World War Z and What Hollywood Can Learn from Television

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 smartest, most capable man in the world

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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to World War Z and What Hollywood Can Learn from Television

  1. Pingback: World War Z | She Reviews Everything

  2. The Vern says:

    Nicely said. Yeah him injecting drugs that he hopes will work is just dumb. For a movie that was a lot of action. I fell asleep because there was no character tension. You know going in that everyone is going to be safe.

    • Yeah, there was no risk in this film at all. I can understand if a movie fails or doesn’t live up to expectations as long as it puts something out there and tries. That can’t be said about World War Z.

      Thanks for your engaged comments!

  3. jjames36 says:

    I will agree that World War Z would have been far better if it had featured more character and thereby channeled more emotion.

    But I also think the plot is engaging and the story much more interesting than you.

    For one, I don’t think the notion that Gerry injects himself far fetched at all. He didn’t initially go into that room with the intent of injecting himself. He went with the intent of getting medicines so that they could run tests in more scientific fashion. He only decides to inject himself after events have backed him into a corner. It’s either die from an attacking swarm of zombies, or risk dying after taking medicine that might or might save him. He opts to try the latter, primarily because it’s better than the alternative.

    • That is a good point, and I appreciate you pushing against my critique. Essentially, I agree that in a do-or-die situation, the injection makes sense. I will say, though, that Gerry being backed into a corner was only possible because he “accidentally” left the axe outside the locking doors. I think that is some pretty weak storytelling.

      Thanks for the comment! I look forward to chatting about similar things in the future.

      • jjames36 says:

        Leaving the axe is odd, and he probably should have taken it with him into the room. I’ll give you that.

        But another question: does the axe change the situation much? The immediate danger is one single zombie, which Gerry could have killed if simply brought the axe with him. But after that one zombie, Gerry still has to get across the entire wing and he is completely on his own against untold numbers of undead. Survival still isn’t very likely, right?

  4. Definitely not likely. I guess my larger critique was how he got there in the first place, but I think you are right. Once he finds himself in that impossible situation, injection might be his only option.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s