"World War Z" (2013)

World War Z (2013)
Directed by: Marc Forster
Running time: 116 minutes

I am going to come out and say right now that World War Z has gathered a lot of criticism due to fans of the original book (written by Max Brooks) being annoyed that the film seems to barely resemble the source material. And while I suppose I can agree that it is frustrating when an adaptation of a novel to the screen does not follow the same path as its predecessor, one cannot simply throw the film away based upon this complaint alone. An example I would like to bring up would be that of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, one of my favourite films, which was based upon a novel written by Christopher Priest. It is a novel I have not read, however I have gathered from various sources that the only correlation between the book and the film would be that it revolves around two 1800’s magicians who have a deadly rivalry over an amazing magic trick. The book is told from the perspectives of the magicians’ ancestors in present day, reading their diaries, and begins to involve supernatural things such as incorporeal spirits, which do not feature in Nolan’s film. My point is is that while a fan of the novel might be irritated that The Prestige deviated heavily from the structure and specific events of the novel, the film still turned out to be an excellent piece of cinema in its own right.

Furthermore, I haven’t actually read Max Brooks’ “World War Z”, so I find myself again in the unique position to look at the film on its own! I clearly need to read more books…

Now Showing this week is World War Z, directed by Marc Forster.  Ex-United Nations peace keeper Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family find themselves in the midst of a sudden zombie apocalypse. After an initial extraction to an aircraft carrier, Lane is given the task of travelling around the globe to find the cause of the sudden zombie outbreak, in exchange for keeping his family safe aboard the aircraft carrier while he is gone. What follows is an epic world tour of various countries and experiencing their solutions to the zombie problem, all while Lane is chasing not only a cause, but hopefully a cure.

My first impression of World War Z  was that it was a kind of zombie film that I had never seen before. In comparison to other apocalyptic films, I would say that most zombie movies are like War of the Worlds (2005) and World War Z is like Independence Day. By that I mean that most zombie movies focus on a civilian/s surviving in the outbreak but with little to no way of viewing the big picture from their perspective, whilst World War Z focuses on the big picture from a government/military viewpoint of the outbreak. I found this new approach to the genre to be quite refreshing, especially in witnessing (or at least hearing about) various different nations’ and cultures’ methods of avoiding infection. It also allowed for some very large scale, helicopter-extraction-at-the-last-minute set pieces! The way the infected seemed to flow like a flood, crashing into everything and anything in its path, was awe-inspiring and terrifying! But what this grand, military perspective lacked was what makes the zombie apocalypse genre so powerful: the human condition. There are no stories of what people had to do to survive; what becomes of us as a society when the food chain is flipped; no groups turning to cannibalism; nothing like that. In fact, it seemed like the event really quickly (and unrealistically) united every country in the world against the zombie horde. Essentially what I’m trying to say is World War Z is about the zombie apocalypse, while every other zombie movie is about the characters (Resident Evil: Retribution notwithstanding).

I will say this, I have always been a fan of fast zombies, and that is the type of zombie that World War Z has gone with. Zombie “purists” have criticised fast zombies due to the original view of zombies being un-dead, rotting and not overly mobile; but I find I prefer fast zombies due to the heightened nature of them as a threat, and the fact that they are a far more believable type of zombie. Looking at 28 Days Later as an example, the infected were not un-dead in anyway, they were simply people infected with a contagion that resulted in extreme aggression. Thus their bodies were un-compromised, enabling them to move at speed. To put it frankly, if a zombie virus scenario were to happen, these are the kinds of zombies we would most likely be facing. And that’s why “runners”scare me the most: because they are possible! World War Z took the fast zombies one step further and seemed to have modeled them off insects. The way they swarm together and are calm when not “stimulated” reminded me very much of bees. Whats more, their speed and aggression made crowd scenes very scary, as the distinction between who was infected and who was not became blurred in the chaos. In essence, the World War Z infected were cliched yet with an original twist and definitely a highlight of the film.

Acting wise, the film is nothing special. I wouldn’t go so far as to say anyone performed badly in it, but nobody stood out either. Majority of the characters were cliched archetypes for each given scenario, and those roles were performed with the basic energy required. There were the soldiers, the scientists, the politicians etc, all of whom behaved exactly as one would expect. And for a film like this, I find that level of acting quality is enough, given human stories are not the focus. Brad Pitt does a good job being yet another action hero, and there really is not much more I can say on that.

World War Z may barely resemble the original novel, but putting that aside, the film becomes a grand zombie epic; a part of the genre we have not seen before. Couple this with moments of genuine terror and a clever use of little gore, and World War Z is an enjoyable film experience. I would recommend watching it for fans of zombie apocalypse films, if for nothing more than seeing something a little bit different.

See you next time!


"The Last of Us" (2013)

The Last of Us (2013)
Directed by: Bruce Straley & Neil Druckmann
Running time: 13 hours approx.

I have essentially spent this entire blog talking solely about films or film related topics, but I have mentioned on occasion that I am also a huge fan of video games. I have never really been overly keen to write about them on “Now Showing” as a lot of video games (that I’ve played recently) haven’t been very strong on the story/characters side of things and also because video games often have such long play times. When combined with my day job and social commitments, it may take me a fortnight to complete a new game whilst a film I can knock off in an evening. But with a couple of days off work recently, I managed to get through one particular game in a short space of time, and it was such a compelling experience that I felt I had to write about it. This game is called The Last of Us, and it was enthralling.

Note: I will be discussing the narrative of The Last of Us, but will not be spoiling the twists and the ending. However, if you want to know absolutely nothing about the game prior to playing, I suggest you leave now.

Now Showing this week on pretty much every PlayStation 3 everywhere is The Last of Us, directed by Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann along with Naughty Dog studios. It has been twenty years since Joel (Troy Baker) lost his daughter during a viral outbreak that crippled the world. A Cordyceps fungal virus has evolved to infect the human body, resulting in victims who become highly contagious and extremely aggressive, as well as growing mushroom like growths all of their bodies. After a trade deal goes bad, Joel is told that in order to set things straight he must do a favour for the underground movement called “the Fireflies”. That favour is to escort a teenage girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson), who is seemly immune to the contagion, to a rendezvous with some scientists who wish to generate a cure. What follows is an epic journey across the ruins of the United States, with danger lurking around every turn from both the infected and other survivors…

The most stand out thing about The Last of Us is the character driven story that the player is undertaking. The premise is very simple, clichéd even: zombie apocalypse has happened, rumours of a cure abound, other humans are scumbags, and we must travel towards the possibility that there will be someone to meet us when we get to our destination. I would say that the story of The Last of Us is a combination of various other apocalyptic films such as Children of Men, 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. But what this game has is two brilliant lead characters who are both complex, interesting and have amazing chemistry and it blows the clichés clear out of the water! Naughty Dog studios creates their characters through recording the vocal work along with the motion capture simultaneously, with the actors performing the scenes as though they were in a film and the results are tremendous. Instead of weirdly moving animations combined with disjointed voice acting, the vocal tones and movements in The Last of Us match up perfectly and also realistically. If it weren’t for the limits of rendering technology on the PlayStation 3, you could be convinced that these characters were real people! This result allows for the player to truly engage with Joel and Ellie, and to be effected by the scenarios they find themselves in.

A lot of praise must be made to Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for their portrayals of Joel and Ellie. Baker’s performance shows us a man who has seen too much, has done too many horrible things to survive and is almost devoid of any empathy for others. Salvation is not something he strives for, neither for himself or for mankind as a whole, he just wants to live to see tomorrow. Ellie is unlike any other female escort (in a gaming sense) character I have ever some across. Most escort characters in video games require “babysitting”, and seem to be overly playing the damsel-in-distress angle; but not Ellie. Ellie has been raised in this new world, she never knew life before the infected and she is hardened by this upbringing. And what’s more, as the game progresses, so do her combat skills and her ability to help you in a pinch. I would not be able to say that Ellie was ever a nuisance in The Last of Us, allowing us to warm to her over time and letting her and Joel’s relationship blossom. And their relationship isn’t touching because either of them has innocence that they want to protect, more that together they give each other a new found innocence, something to care for in this bleak future. And what’s more, we the players care for them both!

Speaking of bleak, The Last of Us uses not only its narrative and environment to convey its dark future but also its gameplay. The Last of Us is no action-shooter, where can you run into a room guns blazing and defeat every enemy in sight. Guns and ammunition are a lot rarer here than in most games, as are explosives or any form of ranged weaponry. As a result, the most common and effective ways to survive are to get up close and personal to your enemies, and take them down quietly. This gameplay style really changes up the formula from more traditional shoot-from-a-distance kind games. To silently kill a member of a raiding party, Joel must sneak up on them and put them in a choke hold, where he then has the choice to strangle him to death (at the risk of someone seeing him) or to quickly shove a home-made “shiv” into his neck and take him down fast. Both options are visceral and graphic, using sound to convey the victims gurgling throat and vibrations in the controller to feel him struggle. It really hits home the gravity of every kill, everything you have to do to stay alive.

The only complaints I would have about the game are on the gameplay side, and mostly just to do with continuity. When in combat with the infected, providing a stealthy approach has failed, one bite from one of them and you are dead. Game over. I initially found this to be an amazing design choice as it really helped you feel your true vulnerability. However, there were many times when due to more cinematic camera angles and the game choosing to attack an enemy I didn’t want to, an infected I wasn’t aware of would suddenly grab me and then I’m done! Again, this was great from a vulnerability standpoint, but the sheer difficulty of some of the forced combat sequences resulted in me having to attempt them many times. I find after trying to do the same section in any game more than three or four times, it really breaks the flow of the narrative, I suddenly am far more aware of the “gamey” side of things with retries etc rather than feeling like I’m actively in the story. Other examples of things that broke me out of the narrative were when your non-player companions do things that should really affect the situation but do not. For example, in the sections when you must sneak through a room of infected without them seeing you, Joel (the player) may make it passed an infected unseen, but Ellie, coming to catch up, walks in plain view (even bumps into them sometimes!) of the infected but it does not stir. These moments were infrequent but they were quite jarring sometimes.

Bottom line: The Last of Us is an experience that I won’t be soon forgetting. Rarely has a game been so touching emotionally, with such heavy themes of loss, sacrifice, endurance and hope. While it may have suffered from a crazy difficulty spike and some “video game AI” screw ups, it is a sprawling, interactive story that is hard to put down. I’ll never forget the feeling of emptiness I felt when the credits rolled, unsure of how to feel about the events that just occurred. And I realised that while the ending may be simple, and if explained out of context it might seem a bit naff; it was the ending in relation to everything that had come before it that made it so powerful. If you have a PlayStation 3, I highly recommend you do yourself a service and play this game. And if you don’t have a PlayStation 3, get one and play this game. You won’t be sorry.

See you next time, with a movie!

"After Earth" (2013)

After Earth (2013)
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Running time: 100 minutes

Now Showing this week is After Earth, the latest film directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Will and Jaden Smith in the starring roles. One thousand years prior to the film’s events, mankind fled a polluted Earth in order to find a new home. They found one by the name of “Nova Prime”, and promptly begun a new era of civilization there. However, an alien race also had their eyes on Nova Prime, and to fend off the humans they used an army of creatures called Ursas, huge beasts whose primary sense is detecting pheromones excreted from humans when they experience fear. The Ursas dealt huge amounts of damage to humanity until Cypher Raige (Will Smith) came along with the amazing ability to not feel fear, becoming essentially invisible to the Ursa. Cypher taught this ability to others (nicknaming it “ghosting” and humanity once again reclaimed their new home. But after all that setup, After Earth focuses on the scenario of Cypher Raige and his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith) being marooned on Earth with Cypher unable to walk, thereby leaving Kitai to trek alone across the dangerous landscape in search of their distress beacon. But the woods surrounding their ship may contain a loose Ursa, which begs the question: can Cypher teach his son how to “ghost” in time to save them both?

I haven’t seen an M. Night Shyamalan movie in a long time, not since The Village some ten years ago, and as a result I have completely missed the huge stains on his career that I keep hearing about. Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender etc have all been slammed by critics and the general populous alike, and a recurring criticism I have seen for those films (maybe not so much The Last Airbender) is that Shyamalan’s signature trope of having a twist in the story had gotten to the point of stupidity. Well, you can all calm down because After Earth is a major change in Shyamalan’s film career as he alters his formula accordingly to those criticisms. Unfortunately, I feel After Earth would have been much better had it included a classic Shyamalan plot twist!

Allow me to explain. After Earth was, by no means, a boring film (at least, to me it wasn’t). The events that transpire are interesting and entertaining, however I found that the main source of my interest came from me wondering what the real key to “ghosting” was. I was getting a constant vibe that there was something special about it, and that something was going on behind the scenes that would be a shocking reveal.  On top of that, there were so many possibilities for intrigue to pay off with a twisted surprise; one example, why is the Earth now so fertile and populated with animals only one thousand years after we made it uninhabitable? Or, who were the aliens that created the Ursa and what happened to them? But sadly, none of these avenues are explored or even mentioned, and After Earth plays out exactly how you would expect it to with absolutely no surprises. I suppose this is not necessarily bad, but it is very disappointing.

Performance wise, After Earth was a bit hit and miss. Jaden Smith’s Kitai was, at best, decent. Once he was alone in the wilderness he really starting getting into the flow of things, but in the introductory scenes on Nova Prime and on the spaceship, Jaden seemed a bit flat, with a habit of rushing his lines and having no conviction. Will Smith as Cypher was a slightly different story, his performance having a heavy monotone for a lot of it and just being closed off from any emotion. I suppose his lack of emotion is the result of his ability to “ghost” and therefore makes sense contextually, but it didn’t really make him very interesting to watch. It was only when he was able to open up and talk about his first “ghosting” experience that I found myself to be really engaging with him as a character.

I know it sounds like I’m really ripping into this film, but to be honest I did quite enjoy it while I was watching it. But that enjoyment came, as I said earlier, from my intrigue towards some potential payoffs that never eventuated. So I suppose this tale of a father trying to make his son into a sociopath on a hostile Earth isn’t so great in hindsight, but it was a decent watch at the time. And while I did have fun that first time, I don’t think I can, in good conscience, recommend it to anyone.

See you next time!