About the only positive thing I can say about the rash of apocalyptic movies lately is that most of them have been in the planning for years, which means that they may no longer be reflecting a zeitgeist, and in fact may be a few years behind the times. If this is true, then the new bunch of movie ideas of the future may very well offer a slightly rosier view of our future. We can only hope, because these movies are giving us precious little of it.
World War Z (directed by Marc Forster and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, and J. Michael Straczynski) is basically Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, but with a zombie twist. The premise may be pure fantasy, even ridiculous if you like, but there’s just enough realism to the background, to the way such a preposterous event would be handled, that it gets under your skin in a way other apocalyptic movies don’t. Like another recent apocalyptic film with a similar fantasy premise, Battle Los Angeles, the movie is just a tad too real.
In many ways you know the story. A virus breaks out that turns people into rabid beasts that have no other goal than to spread the virus to other hosts. It’s up to our intrepid hero, Gerry Lane (blond, blue eyed Brad Pitt, natch) to save the world, or save it the best it can be saved. To do so, he must travel the globe from New York to Korea to Israel to Spain, with a side stop in…New Jersey (oh, well, no “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” itinerary can be perfect). In fact, this may very well be the first travelogue zombie flick.
Pitt also saves the movie. There is nothing special about his character, or any of the characters. As in Battle Los Angeles, they are all fairly bland with dialog that falls more than a bit flat. But Pitt takes control in the old fashioned way of a John Wayne. If you don’t have a three dimensional hero, you at least have someone incredibly handsome and charismatic to look at.
What’s more, his travels not only help him solve the mystery of the outbreak, it also enables him to meet some of the first rate thespians of other countries. I don’t know who the casting director is, but he or she is worth their weight in gold. As Pitt travels from place to place, he runs into such top notch character actors as Luki Boeken from Israel (who usually only produces film); Peter (The Loop) Capaldi from England; Piefrancesco (Columbus in Night at the Museum) Favino from Italy; Ruth (12 Years a Slave) Negga from Ireland; Moritz (The Baader Meinhof Complex) Bleibtreu from Germany. Perhaps the biggest find of the movie is Daniell Kertez who gives a powerful and touching performance as an Israeli soldier who gets co-opted into the fight. Mireille Enos of The Killing is also along for the ride; she has the embarrassing and thankless task of the “those also serve who sit and wait” role of Pitt’s wife (sigh).
Though the screenplay cheats once or twice when it comes to the rules (especially a scene on an airplane), and though it has some of the clichés one often sees in genre films like this (a child with asthma, a car that won’t start—though both seem thrown away and used at unimportant points in the story), it is rather intelligent. It does something really clever: it tells us at the beginning to look for clues. And through Pitt’s eyes we do. Because of this, the plot is not just a series of meaningless action sequences in a vacuum. We know it’s going somewhere.
In talking about sic-fi films, the critic Susan Sontag said that “[s]cience fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster”. She also made one another pertinent observation, that one of the continuing themes of these movies it that by giving the world a common enemy, it brought a unity to mankind; all wars and disagreements stopped as all the nations on the earth joined forces as one to defeat this threat to the earth. She was mainly referring to the films of the 1950’s, but in the end, this is the ironic happy ending of this movie as well.
Can Channing Tatum steal a movie? That’s certainly a question I never thought I’d ask. Even stranger, it’s also not a question I’d ever thought I’d answer, “yes” to. But he actually achieves this remarkable feat in the new action film White House Down. Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that he was one of the producers, insuring that the movie would play to his particular strengths. But it must be said, his underplaying naturalness and the stumbling way he says his lines are the primary joy one gets from this action film.
The story revolves around a domestic terrorist plot to take over the White House. It climaxes with the possibility of missiles being launched in which the world as we know it would cease to exist. But since this is a movie directed by Roland Emmerich, that’s not really what’s at stake. Nuclear war could break out; millions could die; the world could become a radioactive wasteland. But for Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt all that’s irrelevant. In the end, all that really matters is if Channing Tatum’s character Cale can earn back the respect of his young daughter. No, I’m not making this up. Really. And it’s almost as close a call as those launch codes getting into the wrong hands.
How much you enjoy White House Down will probably depend on your tolerance level for silliness on the day you see it (it’s one of those movies, you know the kind, where everyone starts out being a crack shot and then, once the big opening action sequence is over, no one can hit anyone else except when it’s convenient for the plot). I guess, though, if truth be told, I was in a particularly good mood that day, because I kind of got a kick of the sheer lunacy of it at times.
It does have a nice supporting cast, with Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the house, as well as a welcome appearance by the veteran Michael Murphy as the VPOTUS. Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum have a nice chemistry together (actually, Tatum has a nice chemistry with everyone). And for what it is, Vanderbilt’s screenplay is very well written: stupid, over the top, preposterous, but well crafted where everything that happens has a payoff (sort of a variation on those lines from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible”, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions”).
If you’re a Republican, see the first half. If you’re a Democrat, see the second.