Seemingly one of the hardest things to get right in a movie is sticking the landing. All the cinematic fireworks in the world don’t matter if you finish off the show with a damp sparkler. And yet summer after summer we see these big action blockbusters end on a down note, having already spent their big set pieces earlier in the film. Even as tremendous a talent as Steven Spielberg falls victim to it occasionally (Jurassic Park, for example, doesn’t end so much as stop). It feels as if all the effort went into big flashy moments that can go into a trailer and lure the audience into the theater for a big opening weekend. Who cares if they get a proper ending? Their money’s already spent. Well, the two films I saw today demonstrate just how big a difference an appropriately grand final act can make: it’s the difference between walking out of the theater with a spring in your step or with a shrug.
It doesn’t hurt that White House Down cranks up one of my favorite songs ever — “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones — just as the credits get ready to roll. But by that point, it’s been a textbook example of how your wrap up a big-budget summer action film. Stakes nicely built to an appropriately threatening final gambit? Check. Villains dispatched in satisfying dramatic ways? Check. Crowd-pleasing call-backs to character beats from earlier in the film? Check. If it’s all not exactly original, it’s still expertly constructed and executed so that you don’t care that the formula is showing. Director Roland Emmerich has always been able to do spectacle, but here he has his most undeniably likeable cast since Independence Day. Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx have great chemistry, as does Tatum and his on-screen daughter Joey King, and all three get great cheer-worthy hero moments. Of course there’s not a ton of depth here, but who cares? It’s a pitch-perfect action extravaganza. As for the comparisons to its predecessor, Olympus Has Fallen, that film was the girl who’s fun to date a couple of times, but you can’t see it going anywhere. White House Down is relationship material, the best Die Hard movie since Die Hard with a Vengeance, and easily my favorite movie of the summer so far. So of course, it’s getting clobbered by Monsters University and The Heat.
World War Z, on the other hand, while still a pretty enjoyable film, strangely gets smaller as it goes on. For the first two-thirds of its running time, it’s a sprawling, global zombie epic on a scale we really haven’t seen before. Director Mark Forster gives us grand sweeping shots of battle-scarred cities, with hordes of zombies racing after fleeing civilians. There’s a real sense of dread as things completely fall apart — always the best part of any kind of apocalyptic story — and we’re kept at ground-level for most of the early scenes, just as in the dark as Brad Pitt and his family. We’re even treated to a zombie film where everyone knows they’re zombies, rather than the usual route of no one having ever heard of the dead rising before. All of this seems to promise an epic conclusion, but strangely, the film goes small in its last act, with the action confined to a World Health Organization facility in Wales. And it’s a good, tense sequence, with Pitt and his companions having to silently elude a mass of zombies in their way. But it’s a conclusion that seems more suited to a more low-key story set entirely in this facility rather than the globetrotting adventure we’ve seen up to that point. Apparently, a grander conclusion was planned, but scrapped at the last minute in favor of this. There are hints of this in the ending of the film (essentially Pitt narrating a set-up for sequel over scenes of humans rising up against the zombies), tantalizing glimpses of the rousing conclusion this film seemed to promise. As it is, it’s two-thirds of one great film and one-third of another. The parts just don’t mesh all that well.
So while I practically danced out of the theater after White House Down and couldn’t wait to enthuse about it, I just gave World War Z a satisfied nod. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, but you don’t get a second chance at a final one either, and sending the audience off on a high note (like Barbosa’s return at the end of Dead Man’s Chest) is the difference between gotta-see-it word of mouth and, “Yeah, it wasn’t bad.” White House Down wins this one going away.
Cue Mick and Keith and the boys: