World War Z’s journey to the screen has been plagued with issues – a ballooning budget and a seven week re-shoot following a re-written final act – but thankfully there are few signs of such production problems and plenty to admire about Marc Forster’s (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace) high-energy film. From my understanding of Max Brooks’ novel – an oral history of a Zombie war - that inspired the film, this is something else entirely. I found it to be a frighteningly visceral portrayal of a ‘Zombie-pocalypse’ in the vein of a scientific disaster film. Moving at a frenetic pace this is a relentlessly intense experience with huge scale production. Within mere minutes we are already witnessing the ferocious outbreak. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former United Nations employee, his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and children find themselves embroiled in mob panic as a Zombie outbreak quickly spreads. They manage to escape in a camper van and make it to Newark where they are extracted by Lane’s former UN colleague and lay low in a rundown apartment block. From there Gerry is coerced into representing the UN and traverses the Globe – from South Korea, to Israel and finally to a World Health Organisation lab in Wales – in search of a means to save what is left of humanity, while his family are kept under Navy protection.
World War Z is definitely a necessary big screen experience. See it on the biggest screen you can, and preferably one with awesome sound acoustics. Forster creates a palpitating atmosphere. The giant set piece in Jerusalem, and what transpires on a flight to Cardiff are undoubtedly the film’s highlights, conveying the erratic destructiveness of the mobs. The rage-Zombies (similar to the ‘infected’ in 28 Days Later) are hardy, they sprint after their victims and sickeningly transform in a matter of seconds. The big question that runs through this film concerns how governments from disparate nations respond individually to the breakout. Stunning aerial captures of the hordes make them feel like a fast-spreading infection, seemingly immune to containment and destruction.
The film’s final act, which was re-written by Damon Lindelof (Prometheus) and then Drew Godard (Cabin in the Woods) doesn’t offer up the same level of intensity as some of the epic set pieces but makes effective use of a smaller, more tightly contained location. Forster is more interested in generating suspense here as Lane and a small band of surviving scientists infiltrate a heavily infected part of the facility in search of bacterial strains that could play a role in humanity’s future. As the Zombies have enhanced hearing, the sounds of crunching glass easily attract their attention. Our hero is isolated, facing his threats one-on-one rather than being swamped by the swarm. Forster has said that he didn’t want the film’s finale to be bigger than the preceding set pieces, and I admired this diversion from Hollywood expectations. The ending feels somewhat rushed, unfortunately, and the shooting delays no doubt affected coherence.
Pitt creates an everyman that we wholeheartedly care about. He has more interest in the safety of his family than saving the world, becoming a reluctant hero when told that a man of his position needed to be more than a passenger. With such a consistent atmosphere of fear, it was essential that the audience have someone to wholeheartedly support and Pitt’s star qualities adequately conveys this. The supporting cast members, including some curiously small cameos, are effective too.
There is endless implausibility concerning this globe-hopping affair, but World War Z remains thoroughly entertaining. Though there is a singular protagonist through-line, the film is too evidently comprised of episodes. The extravaganza of CGI and 3D will leave many viewers feeling worn out after a while too, welcoming the direction the finale takes. Also, the absence of visual gore to keep this film an accessible blockbuster is distracting on occasions, but this long-plagued project surprisingly hits the mark more often than not.
With his frightening, relentlessly intense and epic scale action set pieces Forster has forged Zombie lore with the blockbuster. While he ensures that the apocalypse feels ever threatening, by making it one man’s personal struggle it also has plenty of heart.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22