Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Superbly crafted and acted zombie flick

I am not a zombie fan, and the many production woes plaguing World War Z didn't exactly further entice me to see the movie. I'll have to admit upfront that my sole interest in seeing the movie was the glorious Brad Pitt. Even so, I was planning to wait for the DVD to come out to watch it, but events were to decide otherwise.

My movie companion and I were in San Francisco last Monday trying to catch an early preview of The Lone Ranger but couldn't get in, so we had to pick a different movie to watch. I wanted to watch World War Z, but my friend was squeamish and so we eventually decided to go see different movies, her off to the kid-friendly Monsters University while I went to see World War Z.

The movie is very much like Steven Soderbergh's 2011 medical thriller disaster film Contagion, though in the case of World War Z, the virus is spread by zombies, and rather than featuring an ensemble cast, Brad Pitt is front and center in this movie and surrounded by a supporting cast of mostly unfamiliar faces.

Pitt plays family man Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator. While sitting in heavy traffic with his family in Philadelphia, they are suddenly attacked by zombies. They manage to flee the carnage and hide out in an apartment building before being extracted by helicopter to the relative safety of a UN ship out in the sea. In return for ensuring his family's place on the ship, Lane reluctantly agrees to help investigate the source of the outbreak in the hopes that such findings would lead to a cure.

And so begins a globe-trotting mission for Lane. He first travels to South Korea, then Israel and finally Wales. Along the way Lane is able to observe how the zombies operate and learn more about them. As the audience, we see everything through Lane's eyes, and make the same connections he does.

Pitt, who is also produced the movie, originally wanted to make a more political movie but noted that the underlying social agenda became "too much for a summer blockbuster...We got bogged down in it; it was too much to explain. It gutted the fun of what these films are meant to be."

Nevertheless, there are several beautifully crafted moments interspersed through the film; a Hispanic couple who do not speak English selflessly taking in Pitt and his family into their tiny apartment, with the couple's bilingual son helping to break down the language barrier; a crowd of Palestinians and Israelis , overjoyed at being alive, singing together, only for the noise to attract the zombies and lead to their downfall; Lane being shielded and protected by female Israeli soldiers (such a strong female presence is so rare in summer blockbuster movies as to be virtually non-existent. Where else do you see a summer blockbuster movie hero being comfortable being protected by female soldiers instead of being the one rescuing helpless damsels in distress?)

What makes World War Z by far the best movie I've seen this year is that the filmmakers were able to create a very effectively scary and suspenseful film; throughout the movie I was at the edge for the seat, being really afraid for Lane and the other supporting characters. It is not something I get to feel when I watch summer blockbuster movies these days. Case in point: while watching Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3, I found it hard to care for any of the characters because at no point in the film did I believe that any of them were in any real danger.

It helps also that Pitt is really very believable as a family man, and that he is surrounded by a very strong supporting cast. Lane is very much the reluctant hero, with every action he takes grounded and motivated by his family's continued safety and survival. Again not your typical blockbuster hero, which is a refreshing change from snarky action heroes with their sarcastic one-liners. (I am looking at you, Iron Man 3)

I came into this movie skeptical that I was going to enjoy it. I left the cinema unable to stop raving to my movie companion, who mildly enjoyed Monsters University even with confusing it as a sequel to Monsters Inc (Monsters University is actually a prequel), about how beautifully crafted the entire movie was and how well acted it was. With the movie expected to turn a decent profit for Paramount, a sequel is in the works. When it comes out, I won't be waiting for DVD to come out; I will be one of those catching it on opening week.

4 and a half stars out of 5 stars for me.

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