Did Damon Lindelof save the World War Z movie?

Was the third act surgery that Damon Lindelof instigated on World War Z what turned the film around?

This article contains spoilers for World War Z, and should not be read before you’ve seen the film.

It’s become something of a sport and pastime in some circles to heavily criticise Damon Lindelof. Granted, let’s just say that moments of Prometheus and the Lost finale open up a degree of debate, but even so, when it was announced that he was getting involved in the World War Z movie, the reaction in some places, bordered on poisonous.

To be fair, the circumstances of Lindelof getting involved didn’t help. World War Z was a movie, at that stage, reported to be in some degree of trouble. Furthermore, it was then revealed that Lindelof had suggested a wholesale retooling of the film’s final act, which involved ditching one already expensively shot sequence from the movie and completely changing how it ended. It also involved shooting around twenty minutes of new footage, all of this some six or seven months before release. Throw in the fact that it was all Damon Lindelof’s idea to do this, it seems, and it was if nerd rage pills were falling from the Twitter sky with abandon.

World War Z, even in its final cut, is a film with problems. If you went in to see it in any way expecting something close to Max Brooks’ book, then you were going to be disappointed. As Ryan pointed out in his review, what you got instead was a large-scale zombie movie, with the budget to pull out and actually see the hordes at work. It’s also more a series of barely-linked episodes than it is a film with a coherent central heart.

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However, if you could put the source material to the side, too, then World War Z is a good, solid summer movie. It’s not perfect, but for a $200m blockbuster about zombies? It’s really worth seeking out. Lots of people have, and we learn this morning that work is beginning on a sequel, off the back of an impressive box office opening weekend.

What’s more, it seems that the internet, in some quarters, may have to eat its words. World War Z is a movie that works in reverse. It starts large scale, and gradually narrows down to a smaller, more intricate and incredibly tense final act. In fact, the last twenty minutes of the film, I’d contend, are excellent. It’s when everthing’s pared down to the bare bones, and a remote centre in Wales plays host to a game of ‘creep past the zombies’. Director Marc Forster feels really at home with this quieter material too, ratcheting up the tension, adding in a good jump or two, and throwing in some random Malcolm Tucker (lord bless you, Peter Capaldi) for good measure. It turns out to be a surprisingly satisfying denouement to a movie that consistently entertains.

It’s a great deal different to the original planned ending, details of which have now appeared online. In that version, Pitt’s character, Gerry, spends a great deal of time in Moscow, eventually becoming a ruthless zombie killing expert. It’s there that he he discovers that the zombies are vulnerable to the cold, but when he finally gets to relay this message back to his wife, it turns out that she’s effectively had to trade herself for the safety of their children. She’s now with Matthew Fox’s soldier, who originally had rescued them at the start of the film (somewhat inevitably, Fox was set to have a far bigger role than the one he ended up with. He should chat to Guy Pearce about that…). Gerry then starts a huge journey back across the world to try to save his wife – and that’s where the original version of the film was going to end.

It’s a far bleaker ending, detailed in full here, and it’s one that, while interesting, was never really likely to make it to the final cut of a big blockbuster movie. That it got so close to being used is arguably testament to the star power of Brad Pitt.

The ending that World War Z eventually went with was much smaller, certainly, and it changed the way the zombies could be beaten. But did it work? Yes. And did it set up a sequel, albeit one where humans seem to have scored a few more points than they would have done in the original script? Yes it did.

In other words, maybe Damon Lindelof deserves a bit of credit here. Granted, he enlisted the not-inconsiderable talents of Drew Goddard to implement the ideas that he had to turn the movie around. Furthermore, we’ll never really know if the original ending would have worked, although it’s been broadly suggested that it wouldn’t (if Paramount is savvy about this, there’s an incredible special edition DVD and alternative cut, in the future somewhere). But the story as we had it was that Lindelof identified that the film needed a radically different final act, and he went out and got it one.

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This is, surely, one of the benefits of a schedule that builds in time for such changes. We’ve written of late about how hasty post-production appears to be lending itself it to longer films, but the delay of World War Z‘s release from December 2012 to June 2013 bought Paramount Pictures time. It used that time to identity a problem with the film, and crucially, did something about it.

The end result is a movie that feels like four or five individual chapters mashed together, but the satisfying finale – while not for the tastes of World War Z purists – is something for which Damon Lindelof and his collaborators deserve credit, not another drenching from the internet hose of hate.

So, to answer the question: did Damon Lindelof save World War Z? No, but he certainly helped. Pragmatism, a movie star and producer who genuinely cared about getting the film right, a quality director, and a lot of talented people who got the film into the final state we saw it in were key ingredients. But don’t overlook the fact that Damon Lindelof, not for the first time, appeared to be right too.

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