Expectations and assumptions. They can make or break a film. World War Z, based on the popular novel by Max Brooks, has been rolled out as a zombie movie. Now, there are several expectations and assumptions one makes when approaching a zombie movie; scares, gore and – thanks to George A. Romero – some biting (pun intended) social commentary just under the surface. Expectations and assumptions are also made when a movie is based on a popular novel, the most obvious one being that it remain faithful to the text. Max Brooks’ novel has a lot of fans out there. Marc Forster’s adaptation seems to have them chomping at the bit, and not in a good way.
I haven’t read World War Z. I’ve been told to on a number of occasions, but I just haven’t. Haven’t got around to it yet. So I honestly can’t tell you what’s faithful to the book (though from what I hear the answer is very little). This isn’t going to be that review. Instead I can only report on this movie on the basis of what it was to me, and that wasn’t a literary adaptation or a zombie movie. It was a blockbusting Hollywood disaster movie.
Now, if you think about the expectations and assumptions you’d make about one of those, you get a different list than you do with a zombie movie. Suddenly your list looks something like this; big stars, things blowing up or getting destroyed, bombastic music cues, thinly drawn stock characters and special effects set pieces designed to test the rigors of a ludicrously priced home cinema system. “Man, you gotta see it on blu-ray!”
So reset your expectations and assumptions accordingly, and lets talk about this movie. Following the briefest of pat introductions to former UN hotshot Gerry (Brad Pitt) and his family, World War Z throws us in at the deep end with a dizzying set piece as Philadelphia generally goes apeshit with zombies. There are explosions and thunderous music cues (the score for this film is orchestrated by Matt Bellamy of Muse. Say no more). One of the neat metaphors of most other zombie sets is the embodiment of our own mortality, creeping up on us slowly. Well, it’s the 21st century now, and everyone’s in more of a hurry. These zombies are more like pissed off athletes with skin problems. It’s all high-octane keep-up-or-get-left-behind stuff… Except there’s not an awful lot to keep up with.
Forster bumbles his way through every action spectacle here with a seemingly unending love of swervy-cam, non-existent lighting and rapid-fire editing. Possibly this is the best way for him to dodge explicit content and secure that PG-13 audience, the lifeblood of any Hollywood movie with crossover audience dreams. The knock-on effect, too often, is simple confusion. Picking out what’s actually happening is a lot harder than it ought to be at times. Characters fall by the wayside and die… but you’re not entirely sure what happened to them.
Anyway. Gerry and his family reach safety thanks to his usefulness as an intelligence-gathering multipurpose good guy, and so he leaves the wife and kids behind to go globe-trotting in an effort to find an explanation and cure for the hoards of undead storming everyone’s favourite major cities. This affords World War Z the time to fully realise the idea that this is a global issue as we stop off in exotic locations like South Korea, Israel and, err, Wales.
To its credit, the sense that the whole world is falling to its knees over this outbreak is conveyed successfully in this middle stretch, and whilst the set pieces continue to lack clarity from time to time, Gerry’s bumbling pit stops here, there and everywhere at least keep us on our toes. For the most part, this is a pacey actioner that’ll keep you engaged, just as long as you don’t stop and think about anything.
Because really what strikes you the most about World War Z is how frequently stupid it is. Think too long about any one situation and it falls apart quicker than a house of cards on a bouncy castle. Characters make boneheaded decisions at every single opportunity. The most notorious already is Gerry’s failure to remember to stick his phone on silent when doing some serious stealthy shit. It’s the tip of the iceberg though. Nothing particularly makes sense when held up to even cursory scrutiny. This isn’t simple pedantry, some of this stuff is basic (albeit a little too spoilery to really lay out in detail).
It all speaks to the larger problem that this movie suffers, which is staggering incoherence. Tellingly, between story credits and screenwriting ones, there are five different names attached to his film. I think every single one of them got a bit of the movie they wanted, leaving a strangely schizophrenic viewing experience. World War Z starts out huge, but the further through it you go, the more it scales down. Ultimately it ends up in the kind of claustrophobic territory that zombie movies are more comfortable in. But again, nagging trivialities pile up like a horde of flesh-eaters busting a gut to climb over one another, until Gerry and his infinite lives seem, well, farcical. Too much of it is, simply, a mess.
[Spoiler time] And then there’s the ending, which, I’m sorry, sidesteps explanation in favour of franchise building. What caused this? Tune in next time, folks! Call that the Damon Lindelof effect (he takes a writing credit here).
Which is a shame as there are moments here that point toward a better, more coherent film. Little pieces in the chaos. An encounter at a supermarket pharmacy lingers long in the memory, and a creep through a flare-lit tower block is suitably moody. There are also a couple of admirable blind turns as characters you think are going to make it suddenly… don’t. The movie also has Brad Pitt going for it, hardly stretching himself, but adding some much-needed charisma.
Ultimately, it doesn’t feel as though the bigger picture has been examined here. The whole is not the sum of its parts, because, well, the parts are knackered. World War Z doesn’t quite know exactly what sort of film it is. Struggling to please everyone has created an unsatisfying mishmash. Something only half alive. The good bits are frustratingly fleeting, and really, what sort of film has a hero named Gerry who has to trade dialogue with a character named Thierry?
A film built out of David’s ladders*. Fun enough if you switch off, but who wants to be a zombie?
*Prometheus reference. Where did David get his ladder from? Well?