Like I mentioned in my last post, I don’t go to the theater anymore, which is why I found myself watching World War Z for the first time over the weekend. I mean that literally, as I watched the first half Friday night and the rest on Saturday. My wife and I were dealing with a sick kiddo last week, which in turn made me sick, which ultimately made watching a two hour movie in one sitting virtually impossible. I wish I could say that my dedication to actually finishing the film was rewarded by an enriching viewing experience. It’s not like I had super high expectations for World War Z. I am not comparing it to Citizen Kane and deeming it a failure. But I don’t think it is expecting too much to expect anything at all. Like, expecting to care about the denouement of the plot, or caring whether or not the main character lives or dies. I didn’t care about any of these things in World War Z. For a movie-starved and exhausted parent/cinephile like myself, I was more than happy to lay down, rest my body, and stop thinking for a couple of hours. I don’t blame anybody for wanting the same thing. But by any kind of objective standard, World War Z was pretty terrible.
In addition to having no sense of narrative pacing or tone, the film also suffers from continuous, mind-numbing illogic. The plot centers around Gerry (lazily played by Brad Pitt, who looks like he is stuck in a botox-induced fugue state) traipsing around the globe looking for, and eventually finding, a solution to the zombie epidemic. Let’s stop and consider for a moment that Gerry has no experience in medicine or science of any kind, yet he solves the zombie problem entirely by himself. While being attacked in Jerusalem he witnesses the zombies bypass an elderly man and a malnourished youth, thereby concluding that the zombies have an aversion to the chronically ill. He is so sure of this conclusion that, with no additional scientific evidence whatsoever, he injects himself with a deadly virus. The zombies avoid him, allowing Gerry to prove his thesis correct and save the world at the same time. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, then congratulations, you are a thinking person.
The biggest problem, however, is the film’s inability to sit still, to settle into a place and to know its environment. Do we really need to visit four different countries and international waters in the span of two hours? I could see this working for a 400-page novel, but it just doesn’t translate well to film. There is a scene in the first half-hour where Gerry and his family take refuge in an old apartment building in Newark, New Jersey. They stay there for a night and get rescued the next morning, but the movie could have spent its entirety in that place. It could have probed its layers and unearthed both physical and psychological horrors. Same goes for the Jerusalem segment. The minute the city’s story becomes interesting, the zombies swarm the walls and we are whisked away yet again. Gerry’s constant movement also means that he is constantly defying impossible odds. I still don’t know how his family makes the initial escape from a completely dismantled and infested New York City (editing saves the day again!). We never get to know any of the characters or environments for long, and the result is that World War Z risks nothing.
This is where I think World War Z, and other large, blockbuster movies of its kind, can learn something valuable about storytelling from television. TV has been getting progressively complex and nuanced since The Sopranos, to the point that today, it contains some of the best stories across any medium. Let’s look at World War Z’s closest analogue in terms of subject matter; The Walking Dead. Rather than a broad scope that covers continents, the entire show takes place in Georgia, and the second season was almost exclusively set in one particular location. Many viewers found this agitating; they wanted the show to move at a faster rate. But I like this slow approach. It allows us to get a sense of what it must feel like to live in a place overrun by zombies; to share in that steady sense of terror that slowly becomes normalized and infects the survivors like its own kind of deadly virus. If the show kept moving us along for the sake of showing us bigger and better zombie hi-jinks, then it would lose everything that makes it special.
Granted, The Walking Dead is not perfect. There are some distressing problems in terms of both plot and character development. But at least the show takes its viewers seriously. It’s like World War Z didn’t even try.