Friday, March 28, 2014

Double Feature Review: World War Z and Pacific Rim

World War Z

Synopsis: Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) races to find a way to combat growing hordes of zombies as a plague causes the world to descend into chaos.

The bad news first: I think I'm going to make an unprecedented statement here, so prepare yourself. Ready? The biggest similarity between World War Z and the book on which it is based is the title.

All right, so maybe that's been screamed ad nauseum from the raw throats of millions of angry fans of Max Brooks' phenomenal take on an undead pandemic. In truth, I wasn't overly concerned that the movie didn't do a Ken Burns style oral history to bring Brooks' work to the screen. There are plenty of movie adaptations that have been excellent and memorable stories despite straying from the original source material. Jurassic Park is a beloved adaptation of Michael Crichton's work, but it charts a much different path from the novel while keeping the core characters and premise of a dinosaur zoo intact. But World War Z really does abandon far too much of the original material to make it a decent adaptation.

Though it takes some inspiration from the book, the movie fails to incorporate its plethora of fascinating characters, imagery, and humor. Everyone waits around patiently for Brad Pitt to solve everything, offering some token assistance here and there, so the strength of the supporting characters is pretty much nil. The movie also takes itself a little too seriously in its portrayal of a worldwide emergency, depriving it of the satire so often present in the zombie genre. This tone is further undermined by the portrayal of the zombies as literal waves of humanity.

World War Z also suffers from a severe wind-down in its pace. It gets frantic start, spanning giant swaths of the globe, only to give way to a glacial climax where Lane's biggest challenge is getting past a single zombie who might best be described as a lab coat with novelty chattering teeth.

And, as a more minor nitpick, the movie makes the transparent effort to keep things within the realm of a PG-13 rating. Which means that the blood spatter and gore that practically defines this genre is sanitized to the point of distraction.

The good stuff: The initial scenes of the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia are very well-done. There's a slow buildup as the panic sweeping the city slowly reaches Gerry and his family while they're stuck in traffic. There's a good mixture of human kindness and brutality on display, a blending of the desire to help out someone in need (even if an entire city is in peril) and "everyone for themselves" attitudes. Arguably the best scene in the entire movie involves Gerry's encounter with a gun-toting young man in a pharmacy. His motives and actions leave enough unsaid that he's an endearingly mysterious character.

Some scenery and aspects of the story clearly reflect inspiration from the book. The ragtag evacuation fleet in the Atlantic, with the flagship holding civilians and military and a pile of rescued items of particular significance, shows just how quickly a refuge had to be thrown together. The particularly disturbing detail of North Korea removing the teeth of all of its civilians isn't in the book, but it's has a similar feel to the atmosphere of Brooks' globe-spanning tale. So is a shot of dozens of airliners scrambling to leave a Tel Aviv airport as zombies pour onto the runway.

The movie also deserves some credit for adding a unique spin on the zombie genre. I won't spoil it, but it manages to add a believable defense against zombies that adds another layer to the usual "shoot 'em in the head" strategy.

Verdict: This falls far behind 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead in its more serious handling of a fast zombie/infected outbreak. But if you don't go in expecting a carbon copy update of Max Brooks, you'll probably still enjoy it.

Pacific Rim

Synopsis: After a devastating series of attacks by monstrous aliens (Kaiju), mankind fights back with an army of giant robots (Jaegers).

The bad news first: You go into the movie knowing full well that you're in it for the fun and creativity of watching giant robots fighting big monsters. The movie makes the wise decision to open with a thrilling sequence based around this premise: an explanation of how the first Kaiju attack devastated San Francisco, the badass deployment of a Jaeger to face a Kaiju threat, and a no holds barred beatdown between the two.

But then it runs out of steam for quite some time. You have to scoff at the sudden switch in strategy from "Let's build awesome giant fighting robots" to "Let's build a totally ineffective wall," and the fact that this bit of the story seems like little more than a way to shoehorn in a bit of immigration symbolism makes it even more out of place. The movie churns out a long line of action movie cliches, ranging from the intra-team rivalry to the latent demons one character must overcome. There are a few scenes that stress the fine line between paying homage to Independence Day and ripping it off, like the inspiring speech before the big fight or the devour-all-the-resources-and-move-on comment.

Beyond that, you have Charlie Day pretty much playing Charlie Kelly as an eccentric scientist feuding with a snooty British academic about studying the Kaiju. It gets a little annoying.

The good stuff: It has ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS. The on-board computer is voiced by GLaDOS from Portal! Even if you're not one of the unabashed nerd to whom these features are clearly meant to appeal, it's impossible not to be wowed by the Jaeger vs. Kaiju fights in this movie. Every second is awe-inspiring and creative.

For the most part, the movie never tries to take itself too seriously. It knows this is an incredibly silly premise and that we're not expected to care too much about San Francisco and Hong Kong and the rest getting smashed up as they become impromptu arenas for these battles. Much has been made of few plot holes, but the narrative doesn't get too lost in the fact that people bought a ticket to see a robot beat a giant creature with a freighter. From the first scene, you're wondering why they don't just seal off the evil monster portal; the movie addresses this question in a believable way.

Pacific Rim places itself only a few years into the future, so it's also quite enjoyable to spot existing technology from scene to scene. My favorite is the use of the Crawler, the giant movable platform used to bring Saturn V rockets and the space shuttle to the launch pad, in a new role as a Jaeger deployment device.

Verdict: ROBOT-MONSTER FIGHTS! If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, give it a try.

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