Remember when Paramount Pictures decided to get in on the slave trade by making a highly controversial exploitation picture about it? Remember when Paramount Pictures thought it’d be a cracking idea to option the rights to Avril Lavigne's hit single Sk8er Boi for millions of dollars and see if they could turn it into a feature film, which they couldn’t? Remember when Paramount Pictures threw colossal amounts of money at a project which was meant to be a guaranteed blockbuster but may actually turn out to be the most expensive horror film ever made that tanked in every way it wasn’t supposed to?
If the latter draws a blank then that may be because you’re not paying attention to the international press attention this week’s release World War Z is harvesting from numerous news outlets that are reporting a massive cinematic disaster is on the brink of happening because Paramount Pictures, and associated parties, decided to launch a very expensive ship without a rudder.
It turns out that the studio embarked on making a zombie movie allegedly costing almost half a billion dollars (production and marketing spend included) and didn’t have a fully realised idea of how they ought to go about doing it. Vanity Fair ran a bloody amazing article in which journalist Laura M. Holson peeled layer after layer of professional incompetence and creative incontinence, detailing how everyone involved in the making of World War Z exhibited woeful levels of understanding as how best to make a film about a fictional zombie apocalypse.
But let’s backtrack a little. World War Z is originally a book written by Max Brooks which concerns the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse that almost destroys the world as we know it. The book is a rather tiresome read in which some unnamed protagonist is hired by the UN to go around the world interviewing people that were caught in extreme situations involving hordes of zombies. Brooks’ manuscript sparked one of the most frantic bidding wars in Hollywood history, with Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, coming out on top. It was a tough book to adapt, but when J. Michael Straczynski (first writer commissioned by Plan B) cracked it, somehow the eventual script leaked on to the internet. Most of us were taken aback by its actual quality. As one famous internet movie blogger declared, Straczynski ‘s adaptation of World War Z was “a genre-defining piece of work that could well see us all arguing about whether or not a zombie movie qualifies as ‘Best Picture’ material”. Straczynski produced a script that was more in the spirit of sophisticated 1970s Alan J. Pakula investigative conspiracy thrillers rather than an all out zombie action movie. It was a clever screenplay and written for people that would never wantonly watch a horror film; functioning as a brilliant indictment of American foreign policy and modern government chicanery, only channelling its themes through the prism of an unnerving zombie pandemic.
As the project gained traction, Marc Forster, director of sophisticated fare like Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, signed on to helm the feature but threw out Straczynski’s drafts. This ultimately resulted in Straczynski claiming: “Marc [Forster] wanted to make a big, huge action movie that wasn’t terribly smart and had big, huge action pieces.” He added: “If all you wanted to do was an empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?”
Instead, Forster brought on Matthew Michael Carnahan, prolific for mediocre geopolitical action thrillers like The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs, to revise the script, hoping to up the action quotient and pare down dramatics. It was never a simple process.
World War Z was the ultimate example of a disastrous production experience. Holson covers the failures in great detail, describing a project that went massively over budget and had its release date rescheduled more than twice. The movie’s initial ending had to be totally scrapped and reshot with new writers brought in to try and make sense of a jumbled storyline, adding a further $20 million to already astronomical production costs. At great expense and disjointed thinking, the world now has the most epic zombie picture it never asked for. Hoping to cash in on American appetites for reanimated cannibalistic cadavers, Paramount is aching for audiences to overlook the film’s troubled tabloid coverage and accept it as a pricy action movie in the vein of The Walking Dead and other undead confections. Even if audiences embrace World War Z, which they may will, the project will have to become the most successful horror movie ever made just to break even, which it probably won’t.
Paramount Pictures is also hoping that international audiences will ravenously flock to watch World War Z, pushing the global scope of the feature in an omnipresent advertising campaign. It seems that nowadays studios believe a movie’s size and scale is enough to make us want to devour it without questioning its cultural nutritional value, which seems a pretty accurate assumption considering our insatiable collective cravings for crap.
The downside of wisdom is that you’ve had the benefit of being proven wrong. While it may seem rather gratifying to witness an original summer blockbuster like World War Z, that has no superheroes and isn’t part of a franchise (yet), it’s depressing that something which could have been a film daring to do something leftfield has instead become a neutered action movie designed not to provoke audiences. We live in an era where aesthetic is the new narrative, with audiences complicit in a tacit agreement that filmmakers ought to prioritise nonsensical set pieces designed to dazzle and distract them from the fact that nothing of substance is happening. The very moment studios suspect a degree of intelligence seeping into one of its products will result in more money being thrown at it in order to dumb it down further. After all, World War Z’s original ending was primarily rejigged because its sharp political overtones was considered to have significantly marred entertainment values.
It’s very rare for this blog to return to its namesake, but there are times when movies weigh heavy on one’s mind. In fact, this isn’t really a post about movies, zombies or expensive filmmaking; it’s about where we may be heading as an all encompassing culture of stupidity. Marc Forster et al are really smart artists and have a body of work that shows a need for wanting to create films that stir audiences. Therefore it is awfully depressing when people that know better will intentionally cajole to formula. Forster has said that his zombie movie is a metaphor for mindless global overpopulation and stretched resources, but everything suggests this message may be diluted in the pursuit of vacuous escapism.
We’re living in a time when intelligence is viewed with suspicion and surface appearance has absolute dominion. It seems there is almost an agreed agenda to make us not question the status quo, for us not to want anything other than bigger, faster, more of the same. There was a time when horror movies channelled themes to do with sexual freedom (Rosemary’s Baby), civil rights (Night of the Living Dead), or the threat of adolescent countercultural movements (The Exorcist), but in our current intellectually incapacitated times, it simply exists to entertain.
Whatever is said, it must be a truly sobering realisation that despite the world’s serious financial prospects, rich people still managed to cobble together $500 million to make a superfluous zombie movie. There is something almost decadently brilliant about that.
World War Z can be seen―via dodgy Chinese men who deal in pirate DVDs from the back of betting shops―everywhere this summer. Grab your copy now!