World War Z Poster

The Cat & the Canary Will Have to Wait . . . Let’s Talk about World War Z

I was nervous about World War Z. Let’s face it: the zombie genre has been done to death at this point, and a measly 68% on did not bode well. But I approve. I mean, sure, I have some problems with the movie: aside from a striking performance by Danielle Kertesz, this war on zombies (like so many other battles against the undead) features disappointingly few women.Β  Brad Pitt’s wife, Karin (who spells her name wrong), is an impressively collected and competent female counterpart to her special ops-ish husband, but both of Gerry’s (Pitt’s) daughters are hysterical messes for most of the film while a second-generation Hispanic boy that they pick up along the way–who witnesses major trauma–remains calm enough to comfort Gerry’s girls. But, okay, I can look past gender issues inherent to standard Hollywood fare.

The ending is also weird. There’s some fluffy, freeze-frame big message thing going, and I didn’t quite get it. The politics of the film are complicated and for me contradictory in the way that zombies films usually are. After all, zombies themselves are contradictory figures, both the enemy (symbolic of the mindless madness of mankind, the inanities of consumerism, etc.)Β  and yet often themselves the unwitting victims of the wrongs of some larger force (mad scientists, irresponsible governmental agencies, the general carelessness of the world, etc.). People don’t change into zombies of their own volition, after all, yet they are still horrible beasties quite deserving of a crowbar to the head.

What I give the film credit for is originality. As the trailer (stupidly) revealed, some of the zombie horde attacks are spectacular. (P.S. I’m through watching trailers; they give too much away, and I want to know what it’s like to watch a movie without any expectations. I just watched the trailer forΒ Insidious 2, and I’m sure I saw all the scary bits. Poop.)

What the trailer doesn’t show (in its favor) is how well the individual zombies are portrayed. Kudos for that.

And the film did add something new to the monster manual entry on zombies. Again, I won’t give it away, but there’s some new stuff here. I’m not surprised, considering that its author Max Brooks (holy crap, the son of MEL BROOKS) also wrote the Zombie Survival Guide.

My main interest is in the depictions of fatherhood. I’m trying to submit something to a collection on fatherhood in popular culture, and this film convinces me that something new is going on in the apocalyptic film as far as fatherhood is concerned. They used to offer bad fathers a chance at redemption. Think of Dennis Quaid’s character’s transformation in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or Tom Cruise’s in War of the Worlds (2005). Crappy fathers make good in their battle against extreme climate change or alien invasion and earn back the love of their children as they learn how to love and nurture.

But Gerry is already a good father when World War Z starts, so devoted, in fact, that he has willingly given up the dangerous excitement of being a UN special envoy to make pancakes for his family each morning. But as the movie suggests, proper citizenship demands something more than simply caring for one’s immediate family; Gerry needs to save the world so that his daughters have a future, even if it that means endangering his own life and therefore his own potential to be a father. Seems to me that Gerry’s turn from good father to good Samaritan might be more than the feature of this single film: I’m seeing something similar with Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, and now I’m going to have to shell out movie fare to see if the same thing’s going on with real life father and son Will and Jaden Smith in After Earth.

Anyway, that’s it. I think it’s more than worth the price of admission.


23 thoughts on “The Cat & the Canary Will Have to Wait . . . Let’s Talk about World War Z

  1. Interesting stuff as always, but your recommendation falls on my deaf ears. I’ve only ever seen one zombie flick–Night of the Living Dead–and I don’t see the appeal of the genre as a casual moviegoer. You’re helping me see the interests of it from an academic point of view, but I still don’t have the slightest interest in zombie/end of the world plots.

    So is that Zombie Survival Guide a funny book (Mel Brooks’ son, come on it has to be comic)? Maybe I’d labeled it wrong. There was this one kid in my high school who carried it around and reread it throughout an entire school year, seemingly to the exclusion of everything else. That tends to warn me off a book…

    But once again, I’d never have thought to focus on fatherhood in end of the world situations. Films like that just equalize everyone–good, bad, or indifferent–and bring out their primal aspects. I’d need more evidence of Gerry’s good father skills pre-zombies–pancakes just don’t cut it–but it sounds like a great research topic.

    After Earth just sounds like father and son. No one else. So that would be a good, focused film. The Rotten Tomatoes score might be even lower for that one, I’m afraid.

    PS – Geez, sorry for the most unhelpful paragraphs I could have tacked onto your post. I want my brownie points for being fully prepared to talk about The Cat and the Canary…

    1. The Zombie Survival Guide is literally that, a guide. You get weapons, infos about zombies, where to go (considering all things in the book, my zombie apocalypse survival plan is now a houseboat), and things. It’s written in a quite straightforward manner but definitely a bit funny or at least ridiculous if you read it as a joke.

      I’m really curious, though, as to what you meant by “Films like that just equalize everyone–good, bad, or indifferent–and bring out their primal aspects.” I’m not quite sure what you’re saying and I have opinions on the things because I actually love zombie/end of the world things πŸ™‚

      1. I’m no expert, but end of the world films typically have large scenes of mayhem and destruction. Everyone is fighting to exist in some form and even the hero has to do violent things to survive. That’s the primal aspect, and I think that everyone is equalized because death is usually a big presence in the film. Nothing equalizes like death. So every other character (zombie or human) becomes part of a mob, rather unrecognizable on their own terms.

        You mentioned that Pitt’s character becomes unrealistic, so I may be safe in saying he and his family start losing unique traits in their quest to keep living.

      2. I very much agree with the primal aspect, that even the best characters have to be violent to survive. The whole equalising thing, I’m not sure I get it. Sorry, I’m probably being a horrible know-it-all here, but I just spent a lot of time writing about the right and wrong reactions to a (zombie-)apocalypse. I feel like normally, in these sort of films, there is quite a big focus on addressing (and judging) what is right for people to do and what isn’t in reaction to the catastrophe. That was the strange thing for me in World War Z–there were no bad humans, nobody who reacted in a particularly morally wrong way to the apocalypse (maybe apart from this one instance where they kicked the guy’s family off the secure ship because they thought he was dead, and they didn’t have a reason to keep them any longer). There was just the huge and almost a bit unrealistic heroism of Brad Pitt. Seriously, how can the guy have next to no conflict? It was just one big “this is the right way” show.

      3. That’s kind of what I’m saying. If everything is equal, then there shouldn’t be any judgment of actions in an apocalypse film. The characters are open to react and act in any way they need to.

        Ugh, I don’t know how to explain. I’m no expert and I haven’t seen the film.

  2. Just a quick thought on the fatherhood theme. Something in this reminded me of Taken. A father is trying to be there for his children by giving up his big scary job, and in the end, he can only save them by going back to the big scary job. But unlike Mr Liam badass Neeson, Pitt doesn’t get any trouble for being away to much. I wonder whether they made Pitt’s character almost a bit too good to be true. Come on, there was really not more conflict with his wife although he presumably missed half of his daughters’ childhoods going to scary war-zones for the UN (and now is going again)? Then again, it’s not like there was much conflict between humans at all in this film–quite atypical for a zombie film if you ask me.
    Since you mentioned Rick Grimes, and I’m somewhat an expert on that one (yeeeah, not really, huh) . . . . I think he at least has to go through some form of conflict that drastically interferes with his ability to be a good father (poor kid in the first half of season 3). As for Brad Pitt (I should really know his character’s name), there is pretty much no conflict whatsoever. Nothing hurts his capability of being a brilliant father–or husband for that matter–and I wonder what this unrealistically perfect hero should be.
    In the film, the W.H.O. Doctor says that everybody has lost something, and I thought it was so weird that Pitt of all people comes out losing nothing–actually gaining an additional son. Is this just a bit of hero writing or what?
    More questions than answers but do with it what you like πŸ™‚

    1. I agree with Rahel here. I don’t believe that the majority of most zombie films actually are made up of “large scenes of mayhem and destruction.” More important to the films are the select group of survivors who are ranked according to a moral hierarchy. Sometimes the films award survival to the “good” characters; sometimes not. Surely, this should even be evident in the one movie you’ve seen. The survivors in Night of the Living Dead are clearly divided morally in terms of their willingness to fight for the group versus for selfish goals. Fairly standard zombie stuff. In fact, Rahel has written pretty extensively on this in The Walking Dead: good survivors use justifiable violence; bad survivors use all sorts of violence that eventually makes them much more horrible than the zombies.

      And, Rahel, Taken is another great example of the different take on fatherhood that I’m thinking about. I think Pitt is rewarded with an intact family because he is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Same with Rick Grimes, no?

      1. Have you seen season 3 of The Walking Dead yet? I don’t want to spoil anything because I think my paper didn’t give much away about the Grimes family storyline. To be fair, yes, Rick does miraculously get rewarded quite a lot (at least with his kids) even though I think he’s a horrible father. But that makes sense in that he only has to fight for the greater good, not necessarily for his family specifically. Actually, the greater good is kind of the group, so protecting them is like being a father to them. I think my brain is shutting down now that it’s been awake for 17hs, I’m out πŸ™‚

      2. True, the films aren’t made up entirely of mayhem and destruction in a physical sense–though apocalypse films are guilty of making at least a third of the film’s runtime into this. But isn’t it true that a good apoc/zombie film should be about the mayhem and destruction of moral and societal codes? Isn’t that present throughout?

        And that moral hierarchy isn’t set up until after the wake of zombie chaos has ebbed or a group of survivors starts to form a coherent resistance. Until then, everyone is equalized in panic. Characters perform selfish actions that, whether they are better or worse than zombie acts of atrocity, don’t hold moral standing because the world of morals is vanished.

        I know I’m not going to make any headway disagreeing with an expert. Maybe I’m just disagreeing with the concepts and situations of typical zombie films on a whole?

  3. I think the critique of humanity was far more general. The opening sequence was discussing environmental catastrophe alongside clips of inane television. I specifically remember someone saying, “I love your shoes” and a clip from a talk-show alongside dead dolphins washed on shore. I think that’s where the critique of humanity is hiding.

    1. So the critique is that humans would rather be unaware of their effect on the world and mass environmental systems in favor of consumerism and “progress”?

      Just to clarify so I understand some of the discussion, how did the zombies come about? Effects of environment tampering?

    1. Totally haven’t read the novel. Then again, I never worry about not having read or seen things. Honestly, I haven’t even seen any Romero zombie film (which is extremely shameful, considering I even write about it in my paper . . . oops?). It’s a “based on” adaptation for a reason and having read the book won’t make me appreciate it more or less. I actually don’t like people lecturing me about how “it’s just not the same experience”–well, I don’t care (although I would like to read the novel if I had time, the Zombie Survival Guide was very entertaining).
      Oh, this opinion excludes Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games because I’m only 6 months past being a teenager and am allowed to get hypocritical when it comes to those novels/films.

      1. By the way, I should say hi to Rahel. I’m the Brad who sat in front of you in Dr. Gann’s film and lit class.

        And obviously people should read Harry Potter. The movies cut out huge chunks of text.

      2. Ha, of course I already knew who you are; you’re Mr read-it-all while I finished that class having read nothing but Gatsby and seen nothing but Blade Runner–and the “wrong” version of that πŸ™‚ But hey, I don’t need any literature skills, that’s why I do linguistics. You’re amazingly well-read, though. There might be quite some jealousy, but then I remember that page 14 of Heart of Darkness is always the end for me because wow, some books are really boring.

      3. I’ll agree with Heart of Darkness–not necessarily boring, but definitely ploddingly written–but I’ll disagree to the rest of your kind words. I’m not that well-read and I don’t think I’ll ever accept the term.

        And linguistics was really fun. I regret not doing more of those classes in college. I think I only had two.

  4. I don’t agree: the good characters present morals that we would recognize as good in our society (like don’t dick over the other members in the group for your own benefit). Wiping out the world actually allows good people to gain some power. It’s what I was talking about in the apocalypse essay I wrote. I suggest before taking issue with the genre “as a whole,” you might want to actually watch some films; your sense of them doesn’t really seem to fit their actuality.

    The zombie outbreak in this film is likened to rabies, disease, kind of a natural outbreak a la the movie Contagion, but the opening frame suggests our mistreatment of the environment is a factor, especially for the disease’s ability to spread. And a scientist later blames “mother nature.” As with many of the more recent zombie films, the problem is really widespread selfishness and irresponsibility.

    1. Yeah, I suppose I concede to your good points. I was approaching this with my eye more on moral relativism than on the actual content of the films.

      And it figures, the meek only take over the earth when zombies intercede.

      I know it’s a sin to admit this to you and on this post of all places, but I don’t really intend to watch zombie films. I’m just not into the concept and I definitely wouldn’t start with the overrated Brad Pitt. But am I really that off base with my sense of a zombie film? They don’t involve moral collapse? You said that we start to judge these characters based on their actions but I don’t know if I’d do that. Remember that I was the guy in The Road who started to sympathize with the cannibals? I don’t know if I would be so upset with the turncoat who dicked over his group. People do that in horrible situations and they live with it, but can we honestly say we wouldn’t have done the same?

      Am I wrong for wanting more science in a zombie movie? I’d kind of expect a better explanation from the screenwriters for why this shit was going down. (Sorry, but I have bad flashbacks to the movie 2012 and it’s rubbish line about the “neutrinos mutating”. I have high standards for disaster pictures…)

      1. I think it’s all about adapted moral systems. Really, you can get away with a lot of stuff: killing loads of zombies, even killing someone who could maybe potentially be a danger to you, your friends, or anyone nice that roams the streets (honestly, you might even get away with killing someone who’s just kind of being mean if you put it right). The thing is, you need to have some sort of logical explanation where people don’t think you could’ve easily avoided being so violent. Mostly, the zombie films are pretty clear about who are the ones who are acting really wrong; they rape, go on pointless human-killing sprees, end human life for the fun of it or because they get something out of it (nothing actually necessary, but power and stuff). And mostly, the good characters are pretty easily defined when you just look at the focalisation of the story; it’s always about some hero realising that they have to change their moral outlook on the world, adapt it to the new conditions and then be the best person they can be (some mistakes are allowed, it’s a traumatic situation, after all) in the environment they’re presented with. Yay. This is the best version you’ll get at this time of night.

      2. I actually think that was a very succinct and convincing paragraph, even if it was written at this time of the night. You’ve won me over with argument. I was a tad hasty to write that last post as if there were no morals. Morals are inherent but, as you say, we adapt.

      3. And just as a clarifier, I actually have seen quite a few end of the world movies–just next to none with zombies as the cause.

  5. I am not going to read all of these comments, so forgive me is some of my stuff is repeated. I , too, liked the wife and thought she was a pretty strong character. I particularly liked that he kept in communication with her and she seemed to have the power to talk him down when his job overpowered him. However, they definitely made the whole stay-at-home-dad thing seem like not a real option. When he says he likes his new job better, his daughter says all he does is make pancakes in the morning, so it seems like his daughters don’t conceive of his decision to stay home as admirable, which is perhaps why he has to go kick zombie ass in order to gain their respect. It seems to me that movies like this and Taken are sending a message to all these modern dads who want to stay at home that that is not good enough, and they need to “man up” in order to lead their family. In other words, staying at home is the soft option, and therefore not masculine. I also thought the boy’s immediate calm after seeing his family slaughtered by zombies was a little strange.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I agree that there is some rejection of fatherhood going on. Can’t wait to pitch paper on this one. If you think of any other examples, let me know. (P.S. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!)

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