The reports of World War Z’s inevitable death at the box office were greatly exaggerated. Between those anticipating another Ishtar and others conducting pre-emptive autopsies, many presumed the movie’s very public production woes — script overhaul, scrapped ending, expensive reshoots, ship-jumping collaborators — would act like a deadly infection, poisoning the movie’s buzz and making its survival at the box office unlikely.
Instead, it went on to gross $536m internationally. It’s a turn of events that surprised more than a few, but if you take a closer look at the film’s much publicized rewritten third act, the success may not have been a surprise to World War Z itself. That’s because those last 45 minutes symbolically represent not just the film’s eleventh hour overhaul and its awareness of the dangerous movie-killing risk it was taking, but also its confidence that it would succeed.
Warning: World War Z spoilers ahead.
It’s been reported that the moment Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, hops on a plane in Jerusalem the film departs from its original script. Not surprisingly, that’s also the moment Lane becomes a shadow of the production’s behind-the-scenes decisions. Consider how Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard’s new third act, empowered by the studio powers overseeing the film’s survival efforts, redirects the plot away from the original version of the film’s intended Russian destination. Lane shadows this in how he, empowered by his superiors overseeing the world’s survival efforts, redirects the plane towards a potential zombie outbreak solution.
The studio completely destroyed the ending World War Z already had because it was compromised. And Pitt’s character blows up his own plane with a grenade because it has been compromised. Even Lane’s condition after the crash represents a succinct snapshot of the film’s state as Lindelof and Goddard joined the film: broken, wounded, disoriented and in desperate need to gather itself in order to march towards success.
Motivated by the desperation of having little other choice in a hopeless situation, that’s what Pitt’s character and World War Z both do: move forward with a new and extreme plan. Lane injecting himself with a deadly pathogen to find a solution mirrors Paramount’s own risk. By completely redoing the film’s ending and pursuing costly reshoots, the studio too was choosing to poison itself with the bad buzz associated with those kinds of drastic measures that could leave it dead-on-arrival at the box office. They both risked different types of death in the hopes that they would win at the end of the day. Paramount won by not only producing a film that worked but one impervious to the gathering negative buzz. Similarly, Lane’s solution made him impervious to zombie attacks.
The movie’s confidence over its new ending and assurance of its own success is most reinforced in perhaps the most potent use of Gerry Lane as surrogate. When the WHO scientists watch Lane’s risk pay off, they are relieved. We never see any relief from Pitt’s character. The uncertainty and vulnerability he displays before injecting himself (right down to writing a “Tell my family…” note) is replaced by a cocky, Pepsi-drinking swagger. There’s no humility, only bravado as his confidence over his success is so assured that he provokes a zombie horde to come at him.
The way the moment is played as an inevitable victory, with the odd absence of any emotion, strips his character and makes him more of a proxy than he’s ever been. Lane’s challenge to the zombies is the film’s own challenge to the negative buzz and skeptics now that it has a new ending it feels works. The image of dozens of rabid zombies rushing past Pitt unharmed then becomes one that anticipates all the negative buzz and production woes harmlessly rushing by with no effect on the film like – to borrow Lane’s words – a river around rock. Lane speaks of the solution he discovers as “a kind of camouflage” and that is what the film achieves with its new ending: a functioning film camouflaged from the infection of the negative buzz, even if it had to inflict some negative buzz on itself to get there.
World War Z was always conceived as a potential franchise. Its third act problems threatened that, which is why the film’s awkward closing narration plays less like it’s forcing some wiggle room for a sequel and more like a confident boast. “This isn’t the end” and “Our war just begun” are declarations of victory, representative of the same self-satisfaction of Pitt wandering down a hallway full of zombies, certain of success and newly gained invincibility. But there’s still a small echo of a World War Z that was once less assured. As Lane narrates that there is still work ahead, one can’t help but feel like finally there’s a hint of relief. A relief that yes, there is work ahead in the form of a sequel when — for a while — that seemed like something that might never happen.
World War Z hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.