World War Z

I wasn’t supposed to like World War Z. That book was one of my favorites from last summer, and after the disastrous production process for the film (reshoots, rewriting the ending after filming had wrapped, directors and writers leaving the project), I was sure the movie would be a fiasco that couldn’t overcome all those obstacles. Besides, I rarely like films based on books I loved.

But I liked this film.

Disclaimer: If you’re reading this, and you don’t understand our culture’s obsession with zombies, then let me try to explain as someone who both follows Jesus and is fascinated by popular culture’s portrayal of zombies. Current portrayals of zombies generally blame the outbreak (or the “zombie apocalypse”) on an incurable, fast-spreading virus. Zombie origins, however, are much more spiritual in nature: demon possession that re-animates a corpse. An argument can (and should) be made that these two ideas be separated. As a follower of Christ, I believe that good and evil are at battle on this earth, and stories of zombiis (particularly in voodoo culture) are a result of a fallen world and a rejection of Christ’s salvation. In popular culture, however, zombies have lost most of that spiritual aspect. Zombie stories, as a subgenre of dystopian literature, tend to arise in the midst of global chaos, and zombies become a way to mirror real-life societal problems. Max Brooks, in his book World War Z, definitely made this social commentary the focus of his story. Now: moving on…

[Note: spoilers to follow.]

In full disclosure, the music from the movie is from Muse’s album The 2nd Law. That album is dystopian from start to finish. I was completely overwhelmed when the movie began with the final track from Muse’s album, “The 2nd Law: Isolated System.” The song is melodic, powerful, and builds from simplicity to a flourish. The original album version of the song contains no lyrics, just voiceover discussing the law of entropy and headlines about global economic collapse. In the film, those voiceovers were replaced with news reports of the zombie outbreak. It’s perfect. I was shocked to hear Muse, first of all (how did I miss that one of my favorite bands would be featured?), and I was overcome–Muse frequently delivers an emotional gutpunch (in a good way, you know?). I was instantly riveted and emotionally involved in the story.

It’s entirely possible that just hearing Muse had me predisposed to like the movie. But let’s move beyond that because I, once again, have a lot to say.

First of all, there’s no way the movie could have followed the book. For a thorough adaptation, we would need at least a lengthy miniseries, if not a full-fledged TV show to follow all the subplots of the book, from patient 0 to the recovery efforts of the war. Instead, this film minimized the locations, the battle fronts, and the commentary for the sake of brevity. The result was a less complex vision of global catastrophe. We see a few examples of the chaos in America when the zombies overtake Philadelphia and Newark; a potential patient 0 at a military base in South Korea; the efforts in Israel to keep the plague out by constructing walls isolating the city; and a zombie outbreak on an airplane. I wish we could have seen how more of the world was affected. In the book, every culture, every band of survivors experiments with a different theory about how to defeat the zombies, and a feature-length film just cannot maintain that kind of complexity. (I think the movie Contagion tried that, and I felt that the film didn’t work as well as it should–there was quantity in showing the disease spread, but not enough quality to gain a full understanding of how it affected each society.)

One of the problems of the film is that it just couldn’t reveal all the social commentary portrayed in the book. However, the commentary is still there, just subtle and simpler.

The most obvious commentary that zombies reveal is the tension between isolation and community. Writers of zombie stories make the argument, generally, that community should win every time. Survivors should band together. Those who try to survive on their own are unable to fight off a zombie horde. This film makes that argument clear from the beginning. When Gerry (aka Brad Pitt) and his family fight their way into an apartment building in Newark, NJ, to await help, they meet a family who takes them in for the night. The next morning, Gerry is preparing his family to meet the coming helicopter, and he tries to convince the other family to come with them. Gerry rationalizes that his people (the UN) will be able to protect these civilians and that holing up in their home will result in tragedy. This immediately comes true: by the time Gerry, his wife, and kids have made it to the roof, they’re already fighting zombies, including the father of the family they had left moments before. The only survivor from the family is the young boy Thomas, who argued against his father that they should go and fight together. Surviving when his family turns so quickly seems to be Thomas’ reward for choosing community over isolation. He makes it all the way to the end of the movie.

Even the zombies know to choose community (in a loose sense of the word) over isolation. When Gerry arrives in Jerusalem, he examines the walls that have been built around the city. So far, the residents within the walls have remained safe while the zombie horde has been contained outside the walls. Gerry even marvels that the city is allowing survivors to come within the walls of the city (when so many other settlements have tried to keep people out, hoping to remain disease-free). Gerry is told that every person who comes within the walls is one less zombie to have to fight. Then, the unthinkable happens. As the people inside are celebrating their survival, the zombie horde grows more desperate, and they form massive piles to scale the walls of the city. The walls are breached, and within moments, the city is turned. One zombie alone will never cause widespread chaos; however, the evolutionary track of the zombies means they know how to work together to spread the disease to healthy hosts.

Moving beyond the commentary, this movie’s portrayal of zombies is interesting. For a PG-13 rating, the film cut back on the gore (which I sort of appreciated). These are not the slow-moving walkers from The Walking Dead, with bones protruding and skin dripping. These aren’t even necessarily the rage-filled, blood-spewing zombies from 28 Days Later. They are superfast, and their skin almost looks mummified. The big reveal is that the zombies overlook humans with terminal diseases in favor of healthy hosts. This, of course, becomes a way to survive: become terminally ill (but curable) as camouflage. It’s an interesting premise, somewhat similar to Glenn and Rick in The Walking Dead, who spread zombie guts on themselves to trick the zombies. Intelligence wins out over basic, primal instincts, right?

The ending of the film has gotten a lot of criticism, especially considering Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard were brought in after filming wrapped to re-write the ending. After the camouflage is discovered, Gerry knows his job is done; he can return to his family, who have been moved to a refugee camp in Nova Scotia. The film ends with his reunion with his wife and kids (and Thomas, who has apparently been adopted into the family) with a voiceover about how the war is far from over. This isn’t the end, he tell us; instead, battles are still raging worldwide, and no one is sure how long it will be until the world is safe again. But the film ends with hope: vaccines containing the camouflage are delivered, and they know now that there’s a way to survive. Hope over despair is usually a good ending for a post-apocalyptic story, even if the ending is a bit rushed and ambiguous.

Ultimately, I appreciated this movie. It was suspenseful in all the right places, horrifying without being gory and gross. The key, however, to liking the movie is in understanding that it is not the book, despite the identical titles. Whereas the book portrays a years-long global battle that reveals government incompetence and the dangers of isolation, the film shows a zombie outbreak that takes place over the course of a few days and focuses on small, simpler themes. If you’ve read the book, please don’t make the mistake of looking for a strict adaptation. Just appreciate the film as its own story.

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Why I Didn’t Love Man of Steel

Here’s the truth: I didn’t even really like the new Superman movie all that much. I wanted to. I tried. But I couldn’t do it.

I was excited about Man of Steel. Not nearly as excited as I get about films in the Avengers franchise or Nolan’s Batman trilogy or film adaptations of books I’ve loved. But I’m a geek. I love comic books and action films. I was supposed to love this film, especially after Slate claimed last week that Man of Steel is a feminist action flick.

[WARNING: Spoilers from here on out.]

Most of my issues with Man of Steel boil down to the fact that I just didn’t care. Or, rather, the film didn’t make me care. The filmmakers eschewed backstory for intense, destructive, action sequences. I’m sure director Zack Snyder and his team assumed that most filmgoers know to root for Jor-El over General Zod. We were supposed to care about Clark Kent because we know he’s Superman. He’s as American as a Kansas cornfield.

But this is an origin story. Maybe Snyder didn’t want to give us too much information we would already know. For instance, much of the criticism of last summer’s Amazing Spiderman is that the reboot was too soon and the origin story was old news. I get that. But Snyder went in the wrong direction and didn’t give us enough.

The film begins with the end of Krypton. First, Kal-El is born. Then (immediately after his son’s birth?), Jor-El storms into the Council’s chambers, declaring that they’ve made a horrible mistake. Something about a core and using up energy, I think. I should probably look that up. Except that I went to see a film, and I don’t want to have to look up the missing information. I should understand everything vital to the story without doing research. Anyway…Zod storms in with his badass army, declares a coup, kills an Important Councilwoman, fights some, kills Jor-El. In the midst of all that, Lara manages to load her newborn baby into a spaceship and send him towards Earth. We get this pretty epic view of Krypton’s ultimate demise and a scene of the spaceship zooming towards our planet Earth.

And suddenly, Clark Kent is a grown man, seemingly working on fishing boat. He saves some unknown people on some sort of ocean rig, then he’s inexplicably working as a busboy in some cold place, and at some point, he’s working at a military post in the Arctic Circle, where a reporter (guess who?) shows up to investigate a mysterious Soviet something-or-other found in (oh! surprise!) a 20,000-year-old block of ice. In the midst of it all, he has flashbacks to his childhood, with his loving parents and some weird, superhuman occurrences.

It was too rushed. All of it. I wanted to see him landing in Kansas. I wanted to know why Mr. & Mrs. Kent chose to adopt this alien child. We get bits and pieces of that, through flashbacks, but it never felt cohesive for me. The beginning was so rushed that the film never actually had me.

It almost pulled me back in when Zod arrived on the planet. Power goes out, an alien species takes over the airwaves around the world–I’m sort of a sucker for that sort of thing. (Maybe because I visited a UFO museum last week. I’m convinced we’re not alone, and suddenly, here was Zod confirming it for me!)

That didn’t last long, though. Where the film lost me was the “resolution” to preventing Zod and his team from completely taking over Earth. Use Clark’s old ship to create a singularity with Zod’s ship and, thus, a black hole? Okay! Let’s completely forget that idea that black holes absorb everything nearby. Entire galaxies. Yet Earth and our solar system and the Milky Way will remain unscathed! Good grief, I haven’t had a science class in years, and even I know that’s a terrible idea.

And the philosophy behind the movie made me a little angry. The film espoused the idea that nurture will always beat out nature. Clark’s heart, his parent’s love, Lois’ belief in him, is all it takes to defeat Zod–the man trained, reared to be the military leader on his planet. It was a bit too easy, despite the action scenes that were about 45 minutes too long. I wanted Clark to just go ahead and defeat Zod (because I got a little bored), but I actually kind of wanted Zod to win. He was a more dynamic character than Clark, with a much stronger motivation. Zod watched his planet be destroyed, knowing that he was part of the problem, and knowing that he had to make some very difficult decisions along the way. This is supposed to contrast with Clark’s love for Earth and humanity, but it didn’t quite work as well as it should have.

Furthermore, the film wasn’t as well-written as I would have liked. It was a bit too simplistic. For example, Zod’s commander, Faora (who is a force to be reckoned with), says to Clark that her side will win because they have no sense of morality. Yet Zod’s reasoning for wiping out humanity and terraforming the planet is to restore his race: to reclaim the genetic code stored within Clark and to create a habitable planet where they can all flourish once again. It may not align with a traditional American moral code, but Zod, Faora, and the others are operating under a well-defined sense of morality: that anything is right in order to perpetuate their race. It’s an extreme form of utilitarianism that merges with ethnocentrism–none of the races on Earth matters as much as the Krypton race, and any casualties can be validated for the greater good of their society as a whole. Now, maybe Faora made this comment because she actually relishes wiping out other people, and she doesn’t have much of a moral code. But the scene was too pivotal, and the dialogue so much in opposition to what was actually going on, that it just made me angry.

Maybe a decade ago, this movie would have been the greatest superhero movie I’d ever seen. Maybe (probably) Joss Whedon ruined me for superhero movies; I now expect every superhero film to be well-written with sharp dialogue and loads of subtext. Maybe the darkness and  ambiguity that accompany most recent superhero films make it impossible for me to merely enjoy a film without dissecting it. But this was Zack Snyder at the helm. When I saw Watchmen four years ago (the only other film I’ve ever reviewed on my blog), I was wrecked. I stayed up half the night, and when I did sleep, I had crazy dreams. That film was all I could think about for days. And with Christopher Nolan producing, I walked into the theater with expectations that this would be as great as his Batman trilogy.

The movie wasn’t all bad. I thought it was okay. But “okay” isn’t good enough for superhero films. Not for me, not anymore. Lest you think, however, that I’m too critical, I’ll tell you what I did like about the film. I loved Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark’s Earth parents. I liked that Lois Lane was intelligent and attractive without being a mere sex symbol. I even liked Henry Cavill. Superman is a more simplistic superhero than others, and he played the role fairly well. My faults with the character had nothing to do with the acting, actually. Michael Shannon as Zod is superb. He is almost as fascinating to me as Loki was in the Avengers, and that’s saying a lot. I was delighted to see Richard Schiff in the film; Toby on The West Wing was a joy to watch, and Schiff made me smile whenever he was on screen in this film. The CGI of Krypton was fascinating to watch, and the little bit of Kansas we did see felt just like the heartland of America that it was supposed to.

And even though I was sorely disappointed, at least Zack Snyder provides me with strong emotions about a film. That’s better than apathy any day.

What My 28th Year Sounds Like

I’ll turn 28 on Monday, which means it’s time for another birthday playlist. This will be the third year I’ve made an official playlist to celebrate my birthday, and I’ve honestly been thinking for months about what theme I should have. For my 26th birthday, I chose a song for every letter of the alphabet. Last year, I chose 27 songs that reminded me of literature I love. This year, I realized that I chose songs I wanted to be on the playlist and tried to find a theme to match. So instead of a strict theme, what I created is a chronology of the songs I’ve loved listening to this year.

Most of these songs are on albums released within the past year, and most of my favorite bands appear as usual (Arcade Fire, Muse, Mumford & Sons, and The Gaslight Anthem all make an appearance, with some new favorites). And the list is in chronological order, from the songs I obsessed over on my last birthday to the duo I’m currently obsessed with right now.

So…for the third straight year, here’s my birthday playlist (and here’s the link to the complete YouTube playlist). This is what the 28th year of my life sounded like:

1) “Abraham’s Daughter,” Arcade Fire, from The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond

Two days before my birthday last year, I drove to Shelby, NC, where some scenes from The Hunger Games were filmed. I spent the first part of the summer listening to this album on repeat. This song was the sole reason I bought the album in the first place, and it’s my favorite track.

2) “Kingdom Come,” The Civil Wars, from The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond

My first introduction to The Civil Wars (who’ll make another appearance). I listened to this song on repeat almost as much as the previous song. This song captured the tone of the film so very well.

3) “Man On Fire,” Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, from Here

Before I bought this album, all I knew about ES&MZ was that they had toured with Mumford & Sons, which was enough to convince me of their worth. I actually downloaded the album after a great review in Entertainment Weekly, and I listened to it for weeks last summer. This was the first single from the album.

4) “Poison & Wine,” The Civil Wars, from Barton Hollow

Well, I also listened to a lot of this band in addition to Edward Sharpe. This song is my favorite from the album; it’s haunting and sad and beautiful.

5) “Dear Believer,” Edward Shape & the Magnetic Zeros, from Here

I loved “Man on Fire” first, but I love this song even more. I remember the moment I really listened to the lyrics for the first time. I stopped what I was doing, started the song over, and realized this is one of the most honest songs about faith I’ve ever heard. The repeated line “Maybe reaching for heaven is what I’m on earth to do” is golden.

6) “Survival,” Muse, from The 2nd Law

This was the theme song for the London 2012 Olympics, and the first we heard from their new album. We Muse fans had been waiting for years!

7) “Extreme Ways (Bourne’s Legacy),” Moby, from The Bourne Legacy soundtrack

With Jeremy Renner taking over the Bourne franchise from Matt Damon, we also got a new remix of Moby’s “Extreme Ways,” a song that I never grow tired of. In fact, this is my alarm clock every morning, too. Also, I love Jeremy Renner. Any song that makes me think about him is obviously a song I will love.

8) “In My Heart,” Moby, from 18

As much as I love “Extreme Ways,” though, this is my favorite Moby song, and sometimes, I wonder if this isn’t my favorite song of all-time, ever. The world just seems right when I listen to this song, and I spent many long nights grading while listening to this song on repeat. It keeps me sane and hopeful.

9) “Octopus,” Bloc Party, from Four

Another album I’d been waiting a long time for. Bloc Party had not released an album in four years and had even parted ways for awhile. I didn’t connect with this album quite like I had with previous albums, but I certainly like it, and it keeps me awake late at night, too.

10) “Madness,” Muse, from The 2nd Law

Even though “Survival” was a song that defined the summer, this album didn’t actually arrive until October. And, boy, was it worth the wait. Previous to the release, Muse received a lot of criticism for releasing a dubstep-influenced album. This is not the first album I would recommend to someone who has never listened to Muse, but for longtime fans, it’s very nearly perfect, I think. And “Madness” is one of the most addictive songs I’ve ever heard.

11) “I Will Wait,” Mumford & Sons, from Babel

This was the album I’d been waiting for the most out of all of the excellent albums released last fall. And it’s glorious. At this stage in my life, Mumford & Sons is the voice in my head, the one that I need to hear constantly.

12) “Hopeless Wanderer,” Mumford & Sons, from Babel

The first song on the album on which I hit “repeat.” This song seems like the definition of my 20s.

13) “Handwritten,” The Gaslight Anthem, from Handwritten

I love The Gaslight Anthem because they love music, and they’re nostalgic and hopeful. Brian Fallon pours his whole heart onto the page, and this song is fantastic.

14) “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, from The Heist

I could write pages on this song. But I’ll just say this–at the end of the fall semester, one of my students gave an excellent presentation on why people should shop at thrift stores. I hadn’t heard this song at the time, so I didn’t realize that my student (and his classmates) had referenced the song throughout the presentation. When I did hear it, I was sad that I’d missed months of listening to it because it’s incredible. On the surface, it’s fun and ridiculous, and underneath that, it’s a critique of hiphop culture that’s gutsy. I love these guys so much.

15) “Follow Me,” Muse, from The 2nd Law

My favorite track from the new album. It’s a soaring, anthemic song about love, and I cannot get enough of it.

16) “Ho Hey,” The Lumineers, from their self-titled album

I first heard this song because my friends Jane & Walter played it for their last dance at their wedding in November. I bought the album shortly thereafter, and when I competed in a pop-culture quiz bowl tournament in December, I was the only person in the tournament to answer this question correctly. Winning.

17) “Little Talks,” Of Monsters and Men, from My Head is an Animal

I heard this song once over Christmas break, but never heard the announcement about the band. After that first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about this song. And on the morning of New Year’s Day, as I was driving home around 3 a.m., I finally heard the song a second time. As soon as I got home, I searched for the lyrics, downloaded the album, and thought my heart might burst from how glorious this song is. This album is INCREDIBLE. I’m so happy to live in a world in which Of Monster and Men make such great music. This song, for me, will always feel like a new year.

18) “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show, from O.C.M.S.

Darius Rucker released a cover of this song, and I saw a lot of people on Twitter complaining about how the original was so much better. After a suggestion from a former student, I listened to the song again for the first time in years and remembered how great it was. And then I just kept on listening.

19) “Stubborn Love,” The Lumineers, from their self-titled album

My favorite song from the album: “Keep your head up / Keep your love.”

20) “Lakehouse,” Of Monsters and Men, from My Head is an Animal

I was so obsessed with “Little Talks” that I didn’t realize the beauty in all the other songs on the album for awhile. This song was a sort-of sleeper agent. After several weeks, I was struck by how beautiful it is.

21) “Keepsake,” The Gaslight Anthem, from Handwritten

My favorite track from the new album. The guitars and drums match Brian Fallon’s voice so perfectly.

22) “We Did It When We Were Young,” The Gaslight Anthem, from American Slang

I saw TGA live in March, and after that show, I slid this 2010 album in my car’s stereo and didn’t take it out for weeks. This song is slow, melancholy, nostalgic, powerful.

23) “Don’t You Worry Child,” Swedish House Mafia feat. John Martin, from Don’t You Worry Child EP

When I finally managed to listen to something besides TGA (sometime around mid-April), I realized Swedish dance music is awesome (and, once more, a great soundtrack for late-night grading).

24) “Radioactive,” Imagine Dragons, from Night Visions

I wish this song had existed when I was writing my thesis. Thematically, it’s perfectly dystopian. I also wish the rest of the album were as good as this song, but instead, they just sort of sound like a blend of Coldplay and OneRepublic with a big drum. (Disclaimer: I actually like both of those bands…I just don’t need a duplicate.)

25) “Sail,” AWOLNATION, from Megalithic Symphony

This song makes me want to run a marathon or punch someone in the face. It’s that good.

26) “Vipassana [Ryan Lewis Remix],” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, from VS. Redux

I love hiphop. I never though I could love it this much, though. This is the first track from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ 2010 EP. This is a song about faith (not so much Christian faith, but faith nonetheless), and Macklemore’s lyrics are real and heartfelt. And he’s an incredible rapper. And he’s hot. (If you’ve read this far, you deserve my honest opinion, right?)

27) “Otherside (feat. Fences) [Ryan Lewis remix],” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, from VS. Redux

Macklemore’s biggest hit previous to “Thrift Shop.” It’s a song about his addiction to drugs and alcohol and his decision to become sober. Crazy good stuff.

28) “Can’t Hold Us,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, from The Heist

The video for this song premiered on YouTube in April. This is the song that convinced me to download The Heist, which then convinced me to download everything else that Macklemore has ever done, with or without Ryan Lewis. I sing this aloud in my car. I hear this song in my dreams. I talk about this whole album with anyone who will listen to me. I have a feeling this will be the song that defines my summer, the album I listen to on repeat for many more months. If this is the theme of my next year, it will be a good one indeed. 

ONWARD TO 29!