World War Z Review
Four hundred million dollars will buy you a lot: a hospital or two, a couple of planes, a fleet of yachts or – if you’re a Hollywood A-lister like Brad Pitt – a zombie blockbuster. But with reports of an on-set feud between its lead actor and director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Monster’s Ball), not to mention a ballooning budget plus several re-writes and re-shoots, the big screen adaptation of Max Brooks’ apocalyptic horror novel has been troubled ever since filming began two years ago. Under such circumstances is it any surprise that World War Z is a calamitous mess?
Having left his important but unspecified role at the UN for seemingly no apparent reason, Gerry Lane (Pitt) begins his day by taking the kids to school with wife Karen (Mireille Enos). Disaster strikes when hordes of the undead begin feasting on Philadelphia’s morning commuters, forcing Lane to hit the road with his family to find safety. To his credit, it's a rather daring and ambitious opening sequence by Forster, who controls the tension and suspense with real precision, and makes for a thrilling edge-of-your-seat opening 20 minutes.
Informed by former boss Thierry (Fana Mokoena) that most of the world’s population has become flesh-eating corpses, Gerry is coerced into finding answers and possibly a cure. Leaving his family in government protection, he visits South Korea, Israel and finally Wales, encountering swarms of zombies along the way. It’s clear that Forster revels in the spectacle of it all, with the first two-thirds dependent on CG and exaggerated set pieces that never quite engage as they intend to. The scene in which hordes of the undead attempt to breach a wall in Jerusalem by forming a human pyramid is somewhat entertaining, yet, like so many of the sequences that follow, focuses too much on sheer scale and less on the intricacies of the narrative.
The original novel, to which the finished film bears only a slight resemblance, is structured as a series of individual accounts told ten years after the fact, detailing the outbreak and the undertakings of government bureaucrats and survivalists alike. It was a sort of oral history that brought something new to the genre: a hard-hitting exposé on the way in which different cultures controlled the epidemic. This version, however, with its four credited screenwriters, opts for a simplistic approach that lends itself to enormous set pieces but not so much character or nuance. Straightforward narrative is the preferred choice, ditching satire for momentous hyperbole.
Though you may find yourself overlooking the plot holes and flimsy dialogue, the most unforgiveable flaw is a lack of indulgence in the genre. For a story that depicts the decimation of mankind, this is a staggeringly un-gory affair. Millions of the infected may litter the screen at several different instances, but their portrayal is unremarkable. Blood, for example, is recognisable only by its absence, as Forster chooses to refrain from celebrating in B-movie excesses in favour of a more spectacular depiction of the utter volume of zombified corpses. Also, the 3D is atrocious – adding nothing to the thrills and forcing the close-ups of the flesh-eaters to become confusing and especially irritating.
Gerry’s globetrotting endeavours come to a halt when a mid-air zombie attack causes his flight to crash-land minutes away from his destination in Cardiff. Though entertaining, this proves to be the extent of the CG-exuberance – the last third of the blockbuster is dreary and out of synch with the mood set throughout. Although the former UN employee tracks down a research facility to engineer a serum (which he believes will render those still healthy immune to the aggressions of the infected), it’s a cheap and unabsorbing final half-hour. Even an appearance from The Thick of It star Peter Capaldi, who plays a scientist hiding out in the laboratory, isn’t enough to kick-start the rejigged ending.
While it may rank among the more grandiose zombie movies of recent times, with a number of deftly executed and rather entertaining set pieces, World War Z is nowhere near the sort of genre-defining picture it needs to be. It’s possible that, at some point, the film contained a strong narrative thread that would have provided a welcome companion to the numerous action sequences. Ultimately, though, the inherent problems that have stifled the film’s progress are hard to forget, as they rise to the surface like the newly transformed undead.