Book vs movie: World War Z

It was nearly an impossible book to film, but they filmed it anyway.

There’s only one book that comes to mind as a successful movie adaptation (though I’m sure there are tons of others), and that’s The Hunger Games.

Zombie thriller World War Z by Max Brooks was a mega-successful book.

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World War Z the movie, produced by Brad Pitt, was a moderately successful movie.

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Both are vastly different beasts, and the adaptation didn’t quite make the Hunger Games standard.

To be fair, the book is nearly unfilmable as written. It’s told in the style of The Good War, an oral history of World War II by Studs Terkel. World War Z (book) is written after a global zombie pandemic/attack/war. It’s narrator is a UN rep who is compiling reports on the war from around the globe. In a neat literary trick, while the narrator appears in every chapter — he actually interviews the survivors — we never even know his name, or much else about him. This allows the focus to be on the individual stories throughout the book.

And the stories are gripping. We hear from normal folks who have to bury their pain to soldiers who relay harrowing tales of near death to higher-ups who reflect on the war from a matter-of-fact perspective. Max Brooks excelled at writing these micro-tales that not only have genuine human drama, but combine facts on worldwide culture and geopolitics. Brooks covers nearly every facet of the global war and its aftermath, including the new world order that results. It’s fascinating to see how Russia has become a theocracy, Cuba is a capitalist powerhouse, Israel and Palestine finally live in peace, and China is a democracy.

The movie version of World War Z. goes in a different direction. The hero (Hollywood loves its heroes) is Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). He is a former UN investigator who gets caught up in the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia with his wife and daughters. After a close escape from a Newark rooftop, Lane and his family are flown to a ship, where Lane is called back to duty to help a CDC scientist search for a cure. This search takes Lane (and the viewer) to South Korea, Israel, and Wales.

The movie tried to stay true to the book in the sense that it was a global story. It was exciting to travel to those locations, even if the plot felt forced. For instance, I was unsure as to why Wales, in particular.

But while the book was one of my favorite reads, it did lack that central human character, and that’s the role that Gerry Lane served.

The movie also improved the book in its use of zombies. These were not the slow, ambling (though still menacing) zombies that we’re used to ,and which Brooks used. These zombies were lightning fast. The opening scene of Lane’s escape in the Philly streets was outstanding. The swarm happens in real time. It’s intense. There’s nothing like that in the book, though to be fair, it’s much easier to relay menace on film than in a book. And the scene with the zombie swarm scaling the wall in Jerusalem is a classic.

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Still, the movie couldn’t quite match the book in its scope. And as with most action movies, it stretched my belief nearly to the breaking point. A zombie outbreak on a plane results in a too-neat escape that could never happen in real life. Also, in the movie, the Israelis survived because they spotted the threat before any other country and walled themselves off. Yet they didn’t realize that noise would attract the zombies? The movie turned one of the most hopeful parts of the book — a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace — into a tragedy.

In short, there were too many harrowing escapes for Pitt, and the last act in Wales nearly put me to sleep.

My recommendation — read the book if nothing else. Then see the movie, at the very least for it’s amazing visual effects. I hear there are sequels to the movie planned. Hopefully they figure out how to add more of the book’s heart.

Blurred lines – Zombie edition

Zombies through the ages have morphed, and they continue to do so.

The Hollywood Reporter has this cool slideshow on their website that takes us through decades of zombies in film. It starts with a 1932 movie titled White Zombie. But they weren’t zombies as we know it — they were simply people who were entranced.

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The years that followed gave us more voodoo zombies, then on to George Romero’s iconic undead slow walkers — to the brain-eaters, up to today’s version — the viral walkers.

I have a soft spot for Romero’s zombies, especially the ones in Night of the Living Dead – they were my first, and I’ll always love their menacing ambling. Plus, there was something about the black and white of the movie that kept the creep factor high.

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But I’m really digging the later versions as well, especially the one popularized by the British movie 28 Days Later. These were zombies created from a lethal infection, still vicious but not as mysterious. These latter-day zombies thrill the science geek in me.

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So what will come next in zombie lore? Alien-induced zombieism? I can’t wait.

Helix spins a tantalizing, twisted tale

The SyFy Channel’s latest original series Helix, which airs Friday nights in the US, is turning out to be a multilayered labyrinth of a show.

When SyFy first began promoting Helix, I was captivated by the (literally) mind-blowing poster.Since then, I tried toHelix- 1 unravel what exactly it was about. Zombies? Scientific procedural? Lost-style isolation tale?

Several episodes in, I’m still not sure exactly what this science-heavy show all about, and that’s half the fun.

To recap the set-up, a team of CDC scientists is flown in to a Helix - Season 1remote Arctic lab to contain a mysterious viral outbreak. Once there, they are trapped. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) is the lead scientist, and his brother Peter is one of the Arctic lab’s scientists, who also happens to be infected. Alan Farragut’s team includes his ex-wife Julia Walker, who had an affair with Peter. Soapy and confusing. Luckily this aspect of the story has taken a backburner as the plot churns on.

The series is getting a lot right.

–We know the outbreak was engineered by lab head Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuke Sanada, a Lost alum), but we’re not sure what exactly it is, or why it was created.

–The writers on Helix aren’t afraid to play rough with the characters. No one is safe. Farragut and Hatake isolated scores of researchers they suspected were infected, giving them essentially a death sentence.

–Major characters are also at risk. I was shocked what happened to Doreen Boyle, a member of Farragut’s team. Likewise, big bad Constance Sutton (played by Star Trek: Voyager‘s Teri Ryan) proved less threatening in the end than she seemed. (And I loved the scene of her filing her own teeth down. Why??).

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–Julia Walker, Farragut’s ex-wife, could have been an annoying distraction. Instead she’s become fascinating. Infected by the virus, then mysteriously “cured” by Hatake, Helix eyesshe’s revealed depth and determination. Adding to the mystery – is she really Hatake’s daughter? And what exactly has she become?

–One of my favorite characters on Helix is Major Sergio Ballaseros (Mark Ghanime). He’s duplicitous, murderous, and maybe even a touch remorseful. It’s a great portrayal of a mostly bad, complex character.Helix - Season 1

–Likewise, Hatake isn’t quite the villain he seemed. He reminds me of Lost‘s Ben Linus – a flawed man for whom the ends justify the means. His motivation is still unknown. It’s compelling to watch.

Another interesting aspect of the show is technical: the editing and the music. The scenes often seem a little off. They cut away too early, or they come in and out of focus, which keeps you slightly disoriented. It’s hard to understand without watching it;  this article at TV.com explains it better than I can. And the music choices, well, just watch the opening credits, with the 1960s bossa nova soundtrack.

I’ve referenced Lost a few times. That’s because Helix is similar to Lost in key ways. The mysteries unfold gradually, and the layers are onion-like. Character motivation is always in question, and the isolation heightens the drama. While it doesn’t have the emotional impact that Lost had, Helix is proving to be a fun addition to the sci-fi universe.

Helix: so much for zombies

Helix is Lost meets 28 Days Later with a little CSI thrown in. I’m in.

I was skeptical after seeing the previews. It seemed as if SyFy was trying to craft a CSI-style drama by grafting some vague sci-fi elements. The 15-minute preview wasn’t exactly encouraging. It relied heavily on a complicated backstory exposition involving lead Alan Farragut, his infected brother Peter, and his ex-wife Julia Walker (who became his ex because of Peter). Too soapy.

But… the premiere and the following episode delivered more than I expected.

The basics: Helix, which airs in the US on SyFy Friday nights, follows CDC scientists who travel to a remote Arctic lab to contain and identify a mysterious viral outbreak. This being TV, not everything is what it seems, and you never know the true identities/loyalties of the characters.

The big question: is this about zombies? Well, not in the dead-then-brought-back-to-life-to-eat-brains sense. Instead, think 28 Days Later, the great British horror flick (that also featured Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston). In Helix, as in 28 Days Later, the “zombies” are people who have been infected with some sort of pathogen. It doesn’t kill them. Instead, it makes them not quite themselves, as well as violent, aggressive, quick. There’s more, of course, which we’ll understand as the show goes on.

As for the rest of it, the soapy aspect that showed up in the first 15 minutes was quickly quarantined as subtext. After 3 hours of Helix, we’re already on Day 3. There simply isn’t enough time in the story for that type of boring drama. Good move by the writers.

The characters: We’ve got some complexity here, which is a requirement in books but seems to be optional in film and TV. The villain is nearly mustache twirling (and something else too…), but there are plenty of characters in Helix who are not as good (or bad) as they seem.

The setting: An undetermined number of people are trapped in an isolated, mysterious location. Sounds like Lost. I loved Lost, mainly because the writers focused on character. The writers of Helix have incorporated many of the best elements of Lost: the claustrophobic isolated location, unknown motives, mystery upon mystery. Let’s hope they don’t bog it down with crazy mythology too.

Bottom line: I’m hooked. Helix is fast paced, intriguing, and geeky enough to appeal to my science side. I raised an eyebrow at the angry black woman trope in one scene, but I’ll give them a pass on that one. Watch and enjoy.

 

Helix: sci-fi or scientific procedural?

If the first 15 minutes are anything to go by, with their new series Helix, SyFy is trying to blend the procedural with science fiction.

Zombies? Not zombies? Hard to tell based on the previews released by SyFy. Here’s what we know for sure:

–It follows a group of CDC officials who travel to a clandestine Arctic lab following reports of an outbreak

–The pathogen is a retrovirus (maybe)

–The side effects are black blood and enhanced strength (maybe)

–The side effects may have been intentional

–It was developed by Ronald D. Moore, the genius who tortured us with Battlestar Galactica

As far as the characters, the preview that SyFy has up throws a good chunk of expository back story at us, including a broken marriage. Conveniently the lead, Alan Farragut, is not only the ex-husband of fellow scientist Julia Walker, he is also the brother of infectee Peter Farragut (who slept with Julia). Kind of soapy. Hopefully that won’t be the focus.

And, it seems to be a sort of CSI: Arctic Circle, with a crack team of scientists battling a mystery illness (or is it a crime?).

So based on what little is out there, it’s hard to tell what the hell is going on. But, if the reviewers at io9.com are right (and they’ve screened the entire pilot), Helix marks a strong return of the dark horror to SyFy. In fact, they call it SyFy’s best new show in years. Then again SyFy has produced very little worth watching in years.

Helix: more zombies coming to television?

Previews are cryptic, but it’s from Battlestar Galactica‘s Ron Moore, so who knows?

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SyFy is promoting their new show Helix, set to air in January. It’s about a team of scientists fighting a viral outbreak in an Arctic research facility. This virus, from what I can tell, turns people into faster and stronger zombie-like creatures.

But aren’t zombies overdone? What’s left to do with them?

The promo for Helix focuses on the scientific process. Um, okay. Then what?

The good (or bad) news is that it’s exec produced by Ron Moore, the genius who resurrected Battlestar Galactica and then steered it into a wonderful mess by the time it ended after four seasons. Where will he take Helix? Based on his track record with BSG, it’s anyone’s guess.

Hell, he might not even know for sure.

I’ll give it a shot.

Zombies on Mars?

(Hint: Doctor Who did it first, and possibly better)

I’ll hold judgment on a movie I haven’t seen, but if this report from io9.com is true, a new horror/sci-fi mash-up is a space disaster.

It’s called The Last Days on Mars — great title, btw — and it’s about a group of astronauts about to leave Mars who discover bacteria that turns them into zombies. Okay, interesting set-up. And it stars Liev Schreiber. Encouraging.

But if the io9.com write-up is to be believed, they fail on two big counts.

First, character. The article describes the crew as “eclectically unlikeable.” Uh oh.

Second, consistency. To quote:

“The space zombies can walk around Mars without a helmet on, but sometimes mild head-butting takes them out. The space zombies don’t seem to want anything but to kill everybody, although there is one lone space zombie who decides to try eating people, but maybe he was just feeling peckish.”

I’ll wait for it to come on Spike TV.

And for the record, Doctor Who already did something similar. It was a special called The Waters of Mars, and it was scary, smart, and had characters you actually liked (though the zombies looked just a little cheesy). Watch that instead if you have a craving for zombies and Mars.