The stakes have never been higher for the Hollywood studios as Paramount finally releases Brad Pitt and Marc Forster's beleaguered $200 million zombiepocalypse epic "World War Z" (June 21). Critics are divided (see below). Some find it a limp addition to the zombie genre, lacking "strong meat" and bogged down by "elaborate uselessness." Meanwhile, others are impressed, calling the film a "total rush," admiring Pitt's "stoic grace" and Forster's handling of an "impressive horde of flesheaters."
Now that a release schedule rests on more high-risk tentpoles that statistically yield more returns than smaller bets, and viral word-of-mouth can kill a movie no matter how much a studio pummels the public with marketing, it's essential to deliver the goods. (THR lays out the logic for why studios are more willing to push their dates around, from "Where the Wild Things Are" to "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."). Yes, they're making the movies better. But add in global marketing costs and these pictures are too big to fail, finally.
This is part of what Steven Spielberg is railing about when he says the industry is imploding (Indiewire Influencer Russ Collins' must-read response here). Spielberg's argument is that one summer the studios high-stakes gambles will yield a spate of flops on the scale of "Battleship" and "John Carter." So far in 2013 only Sony is really hurting with "After Earth."
When the studios lay all their resources on a smaller number of down-the-middle blockbuster plays, that leaves less money for the likes of Spielberg to make what he considers a mainstream adult movie--period drama "Lincoln," and of course he was proved right--which the studios deem high risk. If Hollywood can't afford to make "Lincoln," and DreamWorks itself is backed by an Indian company, Reliance, then we know something is terribly wrong.
On the other hand ideally studio resources are plowed into something that is actually reaching a tad higher than formula commercial fare. Yes, "World War Z" is a zombie movie. And we have no idea if Paramount will make back its considerable investment. But at least "World War Z" is not based on a comic book, but a thoughtful novel by Max Brooks. And this sci-fi projection into the future, like Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," is grounded in some semblance of reality. Sure, in the movie we're hanging on the fate of the world, placed in the hands of our impossibly handsome globe-trotting hero Gerry Lane (Pitt), a brainy action-trained investigator on a mission for the U.N. to discover the source of a deadly fast-moving "zombie" plague that is swiftly over-running the planet. Too many grunt soldiers lose their lives trying to protect him as he outruns the hordes. The movie is efficient, even at two and a half hours, expertly manipulative, throwing jolts and blurry flesh-biting zombies in your face in 3-D.
Forster & Co. alternate noisy chaos and calm silence, frenetic action and solace, family and danger. Forster ("The Kite Runner") knows how to elegantly stage large-scale crowd scenes in exotic locations--the sequence in Israel is as well-wrought as anything in recent movies. And he gives "The Killing "star Mereille Enos some action beats to show that she's more than a teary wife. When she calls her husband, the ringing wakes up a pack of zombies and they almost get him. But he never tells her this; he croons in her ear that he's OK, and does everything he can to get back to her and his two daughters. Pitt is in fine form as a protective uber-Dad. He's also a detective, watching for behavior and mystery clues--the countdown when we learn that the bitten become zombified in 12 seconds is brilliant.
What happened on "World War Z" is that the final act didn't work and Paramount and producers Pitt and Dede Gardner went back for $20 million in reshoots. (See Newsbeast, Vanity Fair.) You can fuss in the editing room--and this movie revels in the most advanced VFX, editing, sound and music you can have these days--but if you leave the audience walking out disappointed with the ending you're screwed. Bad word-of-mouth follows. The entire 40-minute final sequence in Cardiff, Wales is new; Peter Capaldi wasn't even in the first version of the movie.
UPDATE: Time, the Village Voice and Indiewire are now weighing in. Roundup below.