Pharyngula

The bad science of World War Z

World War Z was on the Netflix last night, so I made the mistake of watching it. It was terrible. Spoilers abound, so stop here if you care.

The dreadful biology was offensive. Even if the plot were compelling — it wasn’t — and the actors engaging — they weren’t — it would have driven me bughouse mad. As it was, this looked like a movie in which someone had a CGI routine to render frenzied mobs, and they just had to use it over and over again.

  • The central macguffin of the plot was to find Patient Zero of the zombie plague. Why, they don’t explain; it would be scientifically interesting to trace the lineage of the infectious agent, but they don’t even know for sure what it is (they guess, a virus — they haven’t isolated it). But medically it isn’t going to help, especially since this disease promotes total widespread destruction, and all they’re going to find in South Korea, where they initially thought it arose, is wreckage. Which is what they find.

  • They begin this quest at the behest of a pompous Harvard scientist, who is an idiot. Once they’re on the plane to Korea, he smugly informs everyone that Nature is a serial killer who likes to be found out, so she leaves clues everywhere, and you need ten years of training to be able to spot them. So Harvard teaches people to anthropomorphize diseases? Of course, this idiot trips and accidentally kills himself stepping off the plane (I cheered), and Brad Pitt proceeds to continue the mission without the benefit of ten years of Harvard graduate education, so he’s wrong on all levels.

  • Patient Zero wasn’t in South Korea. They are informed by an insane CIA agent that the earliest reports were from Israel. We can believe him because he is happily pulling his own teeth out and laying them out in a lovely pattern on a plate, so the whole crew piles back onto the plane to fly off to Jerusalem. It’s very important to find Patient Zero!

  • Once in Jerusalem, they learn that the plague didn’t start there: the Israelis have a policy of heeding every crazy rumor that comes down the pike, and when they heard a report of zombies running amuck in India, they immediately put up giant walls around the city. Which don’t work. As the zombies overrun Jerusalem, Brad Pitt hijacks a plane and flies to…India? No. Patient Zero is not that big a deal anymore. He flies to Wales.

  • Pitt has had an insight. The infectious agent makes its hosts very finicky — they won’t eat sick people, because they’d be undesirable new hosts. This is a pathogen that kills its victims and reanimates their dead corpses, but is incapable of coping with a bad case of the flu. It is exceptionally fastidious about infecting only the healthiest people, which it then drives into such a mad frenzy that they heedlessly leap off the roof of 20-story buildings to reach their prey, because it wants to maintain the highest quality hosts. So the zombies acquire exquisitely sensitive biosensors to detect and ignore people with diseases, but are completely blind to 200-foot drops.

  • So Brad Pitt gets to Wales in a jet full of infected zombies, conveniently getting it to land near a World Health Organization research facility by lobbing a hand grenade into the passenger compartment, causing all the zombies to get sucked out and forcing the plane to crash violently, breaking apart on contact with the ground. Fortunately, he’s in the one piece of the plane that is intact, along with an Israeli soldier he’d saved from the plague by chopping her hand off — apparently, not only does the pathogen hate sick people, it also turns up its nose at maimed people. Unfortunately, he has a gigantic shard of metal debris jammed through his guts and poking out his back. Fortunately, the movie will completely ignore this debilitating injury for the rest of its running time.

  • At the WHO facility, they discover a group of paranoid (who can blame them?) scientists, who inform them that the part of the lab with the really nasty diseases has been overrun by zombies, but that they’ve gone quiescent in the absence of victims. They can get to the store of deadly diseases if they proceed very, very quietly. So instead of sending someone hale and competent to fetch a few vials, they send 1) Brad Pitt, the guy who just had a giant metal spike pulled out of his abdomen, 2) the recently one-handed Israeli soldier, and 3) the director of the lab. The director turns out to be a mega-klutz who is constantly kicking things and knocking stuff over, so 2 & 3 end up running away, drawing off all the enraged zombies, while #1 skedaddles over to the Death Lab. It’s almost like they planned it.

  • Once in the Death Lab, Brad Pitt scoops up a box full of random vials, but he’s surrounded by zombies! He’s trapped! So he picks a vial, injects himself with it’s supposedly lethal contents, and presto — he becomes invisible to zombies, and strolls nonchalantly back to the safe lab, where they conveniently have an antidote that they give him. All better! Don’t you just love magic medicine?

  • Then the show wraps up rapidly with a brief announcement that they have some kind of meningitis-like vaccine that gives people the disease but doesn’t, so they’re all invisible to the zombies, and you can just walk among them and bash their heads in with crowbars and they won’t notice. I guess when Washington DC is destroyed and all those pesky politicians have been eaten, you get rid of all the annoying regulations that slow magic medicine development.

That was truly awful. I kept watching in disbelief that they could screw over biology and medicine so thoroughly. I haven’t read the book that this movie was based on, so now I’m wondering…was it true to the source? Was the book really this stupid?

Comments

  1. […] By PZ Myers […]

  2. #2 MArk
    UK
    June 24, 2014

    Don’t usually comment, but I thought I would to let you know it’s not like the book. The book is supposed to be an oral history of the zombie outbreak, put together by a UN researcher taking statements and stories from survivors. There’s not a single protagonist. There are similarities in the events that take place in each version, but the film, as you say, slaps a boiler-plate storyline over the top.

    Thing is, the book and it’s predecessor “The Zombie Survival Guide”, were written by Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks. Why not get his Dad to direct it? Mel Brooks does Zombies has a nice ring to it.

  3. #3 Tim
    Oregon
    June 24, 2014

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/wwz

    The book and the movie could not be further apart. The book never bothers to explain the true origin of zombies, it just assumes they exist and runs with the premise. There’s even a bit during the book where someone comments about the biological impossibility of zombies in general, but the guy kind of shrugs when he says it while he kills the zombies.

    The book is actually very much the opposite if the movie and even includes a whole chapter on charlatans claiming to have a vaccine against the zombie disease (spoiler: it’s fake).

  4. #4 Sam
    United States
    June 24, 2014

    I saw it recently on Netflix also and it wasn’t just bad medicine, it was bad all around.

    Hey, This massive C-130 just magically materialized on our aircraft carrier (part of the “UN Atlantic Fleet”)! Let’s fly this giant plane off the carrier even though that’s impossible, and head out to Korea where we’ll land in a dark and stormy night. Should we wait until daylight so that we can see the zombies coming for us? Nah, let’s go ahead and hop out into the blackest night ever and stumble around the apocalypse even though we have no idea where we’re going, what we’ll find, or what we’re looking for. Then, after 10 minutes of conferring with people driven insane by zombies, let’s go straight back to the plane to fly to Israel. Wait a minute, shouldn’t we wait until daylight? Nah, it makes much more sense to hop on bicycles and ride out on the tarmac into the zombie apocalypse on a dark and story night.

  5. #5 Ben
    NC
    June 24, 2014

    No, this movie has absolutely nothing to do with the book, which is excellent and not at all an affront to science and reason like the movie. I’d recommend it (the book).

  6. #6 John
    June 24, 2014

    Believe me, this is one of the few times were the movie is actually better than the book. I read the book after seeing the movie, based on stellar amazon book reviews- found it to be completely directionless, jumping every where- incoherent. The book itself is impossible to Film. The Movie is loosely based on the book, but stands on its own merits. Movies are meant to be fiction- I thought it was ok, I like energetic Zombies.

  7. #7 stacy
    mi
    June 24, 2014

    I recommend 28 days later. Its an indie film with a smaller budget. I’m not sure exactly how sound the science is, but it made sense to me. A great zombie film, scary but slows down enough so you actually feel for the characters. And since the zombies aren’t technically undead, the whole film feels concrete and almost plausible. Plus, the main characters dont act like morons, which is always a plus.

  8. #8 JohnH
    United States
    June 24, 2014

    Most of these disease-trope shows seem equally stupid. Did anybody watch The Last Ship on Sunday? Let’s look for birds in the permafrost for 4 months while humanity dies, because that’s “the cure”, aka “the primordial source”. Huh?

  9. #9 Eric Weiss
    Alberta Canada
    June 24, 2014

    You mean it’s poorly adapted piece of horror fiction and not a thoroughly researched scientific documentary? I’m SHOCKED! SHOCKED AND OUTRAGED!

  10. #10 Robert
    June 24, 2014

    For a zombie movie I thought it was quite decent (of course, I saw it on the red eye flight, so I don’t particularly trust my memory…)

    The whole point of such a movie, is to get an excuse to get a guy with a chainsaw, an axe, a baseball bat, a sawed off shotgun, and a cute girl in the situation where they have to chop, saw, blast, or whatever hordes of zombies.

    For excuses, this one was at least mildly scientific and plausible (at least, to my jetlagged mind)

  11. #11 DT
    In the flesh
    June 24, 2014

    Here is my opinion, since you asked:

    The book and the movie only share a name. There are no fast zombies in the book, no frenzied chases, no Brad Pitt.

    The book is a retrospective on how we won the war, written documentary interview style, with insight into blunders, effective weaponry, solitude, comradery, politics, oppurtunistic international war, and finally rebuilding.

    I read the book, then purchased the audio book. I highly reccommend the audio book for when you have a few hours of travel. It paints a good mental picture of people trying to make sense of growing chaos, from their viewpoint.

    I was really disappointed in the movie.

  12. #12 Tywinn Lannister
    USA
    June 24, 2014

    So… you forgot to mention that the zombies that eat people, don’t actually eat people. They BITE people and then keep running like reanimated Flo Jos. Then, the people they bite turn into track star zombies… IN 10 SECONDS!

    I read and loved the book and felt so betrayed in the theater but then again, I saw the trailer, I knew better. Shame on me. But, et tu Brad?

  13. #13 SloppyFrenchKisser
    June 24, 2014

    Brad Pitt is a zombie!

  14. #14 Tywinn Lannister
    USA
    June 24, 2014

    Yes, Brad Pitt is a zombie.

  15. #15 Brian
    June 24, 2014

    Why people feel the need to critique the ‘science’ in sci-fi/horror/monster movies is quite beyond me, but to each his own.

    I will recommend the book, however, to those of you who can stomach a book about the zombies, scientifically impossible though they may be. NOTHING like the movie. More the intellectual love child of George Romero and Ken Burns. Loved it!

  16. #16 Ruby
    June 24, 2014

    The movie was awful. Maybe it isn’t as awful for those who hadn’t read the book, but it’s pretty bad. The book was a set of interviews that provide snapshots into how a zombie out break began, propagated, and ended. I knew it wouldn’t be made into a good movie. As someone with a background in infectious disease epidemiology, I thought it was a fantastic sketch about how personal, societal, cultural, and political factors impact the course of an outbreak. That’s why the book was so scary; Max Brooks had this spot on. In science fiction, the most important decision is how you pick your new, fictional “science”. His “science” is much better than what you find in an average horror story, with a few significant tweaks, of course. More importantly, he picks the basis for his story and sticks with it. He turns it into a powerful, convincing (and disturbing) picture of how a worldwide calamity leaves its mark on the people who survive.

  17. #17 Henry Valdez
    United States
    June 24, 2014

    even thought he movie wasn’t like the book at all and didn’t give you what you wanted it to give you, it was a decent zombie movie, STOP BEING A BUNCH OF NITPICKING NINNIES AND LEARN TO ENJOY A MOVIE AS A MOVIE AND NOTHING MORE. no wonder Hollywood like to do nothing but remakes anymore.

  18. #18 Ralph Hartley
    June 24, 2014

    Dude! It’s a zombie movie. What exactly did you expect?
    Are any of the things you complain about less scientifically plausible than walking dead people?
    Is *anything* less plausible?

  19. #19 Tony Eales
    Australia
    June 25, 2014

    As a fan of zombie movies this film had so little of what makes a zombie film an entertaining experience that it’s almost hard to call it one. The book is a good read and is only very vaguely related to the film.

  20. #20 Claire O
    Denver
    June 25, 2014

    World War Z movie? Yarg. Shaun of the a Dead? Now THAT’S how zombies are done!

  21. #21 Brett
    June 25, 2014

    I pointed this out on your other blog, but the book handles the unrealistic weirdness of zombies in the best way possible: it doesn’t try to give a weird pseudoscience reason as to how they “work”, and has some of the characters actually comment on how bizarre they are.

    One of the interviewees points out, for example, that the zombies should realistically be ruined when all the water in their bodies freezes during winter only to be thawed again in spring. But they aren’t – instead they seem to thaw right out and go back on the attack, and she has no idea why. The closest thing we get to a hint that something strange is going on with zombie biology is that their blood is consistently described as a “strange black substance” after transformation.

    All in all, it was a terrible decision to try and turn it into a movie as opposed to some type of high-budget miniseries on HBO or another premium cable channel (or even on Netflix, considering that they pay big money for this stuff). Having it as a miniseries would even have let them add more stuff as compared to the books over time, since it’s a worldwide event with countless stories only hinted at in the book’s chapters.

  22. #22 Adam
    June 25, 2014

    Pssssttt……..it’s not real.

  23. #23 BCL1
    June 25, 2014

    Brett: I like your idea of a mini-series. They could do one chapter per/episode — with different characters in each one. It would be more like a Zombie anthology series. Hm m m m m. Very different from the Walking Dead, which is very character driven.

  24. #24 makeinu
    June 26, 2014

    The book actually does explain where the infection starts (China, in a village flooded by the Three Gorges Dam), and how it initially spreads worldwide (illegal organ harvesting for transplants), but does little more than speculate as to transmissible vector, as I recall.

    The movie bears NO relation.

  25. #25 Ralph Hartley
    June 27, 2014

    The central macguffin of the plot was to find Patient Zero of the zombie plague. Why, they don’t explain

    If you “kill” the first zombie, it will cure all the rest. I know this is true because I saw it on a South Park episode. The whole point of zombies is that they don’t make sense. Vampires don’t have reflections for the same reason.

    It’s sort of like religion. If it made sense you wouldn’t need blind faith.

  26. #26 jfb
    June 27, 2014

    I’m one of those weirdos who enjoyed it for what it was, and wasn’t too turned off by the general nonsense. My wife and I entertained ourselves by identifying the cannon fodder (and being pleasantly surprised by who *didn’t* get zombified).

    Yeah, this is one of those movies that doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny. But there are worse ways to waste a Sunday afternoon.

    BTW, a C-130 has landed and taken off from an aircraft carrier at least once, so it’s not impossible.

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