Film Review: World War Z

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With their tanks and their bombs and their bombs and their guns…

Warning: This review discusses the plot, including the film’s ending

Essentially there are two iterations of movie zombie, the George A. Romero swaying, snail-paced automaton that doesn’t pose a threat to anyone in reasonable shape and the infected of 28 Days Later; savage, fast, psychotic – predators you can believe in.

World War Z showcases the second. There’s a global conflict to deliver and human kind isn’t going to buckle from a pandemic of slow moving brain connoisseurs. The problem is that Marc Forster’s film is a summer tentpole with a blockbuster price tag. It must snap to fit a teen friendly rating – an obnoxious (and now all too common) example of demographics informing content. Consequently this sanitised pandemic can’t hope to offer the kind of brutality that Danny Boyle achieved in his Zombie reinvention. This is a shame because these are the kind of demented undead a World War requires.

Here they’re toned down lest they fall foul of the censor. They’re permitted to headbutt the odd window, like Hitchcock’s similarly out of control birds, they form unnatural ant-like towers, trying to breach walled defences, and advance in bug-like swarms but they’re never the visceral, violent threat that Boyle inflicted on the British. Given these constraints it might have been better if Forster had adopted Romero’s living dead. You could work with them on a bloodless takeover and you’d even have the option of substituting threat for satire.

Instead of frequent notes in the margin about how our much hyped civilisation, the envy of other planets, responds to being overwhelmed by ravenous monsters, we have UN troubleshooter Brad Pitt, never a hair out of place, circumnavigating the globe, looking for clues to a cure. The early portion of the film, set in Philadelphia but filmed in Glasgow to save on makeup and crowd control costs, annotates the slaughter with a few well-chosen asides; a beat cop more concerned for himself than arresting Pitt for murder, a hoody who hands over asthma medication for Brad’s sick daughter. The message is clear enough; as Rome burns you find out what people are made of and the best of us aren’t the ones you might expect, but that’s as close as we get to any account of the war’s social impact. The rest is an inanimate, sometimes subdued Pitt on his travels, running from the diseased hoards. It’s a non-stimulating investigation that threatens to turn World War Z into World War Zzzzzzzzz.

Forster’s got a good eye and gives a sense of scale to proceedings, particularly in Jerusalem, where the crazed infected are photographed from above, bug-like, but he can’t deliver original thrills. We’ve seen this or something like it so many times before that any sense of shock immediately dissipates. Despite its $200m price tag, the very thing that might have made it distinctive – grand, set piece Zombie attacks – is lacking, particularly in a low-key and underwhelming third act set in, and I’m not making this up, a Welsh health clinic (an act reshot in its entirety, making the original more of a curiosity than the film itself). Consequently a film that cost about as much to produce as Man of Steel culminates in Brad Pitt walking along a corridor, having broken a vending machine. It’s a heart stopping denouement that’s words can’t adequately convey.

Had Brad’s investigation being more labyrinthine, more complicated, perhaps this would have been a genuine fresh twist on a well-worn genre. Instead Pitt makes progress based upon a couple of conversations and some lucky observations. There’s no sense he’s had to work particularly hard to yield this information, nor that he required a special skill set to do it. In fact, our suspicions that Pitt’s nous is wanting are confirmed more than once – he gets drops of Zombie blood in his mouth, doesn’t turn but doesn’t think to report it in case it may be medically significant; he’s so desperate to kill Zombies that he throws a grenade on a aircraft, causing it to crash, but having survived that it doesn’t occur to him to kill the Zombie that also survived. Is this man truly our best hope or have the better UN investigators been killed? It’s a question neither asked nor answered.

As Pitt’s quest runs its course we’re reminded that disease flicks needn’t be derivative or uninspired. David Morse features as a toothless traitor in a South Korean holding cell. Once upon a time Morse and Pitt were suspects in another global pandemic, the viral genocide of 12 Monkeys. Visual imagination, intrigue, a surprising conclusion – we were doomed yet entertained. There was even a grab bag of jokes in that apocalypse. Those were the dying days.

Directed by: Mark Forster

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 116 mins

Certificate: 15 for John Gordon Sinclair cast as a Navy Seal Commander, Peter Capaldi and frequent running.

5 Responses

  1. DB says:

    I can’t agree. First of all, there’s no reason to make his quest more labyrinthine. And there’s no reason what happened required more than a few observations and some luck. The reason I say this is because he FAILED in his quest. The quest was to find patient zero so they could develop a cure for the infection. Pitt’s character failed to do that, so he improvised a plan B to hide the survivors from the zombies.

    There are common sense explanations for the questions you raise. By the time he’s in a position to report the blood in his mouth to anyone, there’s no reason to. Everyone else he saw turned after just moments, but he didn’t turn. With the world crumbling all around him, that’s pretty much any of us would need to know. Maybe it’ll shorten his life by a few years, maybe it’ll give him pancreatic cancer or something down the road, but this really wasn’t the time to worry about all that.

    Why didn’t he kill that surviving zombie? Why should he? The planet’s full of zombies at this point. Over 5 or 6 billion or so, according to the projections he saw on that ship; so what difference would one less zombie make? If you were desperately trying to get to a destination because you thought that you, alone, might be able to save the human race, would you really waste time – and take the risk of – wading through airplane wreckage (where there may be more hidden zombie survivors) to kill one buckled-in zombie?

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      One reason to make his quest more labyrinthine would be to make it interesting for the audience; give us something to unpick, instead of accompanying Pitt on a couple of short interviews.

      If those are the common sense answers, it proves what they say about common sense. Why should Pitt report that he got blood in his mouth and didn’t turn? Well, one reason might be that the world in the midst of a devastating outbreak of an unknown virus. Anyone who shows immunity to that virus might be medically significant, especially when said contagion is destroying human civilisation. It would be ironic if Pitt’s own body contained the cure but billions died because he forgot to mention he was unaffected once he hooked up with the proper authorities. He might have saved himself a trip around the dangerous world, but yeah, why think about that? Why would a cure or anything out of the ordinary be on the mind of the man charged with finding a cure? I stand corrected.

      As for the Zombie that survived, well Pitt didn’t share your blasé take on the size of the problem when he BLEW UP HIS FUCKING PLANE. When he threw his grenade it’s likely that he weighed up the possibility that his slim chance of survival was worth the risk of killing both the infected and healthy passengers. He certainly didn’t just sit there and say, ‘well, the world’s overun – fuck it’. Why kill the Zombie? Perhaps because you’re in the middle of an area that’s apparently Zombie-lite and you’d like to keep it that way. The pilot certainly thought it was a good place to land because a) he was going to land there and b) he told his passengers that they were all “very lucky”. That suggests to me that Wales hadn’t seen the worst of it. So if you know that and you’re prepared to destroy your plane in mid-air to keep it that way, why risk a survivor cutting loose and killing everyone? It’s trapped after all. Just go over and kill it. You were prepared to blow it up 5 mins earlier, NOW you can’t be fucked? What if that Zombie later frees itself, perhaps by chance hitting its belt buckle and goes on the rampage, infecting families and leading to the loss of Wales? Seems like a bit of a risk when you can just wander over there and beat it to death with a sliver of wreckage. Me? I’d take 30 seconds out from an already ruined day and finish the job.

      • DB says:

        I can tell you’re angry that someone disagrees with you, but get a grip. Pitt didn’t “blow up his fucking plane” to keep Wales zombie-free, he “blew up his fucking plane” because his LIFE depended on it. His life did not depend on crossing the wreckage afterward to kill one more zombie. The movie had already shown us over and over again that he wasn’t interested in saving every person or every town he passed through. He had bigger fish to fry.

        You? You would take 30 seconds out of your day to cross the wreckage in order to kill the zombie, while every thinking person sitting in the theater watching you would be saying “there might be more zombies in there you idiot!”

        • Ed Whitfield says:

          I think we can just quietly forget about my incandescent rage and need to get a grip and accept that tone of voice doesn’t always get picked up.

          Would ‘fuckin’ plane’ have been more palatable?

          I’m still going to give Brad a bit of credit here, not that he deserves it, and think that a man who’s been stationed in war zones and seen the ravaging effects of conflict and disease doesn’t have the brutally pragmatic attitude toward his mission that you suggest. I think he’s fundamentally a humanitarian – being a UN staffer and a family man. After all, he severed that soldier’s hand – he could have just cleaved her head in two. I’d have cleaved her head in two. I KNOW you’d have cleaved her head in two. Oh yes, and he adopted a boy he’d known for one night. I think Brad’s interested in people, so yes he wanted and needed to survive the crash but I think saving people where possible would always have been at the forefront of his mind. This is why leaving that Zombie doesn’t make any sense to me. You say, why bother? I say, because not bothering risks further contagion and this is an area that’s apparently, far as he know at this point, disease free. So while you thinking people would just trot on and leave that walking viral load unchecked, unthinking people like me would kill it to be on the safe side. Had Brad done that it would have been consistent with everything he’d done in the movie up to that point but perhaps you’re right, maybe it just didn’t occur to him – you know, like when he ingested the blood and stayed healthy but didn’t think to tell anyone. Mistakes happen. Few of think clearly having survived a plane crash we caused. War is hell.

  2. Bob says:

    Yeah Brad’s plot armor seemed about as thick as Batmans, anytime he punches above his weight against metahumans. Apart from being bloodless, nonesensical “get to da choppa” drivel, many of the scenes seemed derivative of other zombie films. The plane scene taken from “plane dead”. The stairwell in the apartment from “28 days later”. The agile zombies from “I am legend” etc.