World War Z: What's the point of a bloodless zombie movie?

The point of World War Z the movie is to show us one man — namely Brad Pitt — can save the world. Sadly, that's what makes it boring, especially when compared to the original book.

hidden June 24, 2013 15:15:29 IST
World War Z: What's the point of a bloodless zombie movie?

by Aishwarya Subramanian

Max Brooks’s novel World War Z describes itself as an “Oral History of the Zombie War”. Published in 2006, it is composed of interviews which, pieced together, tell the story of a global zombie outbreak and the years that followed it, from the perspectives of witnesses across the world.

Marc Forster’s film World War Z, which opened in theatres this week, is only very loosely based on Brooks’s novel. Instead of the disparate accounts that make up the book, in the movie we are presented with a single hero. Gerry Lane, formerly an employee of the UN, goes on a reluctant journey across the world to find the source of the plague, as the only way of keeping his family safe.

In the matter of adapting books to films I am not a purist. What will work on the page will not always work on the screen, and directors’ only responsibility here is to make the best film they can. Then real question is whether Forster’s film succeeds, and I’m not sure that it does.

World War Z Whats the point of a bloodless zombie movie

A still from World War Z. IBN Live.

One of the movie’s most effective scenes comes near the beginning (and is used extensively in the trailers). Lane and his family are stuck in traffic and see signs of chaos in front of them. It’s not immediately clear what is going on and even once the zombies appear, for a moment all is confusion. Despite the presence of the super-competent Lane, this feels real: ordinary people at ground level struggling to make sense of things. That soon ceases to be the case. Pitt’s Lane is no everyman; he’s a hero so special that both film and other characters will continue to remind us of this at every opportunity.

The privileged status with which the powerful people in the film endow him – and it’s never entirely clear why he’s so special – places him literally above the ordinary people. At multiple points in the film, he is able to look down on the action from helicopters and aeroplanes; safe in the air, important enough to waste fuel on, and able to get a wider perspective of what is going on on the ground. Many of these shots are for the viewer’s benefit, of course, and they are among the film’s most stunning (predictably, they too have been used extensively in the promotional material).

All this travelling has one advantage – we see or hear snippets of what is happening in North Korea, in Israel, in Wales, in India (where, apparently, we’ve been overrun by “rakshasas”). This is a nod to the book, which both muses on and satirises the global political ramifications of the plague. But then, the book’s narrative structure gave us intimacy as well as scope. Through its multiple stories of ordinary people, it gradually built up a picture of an entire world. World War Z the movie cannot do this because it doesn’t have the luxury of hundreds of pages, but also because it doesn’t seem that interested. What it does want to give us is a summer blockbuster where a beautiful blond hero endowed with every obvious positive quality (he’s noble and brave, he loves his family, he probably rescues puppies in his free time) saves the world; the sort of story in which the fate of the world can rest on the shoulders of one man.

In the face of this heroic narrative, the zombies somewhat fade into the background. The vast piles of reanimated corpses in those gorgeous promotional shots are merely humanity in the abstract; we’re rarely reminded of the individual lives that have been lost. In spite of those sweeping shots and some excellent individual performances, the result is bloodless and the monsters neither scary nor tragic.

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