Is anyone doing better than we are?
Loosely based on the book of the same name by Max Brooks (go buy), World War Z is a zombie apocalypse thriller directed by Mark Forster, starring Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane (rubbish name), a former UN investigator who’s tasked with finding a cure for the outbreak.
In truth World War Z could have had any title apart from the one it shares with its literary cousin. Compared to Brooks’ book, it bares little in resemblance whether it’s content, characters or plot. Where the book told stories from several perspectives after the fact, Z reduces it to one and tells it as the conflict unfolds. To call the antagonists in this film zombies is also something of a misnomer. They’re infected in a similar manner to ‘zombies’ in 28 Days Later, or Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake; a bite turns people rabid, and grants them Usain Bolt-like pace and a predilection for biting people’s necks.
Despite the film’s much publicised production troubles (apparently Pitt and Forster fell out on set), and huge rewrites by both Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) and Damon Lindelof (Prometheus), the resulting film is not a disaster. It shows signs of cracks beneath the surface but it’s a surprisingly competent and enjoyable film.
The opening credits set a familiar tone, too familiar in fact, with flashes of news reports about a virus spliced with images of rabid animals attacking each other. It recalls I Am Legend, Snyder’s Dead reboot and Contagion and has an effect of making Z somewhat derivative – a feeling that deadens the first few minutes.
Matters aren’t helped by an opening scene of domestic bliss involving Pitt and his family that presents a saccharine, superficial slice of Americana we’ve seen so many times that it’s frankly dull. Thankfully things kick into gear with a chaotic sequence in Philadelphia as the infected swarm the streets (although I’ll never understand why the buildings are on fire). After this point the film gradually finds its groove and becomes a travelogue, showing how various countries have ‘adapted’ to the current situation.
The idea that this is a global conflict is one of few aspects that remains intact from the book. Zombie films usually focus on a small group; Z is drawn on bigger canvas as the whole world is suffocated by a horde of the undead. One memorable little moment is had when Lane flies from one location to another and a nuclear bomb goes off in the background. It’s sudden and unexpected, but a reminder of society’s rapid implosion.
Changes from the novel make Z light on character and heavy on action. These undead don’t shuffle, they sprint. Loud noises attract a horde and the infected use their own bodies as links in a chain to build bridges like ants. It looks spectacular, a sequence in Israel brings to mind an infestation, although the use of CG-assisted ‘zombies’ detract from the supposed ‘reality’.
Emotionally it lacks engagement, with Forster never really presenting a sense of danger or feeling that things could go wrong for the main character. Despite the world ending the sense that Gerry or his family could be in trouble is never felt. Characters die but you barely know them. It’s a good thing then, that the film never stays in one place for too long before its on the move.
The best sequence takes place in – of all places – Wales. It’s here the film returns the traditional trappings of the genre, having characters evade the infected in a confined medical facility. It’s old-fashioned stuff that rubs up against the big budget CG spectacle that came before. As a whole Z doesn’t surprise or bring much that’s new, but it gets the job done.