“Let’s have some new clichés.”
– Samuel Goldwyn
It’s impossible to tell a story with far reach from absolutely every perspective. Many have tried, even if “just for the hell of it”. Tolstoy’s War and Peace covers Russia under Napoleonic rule with cast of hundreds – nearly 200 of whom were real people. Victor Hugo takes a comparatively more streamlined approach with his June Rebellion novel Les Misérables, limiting his cast to just-under-50 (including the unnamed narrator). In each case the author is faced with the unenviable task of covering events for which the impact will be felt far and wide. In reality, one could argue that every person that takes part in – or is affected by – a particular event is just as important as the next. However, the danger is in doing so is that the audience for the story will feel disconnected from the sea of faces and look upon the event as a collection of statistics rather than a human story.
To the credit of Tolstoy and Hugo, they include as many characters as they do so as to keep that very human perspective. But there’s nothing wrong with focusing in on as few characters as possible. The rise in the popularity of WWII films at the end of the 1990s – including the documentaries by Ken Burns – could be attributed not only to the veterans being called “The Greatest Generation”, but also due to the fact that there was no “one story” to the war; there are many still left untold.
It goes without saying that by narrowing the focus of your story, crucial elements and characters will fall by the wayside. This is to be expected, but one must question how much of this is a disregard of unnecessary detail, as opposed to revisionism. When the film The Impossible was released last year, one of the main criticisms against it was the fact that a recreation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (ie. an area of the world known for its myriad ethnicities) chose to focus solely on the story (albeit a true story) of a White British family. I have not seen the film and therefore will not comment on the dramatisation, but from the outside it does appear to carry the tradition of only focusing on grand stories through the most homogenised (read: White) manner possible.
Such is true of our film today. I haven’t read Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, but I’m told that it is a realistic portrayal of the far-reaching socio-economic and –political ramifications of a zombie outbreak. Such an idea intrigues me. How would such a well-worn storytelling genre fare in the real world? How would our world instantly change when all of the luxuries we take for granted were suddenly gone? And what would become of us and our loved ones if we suddenly realised we might never see them again?
If you came to this film for answers, you came to the wrong place.
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a normal, happy man with a normal, happy wife and children. But one day his world is suddenly turned upside-down when there is a zombie outbreak in the middle of Pittsburgh.
Being an expert in disaster, Gerry is called away to investigate the epidemic before it’s too late.
That’s not a brief description, that’s the plot of the entire film. Not having read the book, I’m going to wager a guess that its plot wouldn’t be able to be summarised as simply.
Going into the film knowing nothing more than it was “a zombie flick with Brad Pitt”, three things surprised me in the first five minutes: 1) the words “Story by J. Michael Straczynski”; 2) the words “Screenplay by Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof”; and 3) the words “Directed by Marc Forster”. I don’t know what names I was expecting to see in the credits, but not such recognisable genre veterans.
I dare say that many of the films flaws may lie in the mash-up of these various genre writers on one script. The main problem with said script is that it falls into a ridiculous number of clichés. The film opens with the standard kids-wake-up-parents-by-jumping-on-the-bed scene, the husband promising his wife that he’s “done with that kind of work”, someone sealing their own fate by asking a main character to “please give this to my family”, and so on. And then there’s the fact that the film is actually just one scene played over and over again for more than two hours: Gerry is surrounded by calm; he begins to notice something suspicious; this turns into a full-blown zombie melee; whilst people die around him, he alone is invincible; he manages to escape by the sweat of his brow. Rinse, repeat. For over two hours.
When the film isn’t repeating itself like a CD player without skip-protection, there are moments when you can see each of the established writers trying to get their draft of the script to stand out amongst the others. One such moment involves Gerry’s wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters are left behind on an aircraft carrier whilst Gerry must solve the world’s zombie problem. In the ship’s mess hall, two soldiers are openly antagonistic towards the wife, as the men feel the family have gotten preferential treatment. This possibly-interesting subplot is never mentioned again for the rest of the film. Instead we get scenes we’ve seen hundreds of times before in 28 Days Later, I am Legend, everything in Romero’s canon, and several other sources I can’t recall off-hand.
To the film’s credit, director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner, Quantum of Solace) does occasionally manage to pull a genuinely unsettling atmosphere. There is one sequence in which Gerry and his family are sneaking through an apartment complex that felt genuinely tense. Unfortunately, such few and far between moments are subverted by the redundancy of the script and the overuse of CGI. It makes the film seem like one is watching a videogame rather than a proper film.
Perhaps one day soon I’ll get to read Brooks’ novel. The premise of it reminds me of Stephen King’s Carrie, which also reads like a police report of events that transpired. Like this film, Brian De Palma’s film adaptation of Carrie (which is due for another film adaptation later this year) disregards that narrative for a more straightforward one. The difference is that the latter film never loses the humanity at the heart of its story; quite the contrary, it brings it more to the surface. That is why the film is so beloved some 35+ years later. World War Z is a film in which much of its narrative humanity has been lost. And when storytellers lose their humanity when telling a zombie film, you know you’re in trouble.