Now that Marc Forster’s World War Z has hit theaters (earning both a respectable-enough $66M since its Friday release and a newly-revitalized sequel plan), it’s finally appropriate to really dig deeply into what the troubled production’s many changes meant to the final product. Well-publicized delays, a bloated budget, and questions about the relationship between its director and the rest of its team have all plagued the film, but the most enduring question about World War Z has long centered on late-breaking script edits that chopped off an entire act and reimagined not only how the film ended, but how the emotional aspects of the film worked to make that new ending work.
Of course, there are spoilers ahead if you have not yet seen the film.
Last week, we finally got some insight into the long-buzzed-about scripting changes made to the film by Damon Lindelof, Drew Goddard, and (to a lesser extent) Christopher McQuarrie. While it was no secret that the final act of the film had been wildly altered by the three’s post-original-filming contributions (millions of dollars of physical reshoots will remove the secrecy from just about anything), the finer details of those contributions were not readily available until Mike Ryan at The Huffington Post got word from a source about what exactly was changed, edited, and added by the scribes. In short, the entirety of the third act was added (and the original, “Battle of Russia”-centric act was removed) and a related set of smaller scenes that pepper both the first and second acts of the film.
It’s notable that the changes that Lindelof and Goddard made to the script not only completely changed its final act; they also injected the other two acts of the film with some necessary emotional attachments amongst the Lane family. Sure, it’s great that the changes excised the Battle of Russia (which you can see part of in the banner above) from the final cut (which, yes, sounds cool but would have just been yet another major battle sequence in a movie that has more than enough of them already) and provided some hope for the remaining human survivors, but it’s most compelling that the changed included a focus on family-centric emotional center that provides the audience with something (albeit small) to root for amidst all the madness. No, the chances that Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane will single-handedly find the root cause of the zombie pandemic and come up with an effective cure are not even remotely high, but the chances that Gerry can eventually make his way back to his family are reasonable enough and worth caring about. Consider it a small win.
But what if the film didn’t even have that to rely on?
Over the weekend, Peter Hall over at Movies.com posted a comprehensive piece about the details of the original final act of World War Z, and it’s far more upsetting than just “oh, look, another battle to get through.” Hall shares extensive details from the original script for the film (it must be noted that it’s still unclear how much of this was actually filmed, but we do know that many of the battle scenes in Russia were a part of the original filmed ending, and Hall also thoughtfully includes a some set photos that show Pitt on a boat, presumably bound for America).
So just what did the original final act of World War Z look like? In short, bleak. While you’ll do yourself a big favor by reading Hall’s piece in its entirety, in service to a quick synopsis of the events, here are the quick (and most important) hits: after landing (safely) in Russia with Segen (Daniella Kertesz), Gerry is drafted into military service clearing out zombies from subways, his phone is taken, a long stretch of time passes in which Gerry completely changes and becomes basically dead inside, he finally realizes that the cold slows down the zombies, he shares the knowledge with the Russian brass and gets a cell phone, he finally reaches Karin (Mireille Enos) by cell phone (okay?), we soon discover that Karin has basically been forced into “a reluctantly consensual relationship” with Matthew Fox’s character (that parajumper whose role was massively chopped), Fox’s character calls Gerry back (seriously, how are the cell phones still working with such ease?) and basically tells him to get the eff over it, Gerry is kicked into “a rage mission to get back to his wife and daughters,” and steals a boat to journey to America (along with Segen and his new pal Simon).
Wait, then what? Then they land in Oregon. Wait, where are Karin and the girls? Florida. No, seriously, then what? As Hall tells us, “they attack the American shore like it’s D-Day. And that’s how the movie ends. Not with Gerry having discovered a cure, but with him storming across the United States of America to get Karin back.”
The final act that was originally meant to serve as the end of the film sounds bizarre in a number of ways – the least of which being that it just sounds deeply, deeply depressing. Wait, you may be thinking, the source material for the film is already deeply depressing, why shouldn’t the film version also be as such? Plainly speaking – because even in this first incarnation, World War Z the movie was not even remotely “World War Z” the book. The production team and the film’s first screenwriters made that choice right off the bat, precisely when they decided to throw out everything that made the book different and cool – it was set after the zombie invasion! it was an oral history! it utilized a whole bunch of “main” character voices! those zombies were totally slow! – in favor of a film that is set during a zombie invasion (with fast zombies to boot!) and that centers on one man’s experience. Yes, this original version does include some nods to Max Brooks’s book – the use of the Lobo and the zombies’ aversion to the cold stand out – but that seems weak compared to the massive, sweeping changes made to the material by both Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski.
But this ending also comes without anything that made the Lindelof/Goddard/McQuarrie work in an engaging and somewhat hopeful way. It’s all boiled down to a “rage mission.” There is no “camouflage” for the humans. There is no well-reasoned medically helpful answer to anything Gerry has been seeking in his globetrotting. Matthew Fox is essentially a rapist (or, at the very least, a guy who doesn’t give a damn about the desires of the lady in his life). There’s nothing left to “look forward” to beyond more fighting, more battles, and a whole new batch of treacherous human beings.
It also all but requires a sequel – and while Paramount is actively developing one now, World War Z in its current incarnation doesn’t truly need one. There’s hope and possibility in the new ending, there’s some satisfaction – this original ending? No hope, no possibility, and a demand for another film like this. Does that not sound like the worst possible combination of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking – a depressing film that abandons its global implications for an unsettling personal story and also wants you to want more of it from another film? Sure, we’re used to thinking that troubles like those that have circled around World War Z for months signal a major problem that will forever haunt the film, but in this case, it’s all those “troubles” that excised the biggest problem from the film for good. Hey, sometimes rewrites and reshoots really can save the day.