2009 was a really good year at the multiplex for movies that would have made amazing pilots for television shows. Chief amongst these was J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, which, in addition to being nearly identical to a J. Michael Strazynski pitch from a few years earlier, made you just want to stick around and see what adventures the Enterprise crew would go on next. A few eventually did: Black Dynamite, for one, and Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen TV show may owe a bit to Zack Snyder’s straight adaptation (though given how closely it hued to the comic’s style, those influences can be easily waved away). Yet films like Push (the sci-fi one, not Precious), Ninja Assassin, Funny People and others felt like they were just a little bit too far ahead of the peak-TV curve to really capitalize on it, and you can see their echoes in the current landscape (Alphas, Into the Badlands, any HBO show about a failed or floundering comic). But it’s safe to say that Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland was perhaps the most easily-achievable at the time in terms of concept and budget: It anticipated a huge wave of zombie-related media that was soon to follow, and it was made on the cheap, with a great young cast and a (relatively) smart script by two up-and-coming writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. And they tried, of course, but they failed, and it’s taken them ten years to make a follow-up feature.
Unless you’ve spent the last decade trapped inside of a board game, you’re probably aware that it’s 2019, and a whole lot has changed since zombie-hungry audiences shelled out over $100 million dollars to see Fleischer’s film. Presidents have come and gone, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the cinema by the balls, and we’ve pretty much descended into full-on self-parody as a culture. More importantly for Zombieland fans, the Zombie wave has long-since crested, and is currently in the process of receding back into the Horror ocean. George Romero has sadly passed on; The Walking Dead, once the crown jewel of AMC’s line-up, is falling into irrelevance and the long-running comic it’s based on unexpectedly ended; and fewer and fewer “zombie” films are making their way into cinemas, even as the overall horror genre has never been healthier. That’s doubly true for the original’s cast and crew: Every member of the ensemble has moved onto better and bigger things — after all, Emma Stone won an Oscar in the interim — and the director and writers have made hundreds of millions of dollars working in the Superhero genre. This is, of course, a very long-winded way to say that Zombieland: Double Tap is way too little, way too late, and like a smart third-grader who keeps failing tests because they won’t do the homework, it’s just so disappointing to see the sheer laziness on display here from all parties.
You might be surprised to know that Zombieland: Double Tap does acknowledge that some time has passed since our central band of misfits — nerdy Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), macho Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), sarcastic Wichita (Emma Stone) and, uh, child Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) — formed a pseudo-family unit in the wake of the Zombie Apocalypse. Little Rock’s grown up, and the foursome, while still kicking ass and blowing brains out of rotting skulls, has settled down in the interim at the abandoned White House, which they’ve turned into a makeshift home. But Little Rock and Wichita are chafing under the overbearing men in their life — Tallahassee seems to think of his surrogate daughter in the same patronizing way he did when she was a kid, and Wichita is afraid of being trapped by potentially marrying Columbus (who proposes to her in an early scene using the Hope Diamond) — and so the two split, heading out on the road, leaving only a brief note explaining where they’ve gone. A month later, Wichita returns, explaining to the two men that Little Rock stole the car they were traveling in so that she could elope with her “boyfriend” Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a pretentious hippie who the teen falls head-over-heels for. But it seems that Columbus has moved on in the interim, having hooked up with the ditzy Madison (Zoey Deutch) mere minutes before his old flame showed up. So, the foursome embark on a journey in an old minivan to find Little Rock, who has holed up in a hippie commune near Graceland called Babylon.
There’s a solid chance that, had Zombieland: Double Tap come out back in 2011 or so, this review might have been more positive and forgiving. Had it been a two-or-three episode arc on a sitcom version of the film, it might have been even more so, knowing that more may have been around the corner to wash the taste of a mediocre run of installments out of one’s mouth. But that’s not what happened: We waited a decade for this film! Every single aspect of this movie feels half-assed. The cast look like they wish they were anywhere else, especially Stone, who perhaps figured that she was somewhat free of franchises in the aftermath of her Oscar win and subsequent additional nominations. Harrelson’s manic energy doesn’t have the writing to support it anymore, and Eisenberg’s arc is totally stagnant: he begins and ends the film in the exact same way emotionally. Only Deutch seems to be awake here, and she does her best to liven things up (she has one very solid moment of physical comedy involving a nut allergy), but she’s only one person. And the cameos are just the worst. Stay for the credits if you have to, but god forbid, just don’t sully the solid surprises of the original if you really need to use the bathroom.
Most of these issues can be blamed on the script, which ladles on flavorless jokes and refuses to acknowledge, aside from a single gag about ridesharing, what might have been it’s greatest asset: the vast gulf between the original film’s culturally stagnant setting and sensibilities and the modern world. Instead, it retreats into easy, friendlier territory: Elvis jokes, doppelgänger gags (Hey, did you know that the guy from Silicon Valley looks kind of like Jesse Eisenberg?) and plenty of plainly unfunny goofs about hippies that would have been outdated and hacky in 1971. Worse, it’s hard not to hear bits and pieces of Ryan Reynolds’ delivery in Eisenberg’s monologue, and it feels as if Reese and Wernick can’t separate themselves from the Deadpool style anymore. Fleischer even feels asleep at the wheel, which is a bummer, given how he’d seemed to expand his powers as a comic filmmaker last year in the incredibly underrated Venom, and the things that once brought him such joy — elaborately violent visual comedy, and the exaggerated reactions of his performers — are rendered lifeless here. Even a “Master of Puppets” needle-drop — echoing the original’s use of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — during the opening action sequence can’t revive him, which is about as damning as you can get here. Sometimes, as Zombieland: Double Tap reminds us, it’s best to let starving zombies lie.