Thursday, February 6, 2014

These zombies are making me thirsty


An apocalyptic action horror science fiction fantasy thriller mystery thing, with practically no brains at all, but there is joy in all its unconscious pleasures, from its well-appointed set-pieces to its almost too-scathing social commentary to the most absurd and invasive yet shockingly appropriate piece of product placement of last yearand that's saying an awful lot.

Directed by Marc Forster
Written by a lot of people, none of whom I wish to credit except Drew Goddard because I can remember his name offhand (based on the book by Max Brooks)
With Brad Pitt (Gerry Lane), Mireille Enos (Karin Lane), Fana Mokeona (Thierry Umutoni), Daniella Kertesz (Segen), and Peter Capaldi (WHO Doctor) (ugh)

Spoiler alert: severe

Zombies can fuck off.

I had a girlfriend who, on our first date, expounded upon the zombie apocalypse for what I reckoned to be about thirty hours.  Long story short, I like to have sex.

But otherwise: fuck off.  Even when I can concede a zombie movie is technically well-made, I remain hostile.  Why?  Because zombies are the most laughably unthreatening of all major movie monsters, requiring vast amounts of disbelief suspension to function in anything like a narratively adequate manner.  I marginally respect their allegory for mob violence, conformity, disease, et fucking cetera, but it's that very nature that makes them so uninteresting to me, for it sacrifices to metaphor the literal danger a literal medium like film depends on, blithely giving up the scariest aspect of any alternative monster: namely, its reason.

The only way zombies pose any threat at all is in numbers, and then only against unarmed and disorganized opponents.  Unfortunately for zombies, they face a heavily armed and highly organized opponent in the human race.  I can think of only one film to ever really address this zombie impotence.  It permitted its creatures to retain a modicum of higher cognition, and to move rapidly and tirelessly.  It was the best zombie movie ever madeThe director was even nominated for an Oscar.  But the zombies in Black Hawk Down still didn't win.

Contrariwise, in World War Z, America, home of the pretty great army that inflicted 50:1 casualties on the actual armed human beings in the Battle of Mogadishu, collapses instantly when a zombie plague is introduced into its major cities, where a lot of Americans do not live and where most major military bases are not.  I guess that's imperial overstretch for you.

WWZ checks off another annoyance: the zombies don't respire.  Assuming that this is at all biochemically functional in the first place, the good news is our zombie problem is self-cleaning, since they'll have dissolved into big stinking lactic acid-soaked protein piles long before they pose a serious threat to the general order of things.
OK.  I know.  I know that this is not constructive discussion; but I hope it at least elucidates the reasons why I find zombie movies so darn troublesome.  The only zombie movies I can enjoy without my hang-ups are the consciously silly oneslike Shaun, or the Jackson super-classic Dead Alive.

"I kick ass for the U.N.!"

I fully admit that my anathema to the genre has no doubt limited my horizons, so if I'm missing out on some kind of smarter-zombie-competent-state-apparatus revolution, I assure you that I'm all ears.  Oh, wait, that movie is called Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is in an entirely different, if related, genre.  So I suppose WWZ is the closest to the holy grail of zombie qua zombie flicks that I'm going to get.

So, annoying it might be, and its resolution is entirely goofyit's certainly more convoluted than the simple bullets/zombies arithmetic suggestsbut WWZ pulls off a zombie flick that I somehow genuinely enjoyed despite it all.  How did they do this?  Well, firstly, I watched the unrated version, which adds a bit of gore, and that always helps, although it remains by no means sufficient (or even average for the genre).  Secondly, it has one of last year's most aurally engaging scores; kudos to Marco Beltrami.

Thirdly, and most crucially, WWZ largely removes the zombie genre out of horror and into the realm of pure action camp; structuring the plot as a globetrotting biothriller adventure was exactly the right move.  This gives us a varied, global canvas upon which all that CGI spectacle can play.  In this regard, it's like the weirdest Bond film you could imagine.  And, well, of course it is.

I had entirely forgotten Marc Forster had directed WWZ until his name appeared in the dynamite opening credits sequence2013's very best, a sequence of weird semi-transparent geometric overlays superimposed upon footage of crowds, and montaged with disgusting footage of nature being nature.  (That's four reasons WWZ is worthwhile, for those keeping score.)

But Marc Forster: that's a divisive figure.  By divisive, of course I mean "literally everyone hates him but me."  Yes, you are looking at the only person in the known world who loved a little film he directed which you may have posted mean things on the Internet about, called Quantum of Solace.

With me?  Or did you close your broswer and burn your computer in disgust?  Okay, good.

Does Forster go a little nuts in the editing room?  Emphatically yes, and I wish he'd grow out of it.  But as far as chaos cinema goes, he's still one of the least offenders, because he knows when to deploy bad editing and terrible handheld camera work, and the answer is not "all the fucking time, Paul Greengrass."  Forster, despite his faults, and the car chase that opens up Quantum notwithstanding, still sort of knows when something is worth looking at.

I have heard the least thrilling set-piece in the film, encompassing the heavily reshot ending, was actually directed by Damon Lindelof.  And you know what?  If it keeps that moron from writing things, it can only be considered a blessing upon us all.  Let's have him direct five movies a year.

I'll note here my fifth and penultimate reason for recommending WWZ.  The movie winds up, by accident or by design, with a bit of sideways social commentary.  We'll return to that when we get to it, within my belated synopsis:

Gerry Lane is our focal character, a retired U.N. investigator whose past is left fittingly hazy, although it has clearly involved surviving bad situations.  Presently, he's a househusband with what seems like a pretty cool family, but who knows, and who cares?  Not I, not Forster: we get about five minutes before the zombie apocalypse hits the streets of Philadelphia.

Bruce Springsteen's fate is left ambiguous.

The Lanes escape, but they are only offered rescue by the remnants of the American military at the behest of Gerry's old pal, a U.N. official who has, in the chaos, apparently been promoted to God Emperor of Earth.  He wants Gerry to reenter the field, alongside his hand-picked epidemiologist.  This young man, when prompted, delivers basically the worst monologue upon the subject that could possibly be written.

It starts out "Nature is a serial killer", and it goes downhill from there.

The proposed mission is to find the origin of the zombie pathogen.  (I appreciate, a lot, that they use the actual term in the film, instead of pulling a Dark Skies or a Byzantium, and pretending this is an alternate universe where pop culture doesn't exist.)  I don't know why finding the index case is of any more than academic interest, but, granted, I am not an obviously-deranged scientist.

They fly to the RoK, the origin of a communique featuring the forbidden word.  In a turn I enjoyed immensely, the epidemiologist dies immediately via a barely figurative banana peel.  This leaves Gerry somewhat stranded, with nothing to do but world-hop from vague, arbitrary lead to vague, arbitrary lead.

I do not hold this against the film, because it's at this point, with Gerry arriving in Jerusalem for no particularly good reason, the movie ramps up its action considerably.  Jerusalem is the scene of WWZ's best set-piece as the walled city falls to an antlike wave of zombies.

Zombies with an impeccable sense of cinematic pacing.

Gerry also gets his Bond Girl, an Israeli soldier named Segen, whom he saves from zombie infection in the raddest possible manner.  I think we all know what that is.

This is the ideal juncture to discuss the odd political bent of WWZ.  We see directly how two governments react to the zombie apocalypse, and are told of one more:  these are America, Israel, and North Korea, respectively.  A prisoner in the RoK relates how the DPRK responded to the threat: within 48 hours, every citizens' every tooth had been pulled from their skull, destroying the zombie pathogen's ability to spread by bite.

Israel's response is much less horrific than North Korea's, but the idea is the same: decisive and effective state intervention.  Although plot dictates Jerusalem's efforts must fail at least enough that Gerry is endangered, there are a lot of other cities in Israel, and presumably some of them managed to get an IDF mortar squad to guard their perimetersmaybe even a few tanks.  (Jerusalem was oddly assigned only one helicopter; however, by using copy and paste, the city's defenders were able to triple their air support.)

And that's how Israel won the Six Day War.

And then there's where we began, America.  The day, the very afternoon, that the crisis erupts, the government completely collapses, supermarkets are looted, the military retreats to Canada, and any women, for example Gerry's wife, are targeted for kidnap and, presumably, sexual slavery.  Police are present, but only because police need to loot too.  Even when the Lane family is saved and taken to an aircraft carrier, their berth is dependent entirely upon quid pro quoif Gerry isn't useful, they'll be sent back.  And we see a lot of people being sent back.  The contrast between the qualified success of statism in Israel and the instantaneous libertarian breakdown of my country is, intentional or not, shockingly stark.

Now with Segen in tow, Gerry jumps a plane, leading to the second best set-piece of the film when a zombie victim goes zeke in midair.  Ultimately, Gerry and Segen arrive at an infested WHO facility in Wales, for very slightly better reasons than which motivated the trip to Jerusalem: Gerry has deduced a weakness in the zombie plague, and here he intends to test it.

He believes that the pathogen wants only healthy hosts, not ones enfeebled by disease or age; those so afflicted are rendered all but invisible to the zombies' senses.  For this to work, let's pretend that it makes any kind of sense that a definitionally lethal plague that grants magic powers is concerned with such prosaic infirmities as cancer.  Let's also pretend that they're not ripping off the Borg wholesale, and that this is not really high on the list of goofy things to rip off.

Anyway, despite objections from the WHO staff, Gerry intends to infect himself with super-AIDS to prove he was right.  This leads to WWZ's crowning moment, the final and best reason WWZ is at least an enjoyable movie.

I do not, as a rule, mention product placement.  I even avoided it in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a movie that is approximately 60% in-dialogue product placement.  I also didn't point out the equally infamous background placement in Man of Steel, but if I hadand this is a secret between you and meI would have said it not only failed to bother me, but it actively made the movie better.  Not only did the presence of Sears and IHOP provide the giddy verisimilitude of real places being smashed to smithereensand IHOP has smashed me to smithereens enough times to earn the paybackit also helped pay for a very expensive movie which needed every dollar it could get to further its phenomenal spectacle.  This is exactly what the philosophers are talking about when they say, "win-win."

Well, in WWZ there is a certain amount of product placement.

The zombies of WWZ are highly attracted to noise.  This fact is important several times throughout, but it is absolutely crucial while Gerry attempts to sneak past them without making a sound.  Here, a mislaid soda can is accidentally kicked across a room, jangling fiercely and ratcheting up that all-important tension.  We don'tyetget a good look at the can.

But fear not: Gerry succeeds in his quest.  He strides now with confidence past the zombie horde, having been tested super-HIV positive and thus cloaked to their senses.  In this, the very climax of the film, he spots the torn-open vending machine, that had once nearly sealed his doom.  He tosses a dozen cans upon the tile in a clattering cacophony that moments ago would have represented mortal terror, but now signifies nothing less than existential triumph for the whole human race.  What does cosmic victory taste like, Gerry Lane?  Let's find out.

"Kind of like, I don't know, I'm living in the moment."

Hey, you earned it, man.

Is it so bad it's good?  No, not even close.  It is so terrible it is awesome.  And you know what?  He probably really was thirsty.  The only part that makes me sad is that such exciting opportunities to use cinematography and lighting to sell shit just weren't available to directors in the old days.  Has anyone in the history of the medium ever looked so parched?

Score: 5/10

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