World War Z & Elysium: So Near & Yet So Far

Summer blockbusters are summery. You know, a nice Earth-shatteringly gigantic crisis or challenge that is global or interstellar in scope, and can only be solved by the True Hero Of the Story. Or something like that. Goes together easy with a cold beer or a shaved ice, a summer date, and some popcorn.

I really wanted to like the summer blockbusters of 2013. I enjoy a good action flick as much as the next gal, and I looked forward to the epically giant robots and interdimensional monsters of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim“. And I was not disappointed in this, as the whole point to the story was the conflict spurred by said interdimensional monsters and the bravery of the response by the compelling lead characters to this challenge. That was only made better by IMAX- levels of crashing and metal groaning. del Toro is already a master visual and narrative storyteller, therefore the visual or fantastical excesses of Pac Rim never felt as though they were in danger of upstaging the rest of the movie.

But in the cases of both Elysium and World War Z, the heart and soul of the story had already been gutted by an unseen, cold-blooded opponent.

Elysium features an original story from Neil Blomkamp, that operates much as the adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s short story did in “Total Recall”. And while it is a standalone from District 9, it carries over many similar themes.

It also has Matt Damon. A lot of Matt Damon… with of course the obligatory Matt Damon-with-a-shirt-off shots. It has a tale of Galactic proportions and potential discourse or exploration.

But the sweeping landscape of a ruined and vastly overpopulated Earth, and its attendant “elites only” orbiting space station, are used primarily as a backdrop for as much focus on the star protagonist as possible. He rolls, ducks, and body slams his way through all of the scenes in an increasingly difficult-to-believe sequence of scenarios.

While I am fairly liberal with my suspension of disbelief, when you have someone FATALLY IRRADIATED as a major turning point of the plot, it’s kind of laughable to expect that much of the rest of the series of events will happen– much less that he will continue to deliver a butt kicking as though he were in the prime of health. Also that the Secretary of Defense, a figure who in real life has an entire U.S. Military, secret service and more’s worth of force at his or her disposal, would rely solely on the antics of one mentally unstable mercenary to do all of the sub-“nation” of Elysium’s dirty work for her. You don’t just get to drive a truck through the amount of plot holes in this poor story, you can get a whole delivery fleet through that mother.

Now World War Z, on the other hand, was adapted from the 2006 book of the same name by Max Brooks. Mr. Brooks had reportedly studied writing from Studs Terkel about WWII, among others, in developing this story:

“Brooks conducted copious research while writing World War Z to make the novel as realistic as possible. The technology, politics, economics, culture, and military tactics were based on a variety of reference books and consultations with expert sources.” (Wikipedia 2013). 

The scope of WWZ is global, told through a collection of oral histories- as such, there was an audio book that came out at the time of publication, featuring a number of seasoned actors (Alan Alda, Martin Scorsese, and more) providing the chronicles of a world faced with a pandemic outbreak of a zombie-inducing virus. The novel goes into great depth and detail to describe this collective history, and includes many allegories to current-world concerns about the moral ambiguities of war and international political conflicts. It’s also a good old-fashioned Zombie Apocalypse yarn, but one that takes the story far beyond mere trope into the realm of quality literature.

However, with this years’ WWZ movie, starring Brad Pitt, we get: A lot of Brad Pitt. Also, I have to point out, with at least one obligatory shirtless scene. And, while the plot itself hangs together somewhat more believably than in Elysium, it too suffers the “let’s follow the Alpha Male lead character around and record all of the butt kicking” lens, while ignoring the broader scope and wonderful detail of the original story– settling instead for how many scenes of exponential amounts of CGI’ed zombie attackers they could throw in. The overall plot line in the movie is disjointed and feels like it isn’t quite sure where it’s going after about midway through.

I am also still a bit disturbed about the entirely gratuitous chopping off of a body part, in one scene, that was NOT performed on a zombie. It does not serve the plot in any significant way, so why was it included? How, in fact, could the movie have drifted so far away from the original look and feel of the story concept?

Perhaps I am expecting too much out of the current film making industry’s attempts at bringing us SF and horror fare. But, seriously guys. We could have easily had a generous handful of films come out this year to rival 2001: A Space Odyssey. Why continue to aim for the lowest common cinematic denominator? We already have precedents that show your ready-made audiences are capable of getting into a summer blockbuster that goes for more than just the shallow end of the outdoor pool.