World War Z (17 September 2013)

Movieetos Rating (Movie Cheetos)

          (100% Movieetos)

World War Z is released on DVD this week. Here is our Scientist/Movie Reviewer Dr. Ronke Olabisi’s review.


Those of us who have read the book World War Z know that the movie should have been titled World War Z: The Prequel. Once you get past the fact that the movie and the book pretty much only share a title, it is possible to enjoy the movie on its own merit. WWZ is one of those movies that tries to combine fantasy with science fiction. For instance, in the film Daybreakers, vampirism is simply a blood-borne pathogen. In WWZ, zombieism is contracted in much the same way rabies is — a bite will infect you, but getting zombie juices accidentally sprayed into your mouth will not. Connoisseurs of science fiction generally view sci-fi as existing between two poles: hard and soft. Hard science fiction is solidly based in science and engineering, and could exist should we have a few technological advances and choose to embark on the endeavor (2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine) Although some consider soft science fiction as dealing with the “soft” sciences (social and anthropological), I do not for two reasons: 1) I feel that referring to these sciences as “soft” is condescending; and 2) this definition does not represent the opposite of the “hard” definition. For many, soft science fiction generally requires a lot of hand-waving and acceptance of fictional science that is highly improbable (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman). Most science fiction movies nowadays fall somewhere in between (Star Trek, Star Wars). A film can successfully shift from soft to hard science fiction in the course of the story, but can not successfully go in the opposite direction (witness the last 15 minutes of Sunshine — trust me). A film also cannot successfully explain its fantasy elements using hard science fiction — did you like it when The Force of the Jedi was explained away by a midi-chlorian infection? Didn’t think so.

The same holds true in World War Z. I enjoyed every part of this film except where they tried to scientifically explain the fantasy that are zombies. The movie did have its problems — there were underdeveloped characters (Pitt’s wife and kids), unforgivable lapses in judgement (I’m going to sneak past some zombies in the dark, but leave my phone on after instructing my wife to call me rather than wait for my call) but the human reactions throughout (even when annoying) were believable — I wanted to yell at his daughter for unbuckling her seatbelt and hiding in the foot well, but I could also believe that a freaked out tween would do that. The tension and suspense were nailbiting, and it was certainly a fun rollercoaster ride as long as I suspended my disbelief and turned off the thinking portion of my brain. My eyes and lizard brain had a blast. The film is set as a realistic portrayal of how humanity would react to a zombie pandemic, and what tools we might employ to defeat it. Since it is present day, we the audience know that the characters must rely upon present science. We follow Pitt’s character, a former UN investigator who is tasked to assist a hotshot virologist who believes the zombieism is a virus. Together, they are to track down the source, until the virologist panics during a zombie attack and kills himself in a weird freak accident. I had a problem with this. I do not like watching an event unfold and thinking to myself - this is a plot device. I know that freak accidents happen, but why make this guy so rare - he’s the best in his field, he’s the only guy they say knows what’s going on, he’s what everyone believes might save us all, and he will die in the weirdest way of anyone in the film — he runs back into the plane, trips on the slick surface and shoots himself while smashing his head into the hard metal. They could have just as easily taken him out by zombies, and it wouldn’t have felt so contrived.

The Science:

  1. When Pitt’s character first sees a man get bitten by a zombie, he starts counting. By the time he gets to 12, that man turns into a zombie. But the problem is that Pitt’s character has no idea what is happening - he’s just come from pancakes with his family and heard no news about zombies. So why does he know that the bite is significant? Why does he know to start counting? There is nothing in the entire history of human existence that infects a person in the time that it takes us to count to 12, so it is completely ridiculous that he would just think to himself, “hey, there’s no science to support this, but I’m going to start counting for no reason. Let’s just see what I learn”

  2. There is no way zombieism could be viral in nature. Viruses have no reproductive system of their own and infect the body by invading the cells, then using the cells’ own reproductive machinery to replicate its viral DNA. So our cells have been tricked into helping out the enemy, and as more and more of our own cells become infected, more and more viral DNA is being produced. Since our cells do not work at infinitely fast speeds, it usually takes a couple of days for us to start showing symptoms after our initial infection with a virus. Nobody in the history of the planet has gone from completely healthy to infected and fully symptomatic in 12 seconds. No virologist with half a brain cell would conclude that the zombieism in WWZ was a virus.

  3. When Pitt and friends go to Israel, the singing over the loudspeakers stirs up the zombies into a rage until they mobilize and mount their defenses. Pitt’s character knew the zombies were attracted to noise. The Israeli official showing him their defenses just finished telling him how they had spent soooo much time studying zombies, but they managed to miss this crucial detail that Pitt learned in like, 2 minutes? I did not like this plot element, because after Pitt gets to Israel—the one place that is a safe haven against zombies—it is overrun by zombies in approximately 3 minutes after his arrival. Israel managed to hold out for so long, but Pitt gets there, Israel is ruined, and now he has to leave. Statistics is a science too. It is the study of data. Israel falling moments after Pitt’s arrival was statistically so improbable that it is valid to say that it was impossible. Again, it felt like a contrived turn of events to move the plot along.

  4. Pitt’s character chops off the Mossad woman’s hand after it gets bitten by a zombie. He does this with a knife. Fairly easily. It is one thing when Darth Vader does it to Luke with a light saber which is essentially a portable laser that can cut through anything like it’s butter, but a knife? If he had had a light saber, or razor sharp machete, this might have been believable. It is relatively difficult cutting through the bone, muscle and connective tissue that is someone’s wrist. Early war field surgeons wouldn’t have used bone saws if they could do it so easily with a knife. If you take a raw chicken leg (which is much smaller than a human wrist), and attempt to cleanly chop it in half (not on a chopping block, but held in mid-air), you will get a sense of what might happen. What would have been more likely is that her arm would have swung away from the blow, her wrist would have now had a deep gash, but it would have been intact, and then he would have been staring at a very angry zombie with a flesh wound. Incidentally, if I had just managed to cut her hand off, I wouldn’t have just counted to 12 and then trusted that she wouldn’t turn. He just came from a place where they told him that some people took 5-10 minutes to turn. And the blood management of her new stump. You can’t just “tightly” bandage a stump and then start running and not expect to bleed out. Arteries have to be tied off, or a tourniquet used. And the whole “I’m going to disinfect this with alcohol." It doesn’t really work. The alcohol burns because it’s killing way more of your own cells than the bacteria you are trying to kill. She was definitely going to get an infection with that treatment. Despite its problems, I did like this scene. She doesn’t thank him for saving her life — I mean, he did cut off her hand! And he doesn’t apologize for cutting off her hand — I mean, he did save her life! The science sucked, but the human responses were appropriate all around.

  5. Pitt and his Mossad sidekick are the only ones to survive a plane crash (not counting the zombie stuck in her seat). And not only do they survive, they walk away. What are the chances that a fatal plane crash would leave only 2 people alive, and those 2 people happen to be our heroes? Both the statistics at play here and the science of impact mechanics haven’t just crossed the line of ridiculous, but are maniacally tap dancing in the realm of the ridiculous. I could have more easily believed this if maybe a dozen people survived, and they were among the survivors instead of them being the only survivors. And only if they survived because it was a crash landing and not an all out crash. Particularly when you look at the condition of the aircraft. That plane was completely torn apart, seats exposed to the air, parts of the plane strewn all over the crash site. In the rare event that people survive plane crashes in which the plane looks like that, they are usually hauled out completely unconscious, seriously wounded, and on a stretcher. People who can happily skip away from planes are exiting planes that are largely intact (or at least the portion they escaped from was), and haven’t fallen 30,000 ft in complete free fall. In short, anything that is going to do that much damage to a plane is going to do way worse damage to a human body. Again, this was a ridiculous plot device.

  6. The whole concept of zombieism being a sentient disease. While it is true that some diseases are protective against other diseases, these are generally congenital diseases that have evolved as protections against communicable diseases. For instance, sickle cell trait (having one copy of the mutant sickle gene) is protective against contracting malaria. Unfortunately, sickle cell anemia (having 2 copies of the mutant sickle gene) is a painful and fatal disease. Recent research has shown that having a single cystic fibrosis gene is protective against contracting tuberculosis, while having two genes gives the painful and fatal disease cystic fibrosis. In WWZ, they show the zombies steer clear of people with terminal diseases. This would be like someone with tuberculosis being physically repelled by people with cystic fibrosis genes. Or better yet, malaria-ridden mosquitoes would give a wide berth to people with sickle cell trait. Diseases don’t work like that. Cancer doesn’t say, "aw, man! Rabies already got you? I guess I’ll take my business elsewhere." Cancer doesn’t say anything, as a matter of fact — it’s an unfeeling disease. And why would whatever pathogen that infects people with zombeism care whether these people were already going to die since part of being a zombie means dying, then being undead? Why would the zombification process care what killed me first - the cancer or the zombie bite? I’d still be dead. If the story were to believably take the route of one disease fighting another, then it would have to be something that conferred immunity to a bite, but couldn’t repel zombies. It would be like a rabies shot. This would be more scientifically believable, but the story would have a problem — if immunized with a zombie shot that had no repelling powers zombies unable to convert you would likely just eat you. So how could one believably have some sort of zombie repellant? I would have believed it if they tried to explain undead physiology. If they said something like zombies’ eyes are undead, so they can only see movement (like a Jurassic Park T-Rex), and they don’t eat each other because of smell: they can smell living vs undead. So then we develop an aerosol spray that masks the human smell, and also inoculate people with our new zombie immunity-vaccine. Much more believable now, right? I agree.

  7. Pitt’s character inoculates himself with a lethal pathogen through his shirt. For some reason, Hollywood just loves to have people inject themselves through their clothing. It’s their way of showing us that there’s just no time!!! This was also originally done in the film Contagion, where a scientist is giving herself a vaccine for a deadly virus. The film’s science advisor Prof. Ian Lipkin ultimately insisted that this was just so very wrong and had Soderbergh spend the money to re-shoot the scene. Scenes like this are so irritating to everyone in the biomedical sciences that we literally feel an itch and begin scratching uncontrollably. If injecting yourself through clothing seems reasonable to you, imagine watching a movie in which someone who has to go to the bathroom really really badly runs into a bathroom, sits on the toilet and starts to let loose without pulling down his pants because there’s just no time!!! That is exactly how every single medical professional feels when they watch people inject themselves through their clothes. You might say, well, Pitt’s character wasn’t a medical professional, cut him some slack. To that, I say, he indicated he had field medical training when he dressed the amputated hand of the Mossad woman. So no, there will be no cutting of slack.

So was the movie a fun, well paced thriller that had me on the edge of my seat while watching it? Yes, yes it was. Despite the fact that the zombies en masse were obviously computer generated, it was an interesting approach to have them crawl over each other and make bridges of their bodies like ants do. I enjoy zombie movies, and I enjoy new approaches to the zombie story. Was any of the science believable in any way, shape or form? No, don’t be silly. They were not at all successful in scientifically explaining zombies. But I can let that pass, you know, since zombies don’t actually exist. Their lack of existence kinda makes it hard to explain them scientifically. All others have failed at the fantasy-science connection, they did too. On the Movieetos (movie Cheetos) rating, this was full on Movieetos. But it was delicious Movieetos. Would I watch it again? No. With Movieetos, I sample different flavors. It’s only the gourmet movies I return to.