I haven’t read the highly-acclaimed book ‘World War Z’ by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks & Anne Bancroft) which this film is based on. And it’s probably just as well as apparently it has virtually nothing to do with the book (which Max Brooks has himself said) as not only does it create its own characters and narrative but inverts the concepts and ideas that the book proposed.
The film – which stars Brad Pitt (who also had a producing credit) and is directed by Marc Forster – had a widely reported troubled production with all signs pointing negatively to how the final product ould turn out. However, despite all these problems, the film is a surprisingly impressive effort.
The film starts off in the US city of Philadelphia where former United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt) lives happily in domestic duties with his wife and children. However the blissful life is disrupted when a mass zombie outbreak occurs not only in Philadelphia, but around the world. Suddenly the future of humanity is on shaky ground and Gerry is roped in (reluctantly) by the authorities to try and find a solution to this outbreak. This leads Gerry on an odyssey around the globe where he reaches more than one dead end.
The opening third of the film is moderately interesting, but no more than that. The handling of the zombie attacks early on is effectively done, only showing them in glimpses and flashes amongst the mayhem (and relatively little gore) so that we feel we’re there amongst the chaos. However because the film dives straight into the zombie attacks with no real context or buildup and we only get a very brief intro of Gerry and his family, it’s hard to be fully compelled in the proceedings or by Gerry’s plight.
As well, Forster sometimes uses overly frenetic directing and editing so that it’s sometimes hard to ascertain what is going on during the zombie attacks.
Where the film really takes off is in the section set in Jerusalem. Here we are shown a city that has seemingly succeeded through planning in staving off the zombie apocalypse by turning the city into a massive fortress. How that fortress is turned into a giant human trap is brilliantly done on a technical and narrative scale and the high point of the film. From that point the WWZ is consistently compelling as the more we know about Gerry as a character and about the nature of the zombie attacks, the more interesting it becomes. When you add in some very tense and well-directed action set pieces (including one set on a plane) you have a very entertaining film experience.
In terms of acting, this film largely falls on Pitt’s shoulders and he does an impressive job. (considering the relatively thin material in the script) he does well to create a convincing characterisation out of Gerry. In Gerry’s behaviour we see why he manages to survive while countless others perish as he’s always wary, has the ability to sense when something is amiss and never panics while virtually everyone else does. Through his physical behaviour as much as what he says, Pitt creates a convincing hero.
The way the zombies are portrayed in WWZ is noteworthy. They don’t walk slowly as zombies did in movies for decades; in the aggressive way they chase after hapless humans once they’re aware of them, they come across in the way a wolf sets on its prey. Their manic intensity works very well in the context of this story about them causing a global epidemic.
I also like the international nature of this story. Not only that the story moves to multiple continents and different locales around the globe, but that when the story begins in America it isn’t set in New York or Los Angeles or California as seemingly every US action film is set these days, but in the city of Philadelphia. It helps give the film a more distinctive flavour.
The film isn’t without its flaws. The relationship Gerry has with his wife and children is problematic in multiple ways. The way it’s demonstrated they’re a happy family at the beginning of the film is largely done in clichés – even having the children running into the parents’ bedroom and jumping on the bed. It doesn’t really add up to much and in anycase, it seems odd that such significance is placed on whether the entire family survives in the context of something that is largely wiping out the human population.
But despite this and an only moderately satisfying beginning, ‘World War Z’ is an impressive film and one of my favourites of the year to date.