Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Brad Pitt's World War Z sucks, and why no one is saying so

After watching Brad Pitt's World War Z, one of my former students posted this comment on Facebook: "So, you guys know how World War Z the book [by Max Brooks] is a thoroughly researched, well thought-out, nuanced exploration of how the various institutions of the globe might respond to a pandemic such as that of the actual zombie apocalypse? The movie is literally none of those things."  So far, this is the truest and smartest statement I've seen made about the lackluster, not scary, not politically savvy or interesting, not smart, nonsensical and extremely boring film version of Brook's very cool, polyphonic, fake oral history of the zombie war.  

First let me just say that I'm an unashamedly huge fan of the zombie apocalypse genre.  I love both the horrific concept of someone you knew in life potentially eating your face off after death; I love the metaphorical content afforded by the concept of the zombie, the way that the walking dead show us so much about the mindlessness consumption of the living in late capitalism, the soulless nature of the modern condition, the fear of various "others," and the certainty that we may encounter in the not-too-distant future a virus, man-made war, or natural disaster that releases our inherently -- or Kantian -- evil nature.  

When the genre works, it works, which is why I love Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, an utterly terrifying vision of England post-zombie apocalypse, a world where the evil done by human beings in the aftermath is more horrific than anything done by those fast as hell zombies.  It's a premise that AMC's The Walking Dead tried to plagiarize in this last season, possibly because it's such a terribly misogynistic train wreck of a show that it was willing to try this route.  It's why I love the sequence in Edgar Wright's zombie apocalypse parody Sean of the Dead in which Sean wanders out into the post-apocalyptic world and doesn't notice that anything's different, because in many ways, nothing is.

 Sean (Simon Pegg) the day after the end of the world

It's why Ramero's classic socially aware zombie trilogy is so terrifying, provocative, and, yes, funny, particularly, in my opinion, 1978's Dawn of the Dead, which is set in a suburban shopping mall.  And even though the concept and representation of the zombie as mindless consumer and as animated, soulless corpse has evolved over the years -- from seemingly aimless, slow moving masses that, despite their lack of speed, kill you anyway, to fast and even super-fast swarms, social creatures who warrant occasional sympathy (as is the case in the first season of The Walking Dead, for example, or, even more outrageously in Jonathan Levine's Warm Bodies) -- I have to call foul when the rules established by the historical lineage of the genre are completely disregarded.

This is the problem I'm having with what's happened to vampires of late.  Vampires that don't drink human blood?  Not vampires.  Vampires that go out during the day?  Still not vampires.  

 Ah, Edward.

And this is part of the problem with World War Z: its zombies are having an identity crisis.  First of all, are they zombies or aren't they?  The film never really takes a clear stance on that one, and, as a result, the audience has no clear sense of what is happening or why it has happened.  There are swarms of really fast dead looking people ready to ruin your day -- and succeeding with great skill.  These things are seriously lethal: once bitten, victims change in a matter of seconds (no time for introspection or reflection), and once they change, they're pretty much going to change everyone else around them.  This zombie apocalypse could be a fabulous metaphor for what a global pandemic might look like.  But unfortunately, it isn't, because this movie just isn't that smart. 

There's no real development of the pandemic narrative; hell, there's no development of any character or any narrative whatsoever, nor any explanation of what the fuck makes Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane the go-to guy for saving humanity.  But -- and here's the other reason why this movie sucks -- there doesn't need to be: World War Z assumes that we'll just buy Pitt as the sole source of salvation because the beautiful white man always saves humanity in mainstream American films.  And just look at Pitt in all of his Robert Redfordesque Christ-like glory (see the picture below), traipsing off to -- you guessed it -- Jerusalem just in the nick of time to save a few people as the zombie mass comes spilling over the protective wall (drawn, as this mass seems to be, by the singing of silly young women who don't know that these zombie things are "activated" by sound).  How could he not save the world?

The scarf about drove me crazy.  Why bother to accessorize at the end of the world?

So spoiler alert: Pitt's character saves the day, arriving always at just the right moment, in just the right place, with just the right sense of ineffable insight, and just the right sense of fashion.  He figures out that dosing himself with a deadly but curable disease will allow him to walk past zombies without being eaten, and he passes on this knowledge so that a vaccine can be created to immunize non-zombies from the virus (or whatever it is).  That he has no real credentials to do any of these things (he's a former UN investigator) is not important, because Hollywood has a serious hard-on for its white Messiah myth, and it recycles that myth ad nauseam.  As David Brooks notes, "It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen."

But barring my displeasure with its white Messiah complex -- and, really, haven't we seen enough of this story at this point? -- the film is just plain bad.  It's badly written, and for a film that contains such fast zombies, it drags and shuffles along, moaning and making scary noises without ever doing much of anything.  At one point, I was so bored that I took a restroom break, visited the concession stand, and chatted with the kid behind the counter.  When I returned about 10 minutes later, absolutely nothing had happened.

So why, then, is this movie getting pretty good reviews?  And why am I, a person to whom my film studies colleague attributes "no taste whatsoever" (she's right, really; I love anything with Danny McBride in it), one of the only people saying that it sucks?  Because -- and solely because --  Brad Pitt, particularly at this moment in time, is above critical reproach.  On an airplane last month, I read a Vanity Fair article about World War Z's ridiculous production history debacle.  My sense after reading this article was that the movie was going to be an epic disaster but that Brad Pitt is, to borrow an oft used phrase, simply too big to fail.  And in the realm of Hollywood celebrity, he's also too good: he does all sorts of charitable things and has adopted a zillion children from all over the planet.

Then, just weeks prior to the opening of Pitt's must-be-successful film, his partner Angelina Jolie announced via a New York Times editorial that, due to genetic testing that indicated that she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer -- the disease that killed her mother -- she had had a double mastectomy.  How does one say something bad about the work of the partner of such a courageous woman, particularly when he stood by her side throughout her surgery and recovery?  In making this connection, I in no way mean to undermine Jolie's decision to extract her boobies; if I were in her shoes and had her money, I'd do exactly the same thing.  But her surgery also gives meaning and weight to Pitt's vacuous movie in ways that may very well have protected it from harsh criticism.

Jolie's narrative of her preemptive strike against cells that could rapidly mutate and quickly overtake and kill her gives Pitt's zombie narrative the metaphor it needs: even if there's nothing consciously explicit in our thinking about this film post-Jolie's mastectomy, there's enough unconscious provocation to consider that in that space, this film is about another preemptive strike against another rapidly spreading disease.  It's about the sacrifice of the part in the service of the whole; at one point, in order to keep her from dying (or becoming undead), Gerry lobs of the hand of a female Israeli soldier named Segen (Daniella Kertesz) after she's been bitten, and this strategy saves her.  And it's about a man working to get home to his wife and children.

But if reading the film through the narrative of Jolie's choice can give it a kind of meaning that might allow it to make sense, doing so still doesn't make World War Z a good movie.  There's much better zombie fare out there, and there are reasons not to forget the lineage that led to this moment, even if World War Z has forgotten.