you got your money’s worth for the extra dimension but in the main subtly done.
It’s just, with money being comparatively scarce at the moment, there might be other Summer tentpoles that are more deserving of your 3D movie premium dollar.