The first thing to say about World War Z is that it doesn’t hang around.
World War Z (15)
Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Matthew Fox, Peter Capaldi, Daniella Kertesz
Star rating: * * *
The release of Brad Pitt’s uber-expensive adaptation of Max Brook’s zombie apocalypse novel may have been delayed, and its troubled production endlessly debated, but within minutes of establishing Pitt’s character Gerry as a former United Nations investigator turned devoted family man, the film goes radge right away as it plunges us into the beginnings of a full-scale zombie pandemic.
Hoards of undead are seen careering through the streets of downtown Philadelphia at superfast speeds, biting flesh, ripping throats and head-butting windshields in an explosion-heavy melee of mayhem from which Gerry, his wife (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters are desperately trying to escape with their lives (and flesh) intact.
Shot for the most part in and around Glasgow’s George Square (a CGI version of Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge can be seen sitting just beyond St Vincent Street), these scenes are among the most frantic and impressive in the film. Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster – still clearly suffering a little Bourne envy – goes heavy on the shaky-cam, but delivers enough of a sense of scale for this sequence to serve as a statement of intent befitting the global implications of the title.
Indeed, the confined, budget-conscious spaces favoured by George Romero and virtually every horror director since are largely (but not entirely) absent here; instead, World War Z at times resembles an expansive, zombie-themed riff on a Bond movie, pinballing its ludicrously handsome hero around the globe to exotic locales (and Wales) on a highly dangerous mission to locate “patient zero”, in an effort to find a cure that will stop the outbreak before it succeeds in its unconscious bid for world domination.
This lone hero approach is a by-product of the film’s efforts to streamline the source material’s oral history structure into a more workable cinematic narrative. Thus the multiple voices and perspectives of the book are instead filtered through Gerry’s eyes as he reluctantly agrees to take up his old job in order to guarantee his wife and kids a safe place on a UN aircraft carrier stationed in the middle of the ocean far away from any biters (there are, he’s told, no places for non-essentials).
Although this necessarily means many of the culturally specific details that made the novel such a fascinating read have been lost, a zombie film wouldn’t be a zombie film without also functioning as a heavy-handed political allegory and World War Z certainly succeeds on this level. It telegraphs its geopolitical subtexts by eschewing American triumphalism (the US crumples quickly), dropping in references to North Korea’s handling of the crisis (it involves mass dentistry), and riffing on Israel’s wall-building proclivities during one stunning set-piece set on the West Bank.
Through it all, Pitt is quite appealing as the weary hero figure, a symbol of the new diplomacy needed to combat a global threat that has no concept of ideology or territoriality, just an instinctual craving for fresh flesh.
Pitt’s is really the only character given a significant amount of screen time, although his early scenes with Mireille Enos (star of the US version of TV’s The Killing) do a lot to establish the dynamics of his marriage and help us invest a little more in their relationship and the personal dimension to Gerry’s mission.
The potential expendability of everyone one else, though, keeps us on our toes and helps ratchet up the tension. In fact, it’s the high level of tension the film manages to maintain for its first two thirds – and sporadically through its final act – that proves the film’s main selling point.
Barely pausing for breath, it’s an exhausting film to watch, which works to its advantage by distracting from some of its more noticeable logic gaps, most of which come to the fore in the final act.
Here, World War Z downsizes to a more conventional zombie environment for an extended game of cat-and-rat in a World Health Organisation research facility run by a skeleton crew of W.H.O. doctors (played by Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, Pierfrancesco Favino and Ruth Negga).
The tension also helps offset the lack of gore, although not really enough for it to pass without comment. Rather than taking full advantage of its 15-rating in the UK, the film frequently cuts away from anything grizzly, presumably to secure it a PG-13 rating in the US instead.
It’s a little annoying, though not a deal breaker and considering that far too many horror movies splatter blood and entrails around to compensate for their makers’ inability to generate any tension whatsoever, Forster can be forgiven for tipping the balance in the other direction.
In the end World War Z may be a blockbuster with more bite than brains, but it’s certainly not the disaster many were predicting.