Apocalypses Now and Later: ‘World War Z’ and ‘Oblivion’


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I have not read Max Brooks’ World War Z, and so have no opinion about how much the film version deviates from the book. By all accounts, all the two have in common is the title. I am not really a fan of zombie films. I am aware that they can be divided into two basic groups. In the classic Romero version the undead shuffle and stumble and have alimentary designs on your brains. In more recent versions like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later the zombies are decidedly more nimble. In either kind, you don’t want to be within spitting distance of the chomping: the undead have indifferent palates and insatiable appetites.

I had seen the trailer for the Brad Pitt blockbuster. It looked decent enough, but even from the trailer I could sense there was going to be a lot of the usual CGI and green screen effects that seem obligatory for big-budget sci-fi today. I knew there had been production problems and script rewrites. Fans of the book were determined it was going to suck. Lazy film critics, thinking the same, had already typed “World War Zzzzzzz” into their laptops.

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I rented it expecting very little. It totally blew me away.

It doesn’t waste much time getting into the story or bothering to explain where and how the zombie outbreak begins. All hell breaks loose pretty much worldwide in very short order, and Brad Pitt, having just escaped from a pack of zombies in Philadelphia, is called in to investigate by his old employer, the United Nations. He was some sort of war crimes investigator until he wrote a memo that criticised the UN and got fired.

Maybe they ask him to investigate the zombie outbreak because he knows what bad memos can do: it’s a memo with the word ‘zombie’ that starts the panic. World War Z may be the only zombie apocalypse film that uses a memo as a plot device. In fact we learn it wasn’t a memo, it was an email. Why not a tweet or a Facebook status update? If World War Z was made in the 80s, it would have been a fax.

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In any event, Pitt is soon globe-trotting and running like hell from the zombies. They’re fast. Very bloody fast. And if they bite you, in about twelve seconds you become one. Unless they only bite your hand and Brad Pitt is on hand (sorry) to chop it off before the infection spreads up your arm.

Pitt runs away from them in South Korea, in Jerusalem, in the aisle of an airplane, and finally in Wales. Perhaps the filmmakers chose Wales as a setting for a zombie attack. after they’d spent a weekend in Cardiff.

World War Z is thrilling, enjoyable and at times downright scary. I enjoyed it immensely and overlooked the fact that the script is full of holes and has several action-flick cliches (it’s the sort of film where the hero finds an unlocked vehicle with the keys conveniently inside, but then the car won’t start, and the zombies are getting closer, and the engine still won’t turn over, and the zombies are on top of the car now, and the car still won’t fucking start, and the zombies are smashing the windscreen, and then VROOM!, the engine starts, and the background noise suddenly goes quiet so someone can be heard yelling ‘Okay! Punch it!’)

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Daniella Kertesz

Some scenes are cut so fast it’s difficult to follows the action, but seeing as the action is basically ‘fuck, here come more zombies, run!’ it probably doesn’t matter, and only adds to the excitement. If I had one criticism, it would be that in the middle of a zombie apocalypse Pitt is apparently still able to take the time to blow-dry his hair. He wears his golden locks long and has a wispy beard: if this acting thing doesn’t work out he could join an ABBA tribute band. Incidentally, the hair is longer and the beard fuller in 12 Years a Slave, and as he gets older, Pitt seems to want to resemble Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes.

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Although Pitt is in practically every scene, he’s the least interesting thing in the film. Daniella Kertesz plays an Israeli soldier, and she’s terrific. Michael Morse makes an appearance (in a reverse of his role in Twelve Monkeys). Peter Capaldi also shows up; I’m sure Malcolm Tucker’s frank opinion of zombies was left on the cutting room floor as the film only has a PG rating. And in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance is Matthew Fox.

The visual effects and the zombie makeup were great. There are edge of your seat moments of suspense and a heart-thumping score by Marco Beltrami. It was a big summer hit and so I imagine there’s talk of a sequel, but I’m not sure what they’ll call it. The Second World War Z? Maybe the plot will be that they have rounded up zombies in protective pens and it’ll be called World War Zoo.

Verdict: It grabs you by the throat and bites down.

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Speaking of memos, here’s one that the Icelandic Film Commission needs to send to its counterpart in New Zealand: Fuck your Middle Earth, we’ve got a volcano outside. The tiny island, with its beautiful desolation, rugged peaks and wonderful light, has provided a perfect setting for fantasy (Game of Thrones) and science-fiction (Prometheus). After the world ends, it’s entirely possible that it will end up looking bleak like Iceland instead of verdant like New Zealand.

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Oblivion is a post-apocalyptic adventure that features Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) flying around Iceland in a really cool-looking helicopter.

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It’s not Iceland, of course; it’s America in 2077, after the war with alien invaders. They blew up the moon (it’s still up in the sky, in pieces), setting off earthquakes and tsunamis, before landing on the planet and wiping out humanity. The Earthlings fought back. “We used the nukes,” Jack tells us, “we won the war, but we lost the planet.”

Jack flies over a ruined New York (the top of Empire State Building sticks out of the ground; the Statue of Liberty is almost totally buried). A giant tetrahedron, the Tet, floats in orbit above the ruined earth. It’s the headquarters of their boss, Sally (Melissa Leo), and a jumping off point for Titan, where all of humanity is now living. Everyone except Jack and his girlfriend, Victoria ( Andrea Riseborough). They are still on Earth mopping up the mess,  maintaining robot drones and guarding giant fusion reactors that hover over the ocean: they suck up seawater and convert it to energy for use on Titan. Jack spends his day fixing the drones that the aliens keep on damaging, and trying not to get shot. Sally believes in constant employee review; she asks Jack and Vicka daily if they’re still “an effective team”.

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Jack and Victoria live in what is probably the coolest house on post-apocalyptic Earth. It has what estate agents call seriously good curb appeal: it’s perched above the clouds with panoramic views of a beautiful sky. It would definitely make it into Architectural Digest. It’s all glass and chrome and clean lines: it looks like something out of Thunderbirds that’s been redecorated by Stanley Kubrick circa 2001.

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The top floor is where Vicka monitors Cruise while he’s off on patrol; the middle floor is where they eat and sleep; the bottom floor is a sort of garage. It houses a spare drone (like Chekov’s gun on the wall, you just know it’s going to go off at some point). There’s also a very cool-looking outdoor swimming pool that’s designed like a fishbowl.

The house and Cruise’s helicopter are the most original things about the film, the rest of which is composed of familiar science-fiction tropes. The film is written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, who made Tron Legacy. He has a distinctive visual style, but his story is a mixture of things like Silent Running, The Matrix, V, Logan’s Run, and several episodes of The Twilight Zone. Jack and Vicka have had their memories wiped “ for security reasons”. Jack is troubled by a recurring dream of the world before the war, and he has visions of Olga Kurylenko (well, don’t we all?) There are hints that the scavengers may not be what he thinks. At the bottom of a desolate canyon there’s a beautiful glade, with a little cabin stocked with old books and albums. They’re actual long-playing records (ask your parents).

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Morgan Freeman shows up and phones in a performance as Colonel Exposition.

I won’t reveal any more for fear of giving away too much. Oblivion is good fun, but it suffers by trying to be both an exciting space opera and a philosophical critique of a technocratic corporate mindset. Like World War Z, Oblivion has a thumpingly good score (by M83).

Luckily, most of the action takes place outside in broad daylight, and it’s not shot or cut frenzily: you can actually follow what’s happening. The scenery is gorgeous, and the production design is wonderful. Cruise gives another of his solid, uninspired performances. He looks slightly stunned for much of the film, but that may be because while he was making the film, Katie Holmes filed for divorce, and he was “oblivious”.

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One thing the film definitely has in its favour is its special effects. Unlike most sci-fi these days, many of the visual effects were done practically (“in camera” as they say in the business). And the cloud-view outside the house? The actors weren’t playing against green screen. It’s all front-projected, and it looks amazing; you can see the light reflected in glass and in the eyes of the actors.

Verdict: Cruise and Kosinksi are almost an effective team. 

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