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Film Review: World War Z

World War Z (2013; Directed by Marc Forster)

With World War Z, the zombie movie genre enters its decadent phase. Scaled inhumanly up, then down again, then up, then down again, Marc Forster’s impressive but overblown undead epic has the quiet-loud structure of a grunge rock anthem (though its pacing, oddly, kind of works) and the global scope and international scene changes of a James Bond movie, albeit a pretty slummy one: a key escape sequence early on takes place in Newark, New Jersey, the sort of place that could never exist in the Bond universe. It also deploys swarming waves of zombiefied humans, teeming, rasping masses turning their bodies into battering rams, projectiles, and all-biting mechanisms for spreading an undead virus that threatens to overrun all of uninfected mankind. The zombie outbreak reduces the lion’s share of the planet’s inhabitants to an escalating plague of locusts, swamping civilization like an insectoid infestation.

The swarm association is made palpable in the opening credits sequence, which intercuts images of masses of ants and snarling wolves with the sort of channel-surfing images of cable-news unease and uncertainty that often form the preamble of Hollywood’s current crop of apocalyptic blockbusters (this one is especially uneasy thanks to the paranoid sonic textures of Muse’s “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”; the band’s music frequently provides support for Marco Beltrami’s score). There’s just time to briefly establish the putative emotional core of World War Z (pronounce it “zed”, please, we’re Canadian) before everything falls precipitously apart. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karin (Mireille Enos), and their two young daughters eat some pancakes together and are running for their damn lives before they can even digest their breakfast.

Gerry is getting calls from a very important UN type (Fana Mokoena) immediately after giving the undead hordes the slip in a chaotic scene in quickly-overwhelmed downtown Philadelphia (think about it as a quick prequel to the snowy abandoned Philly of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys). Gerry was once a UN investigator who operated in post-genocide hot spots, which apparently makes him a badass of the highest order; right-wing One World Government conspiracy theorists among the audience will find their paranoid eyes twitching at the implications of well-armed UN commandos in their black helicopters imposing a tentative order on a collapsed world. Leaving Karin and the kids on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic that acts as a command base for the dwindling governing authorities, Gerry sets off on a heroic quest from an army base in Korea to a highly fortified Israel to a medical research facility in Wales in an effort to pinpoint the source of the undead disease, or at least to suss out a weakness to give the remnants of humankind a fighting chance against the galloping zombie Ragnarok.

Gerry flies to the isolated base in Korea, maintained by a big-stick alpha male military type (James Badge Dale), along with a hot-shot Harvard-grad epidemiologist (Elyes Gabel) on a vague rumour that the outbreak started there. He finds a couple of clues there, and the main lead directs him to Israel, where walls and well-guarded security perimetres erected to keep Palestinians out also function pretty well on the zombie hordes. The Israel scenes are the nearest World War Z ever veers to sociopolitical applicability, but neither criticism nor praise is reserved for the Israelis’ siege mentality (which fails catastrophically and ridiculously, at any rate).

Based conceptually rather than narratively on Max Brooks’ neo-epistolary novel, itself inspired by an oral history of World War II by Studs Terkel, World War Z grabs at elements of Brooks’ piecemeal global history of a destructive zombie war and sprinkles the background with them while Pitt’s protagonist pretty much single-handedly finds a band-aid solution to the epidemic. A ranting CIA agent (David Morse) tells Gerry of North Korea’s creative and brutally efficient strategy to stave off infection (let’s just say that their dentists were kept very busy); the mushroom cloud of a nuke disrupts his flight across Asia; the President of the United States is said to be dead, along with four of the six Joint Chiefs (what other use do they ever serve in apocalyptic films of this ilk but to establish the seriousness of the situation by expiring?). But Brooks’ interesting approach of telling the story through varied accounts (which provide much of the story but not nearly all of it) is jettisoned for a traditional heroic narrative from the solo perspective of a resourceful male protagonist.

World War Z boasts some grand visual strokes and undeniably tense scenes of pursuit by and avoidance of the zombies: sequences in a darkened Newark apartment block, the stone streets of Jerusalem, and on board an infected airplane are especially good, although the contagion genre workout at a WHO facility in Wales at the climax is a bit of a letdown at a key time. That said, World War Z is also a deeply preposterous exercise, even when taking the considerably lowered standards of logical credulity that define the zombie genre into full account. Many major plot points tax audience belief heavily, and minor ones do, too: the fall of Israel to the zombies comes about via an astounding lapse in vigilance that seems quite at odds with IDF attention to detail, Karin dials Gerry on a satellite phone to chat as he attempts a stealth infiltration in an undead-heavy area (she doesn’t know, but should be a tiny bit more careful, as should he), and Gerry’s key observation about the undead’s exploitable blind spot is both blatantly obvious and subtly obscure. Hints and clues are introduced and then dropped from sight, as are cynically manipulative heartstring-tugging supporting characters, like Gerry’s asthmatic daughter or a streetsmart Latino kid who escapes Newark with the Lane family and then vanishes on the carrier once Gerry leaves on his mission.

World War Z is simultaneously too big and not big enough earn the promise of its title. Forster, working from a script penned and re-penned by five writers at least, achieves scope but not scale, a global reach and character without an international sociopolitical perspective to offer. Hollywood convention gets its hooks into this material but good, turning it into a star vehicle for a sensitive but ruthless masculine hero. Pitt, a dedicated physical performer, has cultivated a sense of detached thoughtfulness as he’s aged, which is distinctly at odds with carrying out a desperate zombie-battling mission. Making World War Z all about one man’s efforts in the face of a spreading undead scourge diminishes the patchwork cultural history appeal of Max Brooks’ novel, and burdening it with clumsy, outlandish plot turns and oily cliches puts it so far behind the 8-ball that it has no hope of ending up in front.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. March 14, 2015 at 11:53 am

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