One scorching Sunday in late June, I had my portable office strapped to my back looking for a place to work. To avoid the heat and tourists, I entered the first door that let escape a swoosh of cool air. It was a multiplex. In Times Square. Now, I usually prefer the insistent head-on camera of the French Canadians (Incendies, Lawrence Anyways), the long meticulous takes of the Romanians, or the inventive, small-scale suspense of a film like Dans la maison (is there nothing François Ozon cannot do?). But, like most everyone, I also indulge in occasional blockbuster hopefuls. Their technological breakthroughs often drive new aesthetics and they can be fun. Rarely expecting much, I am, again like most, usually disappointed. World War Z was a spectacular exception. While I haven’t yet had the chance to see many of 2013’s contenders, my experience seeing this ostensible non-contender rates so high because it was not simply about the film.
1. It was packed. Not an empty seat in the house. Normally, a recipe for a chatty disaster lit by a thousand blue points of cell-phone screens. As the place filled up I began to regret being seduced by sweet air conditioning relief. I had to move my stuff from the seat next to me to make room for yet another member of the audience, still streaming in during previews. The sweat still saturated the foam of my backpack so I decided, whatever was to come, at least I was cool for a couple hours. That the climate was a criterion is a low expectation indeed. The standing-room-only situation, however, had unforeseen benefits later on.
2. I’m a shusher, and even I was quiet. The first twenty minutes, I’m not sure I breathed. The joint was packed, and quiet, except for the sound coming from the theater speakers. Now, that’s pacing. Those long story conferences written about in the trades certainly paid off. At the press screening of my top pick for 2012, Holy Motors, I had to constantly scold, both verbally and visually, the tweeter beside me as he obsessively counted down the electronic seconds until Kylie Minogue made her short-lived appearance for his fellow fanboys while the oscillating light from his screen bounced around the edges of my eyeglasses. (That the movie screen was slightly billowing from its duct-tape anchors was further annoyance that, if it hadn’t been Leos Carax, would have driven me from the room.) If someone was talking/texting during World War Z, I was blissfully oblivious.
3. Nothing went wrong. At a similar multiplex, I sat for twenty minutes looking at a blank screen waiting for Elysium to start. First show of the day and only the overworked part-time teenager at the concession stand was around to deal. Gravity, which also gripped me for the entire running time, was rife with problems, sound drop-outs, fuzzy 3D, ceaselessly gabbing movie patrons (presumably complaining about the above.) Was it a better movie? No doubt. But I had a worse time of it. And that’s just two examples of many. At World War Z, not a glitch, not a skip, not a stutter, not a-lost-focus, blown-out speaker moment. You been to the movies lately? Projection problems are, sadly, the new normal. Next time something goes wrong with your digital theatrical experience, notice how long it takes anyone from the audience to get up and complain.
4. It looked real. Even the swarming computer-cloned zombies clambering over the Jerusalem wall. The explosions may or may not have been computer generated, I don’t know. They looked so real I never got distracted nor had to suspend my skepticism. (Okay, twice, zombies and then when the nuclear bomb went off while Gerry’s flying to Israel. It looked real enough—and was beautifully downplayed while increasing agitation—but only the phone call gets cut off?) In contrast to, for example, the fake-seeming explosions in Star Trek Into Darkness. Or Life of Pi, for which an audience has to maintain collective amnesia about how actual water moves. We’re so accustomed to the fake, it’s astonishing when special effects achieve verisimilitude.
5. It was funny, but I never laughed at it, because, you know what, the acting was great. Sure the twitchy, chomping zombies are funny. But they looked undead, or better, seriously contagious with veiny skin, empty eyes, and that spastic, backward-bending knee thing. The makeup was first rate and the human touches made them a little pitiable: lab coats, wedding rings, etc. As to the star, Brad Pitt never delivered a line more effectively than when he said on that life-or-death rooftop in Newark: “I got some in my mouth.”
6. Lessons, schmessons. Unlike the overbearingly moralistic Elysium, for which I grant I had high hopes, World War Z didn’t wag its finger at us for not taking care of the planet for not covering our mouths when we coughed for being greedy for being stupid. It just showed us the mother-fucking scary consequences. “It’s human nature,” says the Tenth Man, “not to believe in something until it happens.” Being doomed was never so much fun. (All right, one lesson: listen up world, walls don’t work.)
7. The swords were all double-edged. A bit of ambivalence in a white hat/black hat world of action movies is always welcome and subtly done as it was in the committee-made World War Z is nothing short of a miracle. Guns are both good and bad. The Harvard hope-of-the-world Dr. Fassbach slips, falls, and shoots himself. Pitt once refuses a gun (“too loud”) but the one-handed fighting-sabra and second-half of the film sidekick Segen doesn’t and it saves their lives. Celebratory chanting and singing warms the heart as Palestinians and Israelis take collective refuge inside Jerusalem’s walls but, also, you know, “too loud.” And let’s not forget the badly timed phone call to Gerry in South Korea: very, very risky during a zombie apocalypse. But also potentially world-saving, if you’ve got just enough battery power left to convey the plan. Even noise becomes a path-clearing decoy. And, of course, the cure. Also fatal. (That’s some real life.)
8. It took a village. The “world” was defined by more than the U.S.A., rare in Hollywood action movies and the characters and cast reflected that. It wasn’t the American-incarnate Brad Pitt action hero going to save the world. Gerry’s a UN guy, he’s not a spook (the spook in the film is really spooky and in a bit of poetic justice has been relieved of all his teeth). Sure, Gerry’s seen things and knows things, principally that movement is life and so is a big thick fashion magazine (plus duct tape) with its chew-proof properties. But Gerry also needs everyone else to survive or make anything positive happen: the doctor, the copilot, the soldiers, the hoodie-wearing pharmacy thief. His wife literally stomps some zombie ass. Watch Gerry cower in an ancient Holy Land corner for dear life while Segen & Company clear a path through the zombies.
9. A collective cheer. When Brad Pitt drinks the can of Pepsi near the end the audience erupted. Never was blatant product placement so well done. Maybe it’s nervous laughter: relief that the plan worked. But maybe it’s funny because he hasn’t consumed anything, food or drink, since that family in New Jersey shared their supper. Or maybe it was funny because everybody’s in on the movie-world joke that Pitt’s characters often engage in copious onscreen snacking. Whatever. It was one of those rare, jubilant shared moments, like I imagine in the serial days hissing at villains on a Saturday afternoon.
10. Science wins. Risky, uncertain, but methodical science saved the day. In the usually superstitious movie-world magic or prayer or belief has to enter into the salvation equation. It’s more satisfying that a band of beaker geeks in a remote lab provide a real-world, doesn’t-matter-if-you-believe solution. That it’s only temporary is a transparent setup for the continuing franchise, but it’s true in real life that nothing is a panacea. We have to keep working on our problems. “It’s only the beginning,” and, while I’m keeping my expectations low, I couldn’t be happier about that.
For the complete list of year-end lists on Keyframe, go to The Year in Film: 2013.
For the complete index of the films on these lists, go to 2013 Year in Review: Indexed.