Zombie fans were ready to attack World War Z with their criticisms well before it even hit theaters. Not only was there every indication going in that the film had very little to do with its source material, a book by Max Brooks that was wildly popular with horror fans, but there were also constant reports of troubles with the script and the budgeting of the movie, problems that eventually resulted in its entire ending being re-conceptualized and re-shot. Those aren’t exactly the kind of indicators that instill confidence in potential customers.
Really, by the time World War Z came and went from theaters, all of the talk that went down in the build up to its release proved to be a moot point though. Not only did the film prove to be a financial success despite all the doom and gloom from film pundits that proceeded its release, but it also proved to be just about as much of a failure with critics as it was a success at the box office—and for reasons that had nothing to do with how far it diverged away from its source material.
If there’s one good thing that you can say about World War Z, it’s that it’s paced well. The thing really moves. But that’s because it takes a pretty prototypically Hollywood approach to storytelling wherein it’s much more about big spectacle and action set pieces than it is about character—to the point where you don’t care so much about the characters at all, and when you think back on the movie now, just a few months after its release, all you can really remember about it is when that tidal wave of zombies broached the walled city and that one great sequence where zombies attacked a passenger plane that was in mid flight. Who was Brad Pitt’s protagonist, exactly? I can hardly remember. He was a long-haired hero guy, and he had some sort of government job, didn’t he?
Despite any complaints discerning audiences had about World War Z, given the amount of tickets it sold, it was pretty much an inevitability that it would eventually get a sequel, so that leads one to contemplate what improvements could be made over the approach producer/star Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster took in putting the first one together, in order to add a little juice to a semi-tainted franchise. Clearly audiences responded to the big action sequences of the first film, because the glimpses of them that were featured in the trailers are what sold the tickets, and once reviews rolled in they were generally the things that got mentioned as the movie’s positives, so you’ve got to keep the sense of scope. To make something that sticks with audiences a little bit more and makes them enthusiastic for a potential third film, it would probably be smart to better balance that focus on action with an attention to creating memorable characters and then putting them through smaller scale human dramas that are more relatable than the impending end of civilization though. You know, maintain people’s interest by actually telling a story instead of just loosely connecting carnage with thin narrative threads?
Well, the good news is that there have been big developments on that front. The Wrap is reporting that, as work begins on a World War Z sequel, it’s become clear that Forster isn’t going to come back and direct the second, so Pitt and company have gone out and gotten Juan Antonio Bayona to replace him. If Bayona isn’t a name that you’re familiar with, not only is he the guy who turned a lot of heads by helming The Orphanage back in 2007, he’s also the guy who made The Impossible last year—which is a film that works as a pretty excellent primer on how to make a World War Z sequel that would be better than the original.
The Impossible starred Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the parents of three young boys who were vacationing in Thailand during the devastating tsunami that wrecked the country’s coast in January of 2005, and what it did well was it created spectacle by pretty spectacularly recreating what it must look like when an entire area is devastated by a giant tidal wave, but it also kept its focus firmly on the people who were being affected by the devastation, to the point where you can think back on it and remember specific moments that hit with an emotional impact. With The Impossible, Bayona proved that he could handle both large scale special effects and actors who were being asked to emote in extreme ways, and it’s not hard to see how those skills could be translated toward making a first-rate action feature about the zombie apocalypse.
Of course, The Impossible wasn’t a film that was without its own problems. Though it was gorgeous to look at due to Bayona’s eye for cinematography, it created an expansive and immersive depiction of a devastated landscape, and it contained a handful of moments that worked to tug on the old heartstrings, it also got pretty sappy here and there, and one could say that it was even a little bit emotionally manipulative. Seeing as a decent amount of those tonal problems probably stemmed from the fact that the film was attempting to depict a real-life tragedy that’s very much a part of recent history though, it seems reasonable to imagine that dealing with a story much more heavily rooted in fantasy and escapism—like a World War Z sequel would be—could do a lot to temper Bayona’s tendency toward heavy handedness. Perhaps you can think of a director who would be a better pick to take this franchise in a new direction if you were given the option to pick from a fantasy pool of A-listers, but it’s still pretty fun to think about what a director as artistic in his approach as Bayona will come up with when tasked with creating a big budget zombie movie. Certainly it’s got to be more interesting than what Forster gave us, so, for the first time ever, I find myself optimistic about watching a big screen version of World War Z. How about you?