Movie Review: World War Z (2013)
“No time to explain!”
“World War Z” is often a smart, tense, summer action movie, but this is the moment when it loses me. To be honest, it started to lose me earlier, with its focus on the family.
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) was once an investigator for the U.N. (HBO: dibs on creating that series), but now he’s a stay-at-home dad with two girls, Constance and Rachel, and a working (I guess) wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and they’re all playing 20 questions in the midst of a traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia when the shit hits. And it hits hard and fast. People are dying, a huge truck is cutting a swath through traffic, but Gerry, using his head, using instincts he’s honed getting into and out of dangerous places, follows the truck out of the jam. I like that. Then he doesn’t use his head. His little girl is scared in the backseat, so, even though he’s zipping through traffic, he turns around to comfort her. Because his wife can’t do it herself? Is she that useless? So he takes his eyes off the road, and bam! Now they’re not moving. “Movement is life,” Gerry says later in the movie, yet here he risks that movement. He risks the lives of both daughters, his wife and himself in order to provide an unnecessary comfort to one daughter for a few seconds.
Focus on the family
He keeps doing this. He’s in contact with his former boss at the U.N., Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena), and knows something swift, global and apocalyptic is happening. (Psst: it’s zombies.) Yet he still stops off at a Newark drug store to get albuterol for one asthmatic daughter. Listen, I’m asthmatic. I use albuterol. But I wouldn’t exactly risk my life for it.
Worst of all? With the world crumbling around them, and people dying, or being turned into zombies, in the billions, Thierry sends a military helicopter to pick up Gerry and his family off a Newark high-rise, then transports them to the U.S.S. Argus, 200 miles off the coast of New York. It’s a post-apocalyptic way station where the remnants of humanity are trying to figure out how to keep the human species going. That’s why Thierry picked up Gerry. He was his best investigator and he needs him to investigate this. They’ve received word that the zombie virus may have started in South Korea, and he wants to send him there, with a Harvard scientist and a Navy Seal team. To find out what they can find out.
“I’m not your guy,” Gerry says. “I need to protect my family,” he says.
Is he shitting us?
I’ve written before about the thankless-wife role. We’re there to see X (the plot of the movie), the man needs to do X, but the wife urges him away from it. She urges him away from the story we’re all there to see. So boring. So thankless. But this is the first time I’ve seen the hero himself reject the plot of the movie he’s in.
And for what? Protecting his family? Doesn’t he get it? Without that international support structure around them, there is no family to protect. The entire U.S. just fell in a day and he wants to protect his family?Do the filmmakers realize how awful and insular Gerry seems at this moment? How selfish? Hell, it’s us out there turning into zombies. How about lending a hand, asshole?
Thankfully, a naval commander (David Andrews) tells him the obvious: that the U.S.S. Argus doesn’t have room for non-essential personnel. And if he doesn’t help save humanity? Well, both he and his family are non-essential.
I have one more family-related idiocy to complain about. By the time Gerry is leaving South Korea for Israel, where they’ve somehow held off the zombie plague, he already knows noise attracts zombies. So guess who calls as he and some Navy Seals are tiptoeing across the airfield to the plane? Right. The Missus. And guess who wakes up and attacks? Right again. Of the many men, only Gerry makes it onto the plane safely. At which point the Missus calls back, worried, to ask why he didn’t pick up. Now pretend you’re Gerry for a moment. What would you say to her? Tell her not to call anymore? “Honey, I should never have given you that phone.” “Honey, that last call you made resulted in the death of six men, and maybe in the last best hope of humanity.” Nope. Gerry just kinda smiles about it, as if the Missus had interrupted an important meeting, and talks about other matters. Because, you know, family.
Smarter than Superman
The movie admittedly does some smart things. First, it takes a dull horror-movie trope, zombies, and asks: Why are they dull? Well, they shuffle along, super slow, arms out. So the filmmakers do the opposite. Instead of super slow, they make them super fast, and as angry as rabid dogs. You watch them spread like a virus. They’re the living embodiment of a virus. So how do you defeat them?
That’s another smart thing WWZ does: It makes smarts matter. Gerry keeps noticing things. In Philly, he notices it takes about 12 seconds for an infected human to become a zombie. In South Korea, he notices one of the Navy Seals, who didn’t become infected, has a long-standing limp. In Israel he sees the same phenomena twice: zombies ignoring, first an old man, and second a bald-headed kid. The kid probably has cancer. So he comes to the conclusion that the zombies’ weakness is weakness. They don’t attack, or even recognize, people who have life-threatening illnesses. “It’s not a cure,” he later tells World Health Organization doctors. “It’s camouflage.”
But they need a test case. Unfortunately, at the W.H.O. research facility in Cardiff, Wales, where he’s crash-landed after the mishap in Israel, all of the life-threatening viruses are kept in B-wing, which just so happens to be Zombie Central. Meaning our heroes—Gerry, Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz), and an Italian W.H.O. doctor (Pierfrancesco Favino)—have to sneak over there. We’ve seen this before, right? They tiptoe, inadvertently make noise, run. The latter two make it back safely while Gerry winds up with the deadly viruses in a sealed-off room guarded by a growling, teeth-chattering zombie. There’s no way out. There’s no way to communicate with the other doctors in A-wing, who can see him on closed-circuit TV. So he gambles. After writing a note for the security camera, “TELL MY FAMILY I LOVE THEM” (we know, they know), he injects himself with one of the vials. Then he waits. Then he takes a deep breath and punches open the security door. The zombie sniffs the air, chatters his teeth, but doesn’t recognize him as something to be attacked. He doesn’t see him. Gerry is able to walk right past him and enjoy a Pepsi in the vending area (surely the greatest product placement in years) before he lets all the Pepsi cans clatter on the floor, bringing the zombies running. But they run right past Gerry, who’s walking, almost sauntering, in the opposite direction. Because they don’t know he’s there.
That’s a great moment. Gerry doesn’t win by being stronger (“Man of Steel”), or having more tech gizmos (“Iron Man 3”), or inventing a cure for death (“Star Trek Into Darkness”); he wins by being smart. How rare is that in a summer action movie?
Unfortunately, by this point, director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”; “Machine Gun Preacher”), and his four screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski), have already blown it.
They blew it with “No time to explain.”
Time to explain
OK, so Gerry has this theory about how to beat back the zombies. He’s seen it in action. Apparently no one else has. No one else has figured out why cancer wards escaped attack, for example. Only Gerry. Because he’s an observer. Stupid, but we’ll let that go.
And there’s really no reason, other than final-act heebie-jeebies, for the W.H.O. scientists to test his theory in B-wing. They could’ve just phoned or radioed another facility, maybe one in Nova Scotia, that might do the same. But at the least they should let someone else know, right, that they have this theory that might save humanity? In case, you know, the zombies get them first? Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do? But we’ll let that go, too.
But I can’t let go Gerry’s conversation with Thierry aboard Belarus airlines.
At this point, Gerry’s made it into and out of Korea, and into and out of Israel. For some reason, which the movie doesn’t explain, or maybe explains too quickly, he had to go to Israel to find out why it was the one country prepared for the zombie invasion. He couldn’t just phone.
(BTW: Israel was prepared for it? I know we get the 10th-man theory in the movie, but doesn’t this smack of various anti-Semitic “No Jews died in the twin towers” conspiracy theories making the rounds after 9/11?)
But it’s in Israel, of course, that Gerry observes the old man and the bald kid, and when Segen is attacked he cuts off her hand to save her. It’s a gut reaction, and it works, and on the airplane out of Israel, Gerry anesthetizes her and cleans the wound with little bottles of vodka, but Segen is still distraught. She’s a soldier without a hand. “Now I’m just a liability,” she says. And that’s when it all comes together in Gerry’s mind. Liability! Of course! He now has the answer that might save all of humanity.
And what does he do with it? He phones Thierry, so the people on the U.S.S. Argus can begin to combat this plague. So they can begin to save humanity.
No, that would make too much sense. Instead, he tells Thierry the words that made me roll my eyes and give up on the movie:
“No time to explain.”
Right. No time to say these words: “The zombies don’t attack weakness. They don’t attack the terminally ill. They don’t see the terminally ill. That’s their weakness. Exploit it.”
And why doesn’t he have the time to say this? Because it has to be one guy, with one chance, in one place. It’s the only way we know how to tell our stories.
That’s our weakness. And Hollywood keeps exploiting it.