Thursday, July 10, 2014

Epiphany #41: The Storytelling Arc

A viewing last night of World War Z (unrated) reminds me that the storytelling craft must be relearned time and time again.  I have not read the book, so I don't know if my critique is aimed just toward the film or also toward the source material, but it should not matter either way.  I use WWZ only as an example.  I mostly enjoyed watching it...for awhile.

But what if someone told a story where all of the action, all of the complications, all of the hard choices occurred in the first half of a film, and the second half arrived at a fairly bland discovery and solution and then the film didn't really even end at all?  That, my friends, would be WWZ.

I'm sure you know there is a zombie apocalypse.  Well, there are a few interesting twists to this one, primarily that a person, once bitten, will turn into a zombie in 12 seconds.  This means, of course, that one zombie who bites a living person on an urban street will create 32 zombies every minute, and that is the conservative estimate, assuming that each zombie only bites one other person during that minute, which they don't, and that there is only one zombie on the street at the start, which there isn't.  The zombie wave goes from 0 to 60.  It is quite scary to observe.

The problem is that all of this is discovered while Brad Pitt and his family are in a car in downtown Philadelphia, and the challenge is to get them to safety on an uninfected aircraft carrier off the coast.  The first 45 minutes of the movie are tense, visually-stunning, awe-inspiring.

But then Pitt and family are safely situated on the aircraft carrier and Pitt, in order to keep their position on the ship, has to go out on a mission to help a doctor try to figure out the virus.  (Insert pin into the balloon of the plot, because all of the air goes out of the movie).

For the rest of the screen time, Pitt is racing around the globe, assisted at times by a series of nameless, faceless military and medical people, while his family gets little screen time and faces minimal crises on the ship.  Even when they are removed from the ship, we don't see where they go and we don't see them in any danger.  The daughter with asthma?  Forgotten.  The Hispanic boy they pick up whose family was slaughtered in front of his eyes? No lines.  The wife (from The Killing) who is completely helpless?  She coos.  That's it.

What?  Who plotted this thing?  The Walking Dead must be in its 5th or 6th season by now.  Didn't you watch any of it?

Like the old question about whether the train track operator saves his son who is playing on the track or all of the people on the runaway train, a story thrives on characters having to make difficult choices, not on removing all the distractions of family so that a man can just go off and fight zombies.  But that is exactly what happens to Pitt.

A character who isn't trying to balance what's best for society with what's best for himself usually ceases to be a very interesting character.

Then there is the problem of self-preservation.  Certainly, in the past several years, there has been a lot of pro and con talk about the use of zombies as foils for humans.  WWZ reveals their central weakness in that regard: they have no interest in surviving.  They aren't scheming, they aren't clever, and they'll jump off a building to try to reach a helicopter and not give a crap that they're falling 20 stories instead.  Even vampires balance choices and evaluate risks and want to continue their undead lives.  So a viewer has little interest in them either.

The great ironies of World War Z are twofold: 1) that a story that encompasses all of humanity loses its sense of humanity by removing the challenges and conflicts that actual humans face in crisis, and 2) as a result, what starts out as a terror-inducing-because-we're-not-prepared-for-the-pace-of-this-pandemic thrill ride becomes rote and boring.  (And by the way, a decision of whether or not to inject yourself with an unknown drug is not gripping when you are trapped in a room and there is no other way out)

Ultimately, that has less to do with zombies or Brad Pitt and more to do with a simple failure of storytelling.  If we don't care and we can't share (what would we do in those circumstances?), then Pitt becomes just a mega-movie star fighting computer-generated monsters.  Put the best scenes in the first half of the movie, and we'll probably stick with it to see if there are any more of those, but we'll be yawning and checking the time bar at the bottom of the screen to see how much longer this thing is going on until we can go to bed.


1 comment:

Robert Berman said...

In the vernacular of conflict I learned in English classes at Boys School, zombies fall into the "man vs environment" category rather than "man vs man." No interaction is possible; they are an environmental hazard to be avoided or endured, like a tornado or herd of wildebeests. You can't talk to a Cylon, or a Dalek. At least, they won't talk back, much.

That limits the dramatic possibilities, which is why shows/comics like "The Walking Dead" tend to relegate zombies to the role of "the catastrophe that killed America" and reserve the real drama for showing the Golding-esque cruelties that humans commit to survive after their worlds have fallen apart.