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World War Z: JMS' Script Review

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The Daft Punk:
I love Max Brooks' novel "World War Z". For those of you who aren't familiar with it, take "Dawn of the Dead" and combine it with Studs Terkel's oral history of World War 2, "The Good War", throw in some social satire, ball flattening action, mind-bending horror, and you get the general idea. Now, something like this naturally lends itself to a cinematic adaptation, and with the (imo, glut) of Zombie products being churned out, a film of WWZ would, on paper, seem to be the perfect fit. A film deal was negotiated, "Quantum of Solace" director Marc Forster attached, and "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski was brought on as writer.

A script review surfaced on AICN, and it sounded good. The words "Best Picture" and "Genre-Defining" were dropped. Bricks were shat. Naturally, I wanted, no, needed, to get my hands on the script. For two years, this thing has been my White Whale, even more than the aborted Star Trek Academy script; I've emailed people, studied at the Shaolin Temple of Google-Fu, the works. Finally, I get a hit. With bated breath, I download the script, opened Adobe, and start to read. What follows is my review. Apologies for the length, but these things need to be said.

J. Michael Straczynski (hereafter referred to as JMS) really didn't like George Bush. In fact, I would go so far as to say that JMS hated George Bush, hated his administration, hated his policies, and most of all hated his handling of Hurricane Katrina. That is the overarching message of his World War Z script. Not that Zombies represent humanities materialism run amok, not that the human spirit can overcome all odds, not that people "Do What We Need To Survive" (a point which is dropped frequently), nothing like that. The message of the story, from what I can gather, is that JMS was incredibly dissatisfied with the American Government from 2000 to 2008.

The story does, however, open with a bang. A big one. The battle of Yonkers, here (inexplicably) transferred to downtown Philadelphia. In the book, the Battle of Yonkers (Franklin Square) was the tipping point, an absolute massacre of the US Army by the Zombie Horde, one that sent the country spiraling downwards into anarchy. The Govt. retreats to the West Coast, and our protagonist, Gerry Lane, flees northward with his family, dodging looters, zombies, and crashing 747's. Unlike the rest of the script, this bit works. It immediately sets the scene, shows how bad shit is, and sets up one of two story-lines that the film will follow: Gerry and his family, along with a few rag-tag survivors, surviving in the tundra's of northern Canada. From that ball-flattening opening, we run into our first problem.

Two years later. Two years later and the world is, if not back to normal, than back to functioning. Two years for the hordes to reach pandemic strength, for the countries of the world to regroup, go on the counter-offensive, and reclaim their homeland. Two years. Even if you haven't read the book, you can see this is an absurdly brief length of time. Moreover, characters mention that the death toll is estimated to be in the millions. As huge as that number is, it's actually an incredibly low number. In the book, the size of the US horde alone is 250 million zombies. That's not even taking the rest of North America into account. This sounds like nitpicking, but when you're book/film is titled "World War Z", you don't assign it the numbers and length of a series of minor border clashes. Unfortunately, this is an early indicator of what the script gets irrevocably wrong.

So, after a brief camping trip where they encounter only a scant few Zombies, Gerry and his family return home, a depopulated and Katrina-esque what I assume to be Philly. Did I mention it's Katrina-esque? It's a lot like post-Katrina New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina. Get it now? Good. Anyway, Gerry is contacted by an old friend working at the UN, who wants him to travel around the world and compile an "after action" report; interview survivors, record data, find out what went wrong. But it's made clear that he can't delve too deeply. There are a lot of people who want Gerry to be a good Eichmann and just print what he's told. This is the main, "A story", if you will, with occasional flashbacks to Gerry's time up north.

Did I say travel around the world? What I meant to say was "Go to Chicago, China, Germany, and Israel (?), and talk to like, five people". The interviews, the heart of the book, are absolutely botched here. The Chinese doctor who identified zombie "Patient Zero", has his name changed from "Kwang Jing-Shu", to the absurd "Soong Tsai". China itself, rather than being reborn as a vastly de-populated, struggling democracy is instead Super-Efficient, Chi-Com Red China we know and love. There's a scene where Gerry's translator talks about how local officials must burn exactly 10.5 bodies a day. I assume it's meant to be harrowing, but it comes off as ridiculous. Those wacky Chinese! 10.5 bodies!

The Chinese aren't the only ones who get hit with the beam-of-unintentional-racism. The Germans, instead of answering Gerry's blunt questions on human trafficking, give him just statistics and figures. The script doesn't say, but then I'm sure they all hopped in their BMW's, and went home for an efficient meal of sausages and sauerkraut. It's so wrong that you can't look away, but just keep reading, hoping it'll get better. It never does.

The problems aren't limited to characterization, either. Sequences from the book are, for some reason, shifted around, and given new, isolated perspectives. For example, a harrowing sequence in the book involves an Indian tele-marketer as he desperately attempts to get aboard a ship at Alang, a ship-wrecking beach, whilst he and other refugee's are pursued by thousands of zombies. In the script, the scene is related to us by a Captain of one of the ships, passively sitting by as thousands are killed. It doesn't end there, though. The through-line for Gerry's investigation is "Remember Philly", trying to find a reason why the US Army was so thoroughly trounced at the Battle of Franklin Square. Finally, Gerry gets a hold of the General in charge of the battle, who proceeds to repeat Sgt. Todd Waino's lines from the book almost beat for beat. If you've read the book, you know why this is insane. If you don't, here's why.

All of Waino's dialogue from the book concerns how badly "the brass" fucked up at Yonkers/Franklin Square. References are dropped to "Fulda Fucktards", "Cold War Relics", "West Point assholes", that kind of thing. The problem is, the General is one of those guys. Why would he be stomping around screaming about "the brass" fucking up, when he IS "the brass". If they ran out of ammunition (which they did, which is, amongst other things, why they lost), he should have just asked for more beforehand. He's a general. He can do that. The loss of Todd Waino cannot be understated. He's responsible for about a fifth of the book, and his interviews provide insight into the entire US campaign, from the loss at Yonkers to the "Road to New York", the "march to the sea" that rid North America of its Zombie infestation. His story alone would make a kick-ass movie, and his exclusion shows how badly JMS has fucked up.

JMS doesn't get it. He does not. The message of WWZ is not that the government fucked up, or that one person was responsible, or that George Bush was a shitty president. The message of WWZ is "Everything is Going to be Alright". The message of Max Brooks WWZ is that humanity can overcome the odds, that we are better than our roots, that we can go through such an apocalyptic event with our, well, humanity intact. I hate to say it, but it's "Yes We Can". JMS turned that into a channel for his own dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, and the script fails because of that. Thankfully, JMS was let go (as was Forster), and a new script is being drafted by "The Kingdom" scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan. Let's only hope he gets it.

Script Link

I was getting massively worried until I read that JMS had been let go, whew.

Matthew Michael Carnahan also did Lions For Lambs, which I think had some excellent writing in it. WWZ is a film that needs to be faithful to the source material for a reason, and that reason stands the difference between iteself and all other B-Grade zombie films.

I just hope they don't make the zombies super-human.

The Daft Punk:
Another problem with this script is that the zombies are inconsistent. One minute there shambling, Romero-style dead-heads, next minute there leaping at people and running at a full clip. Plus, it never makes it clear whether they're Zombies or "Zombies", ie. super-rabies/mad cow infectees.

I saw "Lions for Lambs", which makes me hesitate, 'cause that film was just as ham-handed as JMS' script about "Hey! Listen! The war on terror is whack!", but "The Kingdom" was really good. If he can write the Battle of Yonkers like he can write the final gun battle in "The Kingdom", I'll be very happy.

See, I enjoyed The Kingdom less than Lions For Lambs, because to a certain extent The Kingdom couldn't decide to ham-fist one point yet step on it later on ("Oh look, that nice Arab loves his family - oh wait! We need to kill those guys in that building and scare the crap out of everyone!") but that's all from memory and it's probably an argument for me to lose in another place at another time.

What I enjoyed more about Lions for Lambs, although a bit more tedious than The Kingdom was that I thought the latter was better written in terms of characterisation, conflict and tension, which are the hallmarks I would be looking for in a writer of a WWZ.



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