WORLD WAR Z (2013, Marc Forster): 6/10
I was chatting with some Twitter cinephiles recently regarding the subject of brilliantly-directed stupid movies. Some examples thrown out were THE VILLAGE, KNOWING, THE FOUNTAIN, and FEARDOTCOM, all to one extent or another fairly dumb pieces of crap (I actually like THE VILLAGE a lot) but directed with a lot of skill — an artistic eye, creative ambition… just overall visual panache that overcomes thematic retardation. WORLD WAR Z is the polar opposite of that phenomenon — an ineptly-directed good film.
Auteur theorists would respond that such a thing is impossible — if a film is poorly directed, then by definition it can’t be good. And in a way they’re right; this isn’t a particularly successful movie. The result is distinctly mediocre. But when I call it “good,” I’m referring to the essence of it trying to sneak out past Forster’s incompetence. There are things in the script here — a very good screenplay credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan as well as Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof — that display a lot of respect for the audience’s intelligence. Actions are taken without any expository explanation (seemingly the work of Carnahan, who supplied the same deftness to the clever STATE OF PLAY) and they propel the story forward at a relentless place — never stopping to have characters discuss everything going on just to get the slower members of the audience up to speed.
Unfortunately, each of these sly decisions in writing is undercut by Marc Forster’s camera. He’s either too close or too far from the action almost all the time, and his hyperactive editing style makes mincemeat out of all the setpieces. It’s extraordinarily difficult to figure out what’s going on sometimes, a problem further exacerbated by the studio’s insistence on a film about the zombie apocalypse (with a body count that soars into the billions) having a PG-13 rating. The violence is bloodless, off-screen, and comically invisible. Even worse, Forster is clearly tone deaf. He plays some scenes for irony when it’s not called for, other scenes dead serious, and can never find a balance between playfulness, morbidity, and emotion.
Stories about the film’s troubled production are well known, and evidently the last 20 minutes went through extensive reshoots. But although the final Cardiff-set suspense sequence is often pretty cool, it also destroys what was originally good about the script: a lack of insipid exposition. At one point, a character walks right past a zombie without being attacked, and a witness turns to someone else and says, “He walked right past him!” Thanks for the news, Mr. State the Obvious. Perhaps those reshoots were the problem.
So ultimately, there’s a really strong film — albeit a formulaic and derivative one — somewhere in here, but it’s nearly impossible to see through the wall of shitty camerawork, and the climax is both effective and clumsy at the same time. I can’t recommend WORLD WAR Z, but it’s frustrating because it’s not just a semi-decent, middling film: it’s both a really good one and a really bad one fighting with itself.
EDIT: I’m adding this graf one day after publishing the review. Above, I heaped praise upon the screenplay, which at the time I had no knowledge of beyond the credits on screen. (Which is why I wrote “credited to,” specifically because I had a hunch others worked on it but were typically uncredited doctors). Well, today I just found out that Christopher McQuarrie did a rewrite (according to a tweet by Lindelof). If you’ve read my JACK REACHER review, or heard me ramble on every day for the last 10 years about how much I love THE WAY OF THE GUN, then you know I’m a big McQuarrie fanboy. But lest anyone accuse me of lauding the WORLD WAR Z script simply because of McQuarrie’s name, this should be proof that I did so without knowing he was involved. The same is true of GHOST PROTOCOL, which I put on my 2011 top ten list before learning CMcQ did an uncredited rewrite of that as well. So basically, I don’t like McQuarrie films because I like McQuarrie — I like McQuarrie because I’ve liked so much of his work.
That said, a day later, I’m still super pissed about how badly this film was directed. And based on the boffo box office numbers from WWZ’s opening weekend, studios will now continue to ruin their films by hiring Marc Forster.