Review: World War Z (Contains Spoilers)

Four years ago I picked up a few books for holiday reading from an HMV sale display. One of these, World War Z by Max Brooks, I chucked in my holdall and didn’t give too much thought to – it wasn’t even the first of the books that I read on my trip. But eventually I opened it up, on the beach at Benicassim in Spain, and was instantly gripped. I’ve never completed a book in such a short space of time as I did with World War Z – it instantly became one of my favourite reads.

Three years ago I read that World War Z was to be made into a film. I was excited.

Two years ago rumours had started to appear in Scottish newspapers that scenes from The Dark Knight Rises would be filmed in Glasgow. I went to search for further information on this on the internet and by chance stumbled across a casting agency’s website, stating that they were looking for extras to shoot World War Z in GLASGOW. This seemed too good to be true but within a few days it was confirmed news across the Scottish media and by now I was ecstatic at the thought of my favourite book being adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster made in my city. You will likely know the rest – weeks later the Brangelina circus rolled into town and George Square became like a Universal Studios attraction. And it was amazing.

Last night I went to the Renfield Street Cineworld to see the completed World War Z but left without the satisfaction of 2009, the excitement of 2010 or the ecstasy of 2011. The film may have been in 3D but I’m sorry to say that my feelings were decidedly flat.

There were some positives, which I will come to, but first I – previously the movie’s biggest cheerleader – will attempt to justify my disappointment at the finished article.

Since the cameras started to roll on World War Z, a couple of things became common points for discussion in the film community – one being that the screenplay was looking like bearing little resemblance to the book, and the other being that the production was troubled, with talk of infighting, rewrites and reshoots.

Looking at the book vs movie issue first, adapting World War Z – about humanity’s struggle against hordes of zombies – was always going to be a tall order. The geographical scale of the book is massive, including: multiple American perspectives, from suburbia to the military to the doomed efforts for survival of the rich and famous; detailed accounts of the fall of European cities such as Hamburg and Kiev; tales of battle and survival on all continents in locations including India, Japan and South Africa. The movie misses a trick in portraying the story’s global scale. Outside of the USA, whose own tales from the war are underrepresented, there are scenes set in four more countries – Canada, Israel, South Korea and Wales. The Nova Scotia scene is brief and not worth much discussion, while the Jerusalem segment is – in my opinion – the saving grace of the movie, but this story is owed so much more than the lacklustre sole Asian and European set pieces. In South Korea the action takes place at the U.S. Army’s Camp Humphreys – it all takes place during the dead of night in the pouring rain, a dismal setting and a lazy one – part of the beauty of Brooks’ writing is the detail of the landmarks and landscapes which help the reader picture vividly parts of the world that they may not have been to, but you can barely even see the buildings here. A fleeting glimpse of a Welsh Valleys town is a slight improvement by the time the action reaches the UK but again this lengthy part of the film is confined mainly to the interior of a generic laboratory complex. Some London-based critics were quick to express surprise at the inclusion of Wales in World War Z however the country does feature in the book, more so than England, Northern Ireland and Scotland which are also referenced in print. However Brooks presents a much more interesting scenario of councils reclaiming tourist attraction castles and reverting them to their original roles as fortifications in which the citizens can be protected from the menace outside.

It would of course be impossible to fit the whole world into one film, but part of World War Z‘s problem in achieving this global scale is the style of narrative that the producers have chosen. In the book the UN employee on which Brad Pitt’s movie character Gerry Lane is based travels the world after the deadly conflict and listens to accounts from those affected. In the film however Lane is at the heart of all the action and trotting the globe while it falls around him. Making the film in the present tense was probably the right decision, but basing it on one character was not – I have read so many reviews of World War Z that I forget who said what, however a very sensible comment made by one critic was that this film would have been much better in the style of 2011’s Contagion. Here one story is tied together by the perspectives of different lead characters in different parts of the world. This got me thinking of another film which, while perhaps not as intelligent as either World War Z or Contagion, could have been a better model for the former – 1996’s Independence Day. Like it or not, compare its content to that of World War Z – before the spaceships even arrive the back stories of Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Will Smith and Randy Quaid’s characters in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and New Mexico respectively are a lot richer and better paced than the brief Lane family kitchen table scene that we are shown before all hell breaks loose on George Square.

As I’m starting to move on from locations to actors it seems like a suitable juncture to address the other issue with World War Z – that of its very thinly veiled production problems. The biggest evidence that this was the movie equivalent of the cut and shut Ford Escort at Glasgow’s Riverside Museum is Matthew Fox’s screen time – the actor still best known as lead character Jack Shephard in television’s Lost is perhaps not the biggest star on the planet but for one of the few better known American names in the feature he appears to have less to do and say than an extra in a soap opera. Other actors are underused too. David Morse is very good as the disgraced CIA man being held under arrest in South Korea and he gets much more to say than Fox, but it is still a very brief presence. And what a waste of Peter Capaldi – he gets a decent amount of screen time but it’s probably the most two dimensional performance I’ve seen from him. His character and the other three World Health Organisation doctors in the Welsh compound don’t even get given names.

The other glaring sign of the production problems with World War Z is the near complete omission of scenes shot in Budapest, which were reportedly set in Moscow. By all accounts this should have been a set piece on the scale of Philadelphia and Jerusalem and should have in fact taken the slot that ultimately went to Wales, but the weeks of shooting in the Hungarian capital are ultimately represented by a two second glimpse of battle in a montage scene at the very end of the film.

Talking of Philadelphia and Jerusalem it’s time to get to the positives. I’ll start with Jerusalem – for me this was the standout part of the film and the bit that reflects the epic scale that clearly had been intended for the whole production. Filmed in Malta with landmarks like the Dome of the Rock added in courtesy of CGI, this section starts with the relatively normal hustle and bustle of an ancient Middle Eastern city and concludes with sheer terror as a result of what is probably the movie’s most iconic scene – that of hundreds of zombies turning themselves into a mountain to scale the wall protecting the city. This is an incredibly tragic moment as well – the undead’s call to action in which they slaughter civilians and military across the city is ironically triggered by a moment of harmony that diplomats involved in Middle Eastern affairs could only dream of.

And so we get to the bit that qualifies World War Z for inclusion on this blog – Glasgow’s ten minute appearance as Philadelphia at the start of the film. I personally found the subsequent scenes set in Newark, New Jersey, more atmospheric and more scary, but there is no denying that – whatever faults World War Z has – the action packed fall of Philadelphia was a major coup for Glasgow. As a proud Glaswegian it is stunning to see dramatic aerial shots of George Square on the big screen in 3D, even if it is full of yellow cabs.

For me this World War Z journey has concluded and now I want to see two things. For World War Z I want to see another attempt made at it – this was okay but I can’t get away from feeling that the story could be done more justice. Maybe Hollywood will try again in a few years, or maybe it’s even something for one of the big American networks to adapt for a longer running television series. Brad Pitt recently spoke of potential sequels – turning it into a series of films would have been good but I don’t believe the ending of this first instalment paves the way for a direct follow up. For Glasgow meanwhile I want the city to move on – we had fun with World War Z but it wasn’t our first and won’t be our last brush with Hollywood. World War Z has earned something of a romanticised status in Glasgow but we should not let that overshadow the city’s already rich film-making history or stop us from thinking even bigger about the future.