Silence Your Cell Phones—World War Z Is about to Begin

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What is it about zombies that makes them so worth watching? I can’t prove this, but I have a hunch . . . nothing does.

With nothing to do but watch the world come to an end, and no one to do it with, I went to see World War Z. How could I have forgotten what the ‘Z’ stands for? I had just come from a hamburger and an excess of fries at the local 5 Guys when I got to the theater. It looked like I was at least ten minutes late. I told the ticket agent (isn’t that a fancy title?) that I was there to see World War Z, if, but only if, it hadn’t started yet. I wasn’t sure he could sort out the bi-conditional “if and only if,” but this kid must have a keen mind for logic. He told me I had nine minutes; they were still showing previews. I asked if the theater was full. “There are eleven people,” he said. I wondered, Is that good or bad? I guess for a Tuesday night, that’s pretty good.

I paid for my ticket and met my old friend Ken, the guy who takes my ticket when I walk in. I always ask Ken what he thinks of the movie I’m about to see. I’ve learned to trust Ken’s judgment. This time Ken said, “I’m not much into zombie movies, but in this one they look pretty good.” That’s when I realized what I had gotten myself into. That’s when it hit me that World War Z is about zombies . . . and the world, of course. I felt stupid. What else could the ‘Z’ stand for? But I might be forgiven. Check out the movie poster. Doesn’t it bring to mind the Zorro series, this time with a faint hint of apocalyptic doom?

Usually, I don’t wait in line to see a zombie movie. In fact, if you’ll pardon the allusion, I generally avoid them like the plague. But I had paid for a ticket. And Ken had said about this movie that the zombies “look pretty good.” I had to satisfy my curiosity. What do good-looking zombies look like? Is this a movie my wife would approve of?

For those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s a spoiler alert: Ken must have meant something else by zombies that “look pretty good.”

For the record, the zombies I know (remember, I’m a university professor) don’t look or act anything like the ones in this movie. My zombies are rather subdued, almost motionless. If you tripped over them in a dark alley, you still might not know they were there. By comparison, I must say, the zombies in this movie are pretty amped up. And you certainly would never want to meet them in a dark alley. (I wonder what it would be like if these zombies and my zombies were to meet?)

I did learn something from this movie, apart from the intended message narrated at the end. If an encounter with a zombie doesn’t make your teeth chatter, hearing his teeth chatter will make you laugh. That’s how it affected 9 out of 11 people in the theater. (Silly me, there were other times when I could not restrain a mild chuckle, even when no one else appeared to be in such good humor.)

I have an obligation to tell you there are things about this movie that simply aren’t believable.

  • Israel’s Mossad figures out before anyone else in the world how to protect themselves from zombies, but they don’t know the effect that loud, screechy microphones would have on them? Come on, people! The Mossad are better than that.
  • Can you really hear the teeth of a zombie chatter through plexiglass that is so substantial that even the zombie can’t break through it? Give me a break!
  • Are we supposed to believe that an envoy from the United Nations is the best candidate for staving off the complete annihilation of humanity? I’d trust any neighbor in my cup-de-sac over the U.N. boys and girls. (Remember Benghazi and Susan Rice?)

These things just don’t add up. Fortunately, the movie’s realism is salvaged by the general plot: Savage zombies ravage the world, quickly turning the un-undead into the undead, and there’s a bona fide solution to the problem that is discovered by Brad Pitt—and just in time.

That’s the reassuring message of the film.

Or not.

But I can’t spoil the movie for you by revealing what the narrator says at the end.

If that doesn’t get you to go see this movie, then I guess nothing will.

And Then There Were None: A Film Discussion Guide

And Then There Were None (USA, 1945), directed by René Clair, is the original film adaptation of the famed Agatha Christie novel. The novel is the best-selling mystery thriller of all time and one of the top 10 best-sellers among all books in English. The film is popular, too, on IMDb and Amazon.

Discussion Guide: Read more of this post

No Joke—Morality Matters

My daughter and I planned to see The Dark Knight together. One of my movie buddies, who saw it earlier this week, said I should spend the time some other way because the film was average, at best. Naturally, I had to see for myself. And when my daughter asks me out on a date, how can I refuse?

I kept hearing that the movie is “very dark.” This isn’t a very enlightening summation (no pun intended). In fact, now that I’ve seen the movie, I wouldn’t say that at all.

First, Gotham City is remarkably lit up. It doesn’t have that pervasive seedy look that we naturally associate with the City. It looks like a normal American metropolis—present-day New York, in fact. Doesn’t the director know that Batman movies of the past have uniformly rendered Gotham City gothically? Of course he does. So maybe there’s a message there: a bright and bustling city on the brink of moral chaos . . . . Hmm.

Is city-wide chaos really imminent? The citizens think so; the Joker hopes so. And by the end of the movie there is quite a mess to clean up. The demolition of the General Hospital, the disarray of the police force, panic in the streets, mangled vehicles piled everywhere, the involuted character of the District Attorney, are all powerful symbols of disintegration. Teetering on the brink, however, a deeper truth about Gotham’s citizens is brought to light.

Isn’t that what the Joker believed, that in those final moments, with life in the balance, a person’s true character is revealed?

The Joker’s mind is supposed to be completely inscrutable because there quite literally is no method in his madness. This is how he wants to be known, and this is how he is regarded. He has an appallingly distorted view of the world. We can agree that his childhood experiences contribute significantly to his twisted perspective. He seems genuinely unable to resist his urge to injure others. He is, we imagine, driven by some unintelligible motive. But for all that, the Joker is a calculating individual, with a conception of humanity and our shared moral impulses.

The Joker’s worldview is dark. It is repugnant. But it is not representative. He reasons that the good conduct of individuals in an ordered society is an illusion. There is no goodness, deep down. All people are fundamentally self-interested. The Joker is so sure of this that he fully expects one group of passengers on one ferry to blow up the ferry loaded with other passengers. It doesn’t matter which group prevails, the group of ordinary citizens or the group of convicts. In their heart of hearts, they do not differ. And though they deliberate about saving their own skin at the expense of the others, each group ultimately resists the temptation. Even the convicts, represented by a truly imposing man of criminal bearing, do the right thing. And the Joker is baffled. Batman notices this and rubs it in. It is the most effective means of wounding the Joker: demonstrating that his worldview is simply false.

The Dark Knight is not a dark film. It conveys the hopeful message that morality matters, and that it is within reach. It also reflects the possibility of self-inflicted character deformation. The Joker is not altogether mistaken when he says, “I’m not a monster—I’m just ahead of the curve.” His sinister behavior is the result of habit, fueled by an obsession with his own injuries. He plays the hand he’s been dealt in life with clownish charades of “chance” behavior. His life is tragic, but he is a responsible agent in a morally significant arena.

Unfortunately, the film makes no attempt to explain why morality matters. Being good appears to be a purely secular value. As such, it dangles in suspended animation, rather like the Joker himself, whose fate remains a mystery at the close of The Dark Knight.

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