Marc Forster’s adaptation of Max Brooks’ zombie-apocalypse novel has suffered a negatively-storied journey to say the least, hampered by rewrites and spiralling production costs. But the end result, fiddled through considerable studio involvement, has paradoxically produced something that – although inevitably a soulless, steaming headache of a film – is possibly the modest highlight of Forster’s resumé whether he begrudgingly accepts the fact or not. The only way was up for a director who had previously blessed us with undoubtedly the worst James Bond film of the franchise: Quantum of Solace, a rotten cherry atop an already middling filmography. Lucky for him and us – to a negligible extent – World War Z proves a mere passable thrill, an oddly compromised slice of disaster that scales great, perilous heights before crashing to ground level for a conventionally hopeful third-act.
Brad Pitt – whose attraction to this project is curious to say the least – plays the lead role of Gerry Lane, a former UN employee who deposits his family safe aboard a US Navy Ship in exchange for investigating the roots of a virus that’s swiftly transforming the world’s population into super-speedy zombies. Here, the studio hand swoops down to conceal the adult elements; we never really witness the zombies feast on human flesh, their main function a frenzied forward surge that leads them to trample over each other for the sake of simply getting somewhere, and fast. Not unlike the London Underground at rush hour, then. This clean-cut disavowal of a core zombie trait is a direct consequence of the studio-enforced downgrade from R rating to PG-13 in order to recoup and surpass the film’s $190million production budget.
Lane’s journey takes him from South Korea to Israel to Wales, providing fans with a multi-flavoured entrée of macho gunfights, high-scale adventure and tense stealth sections. The expensive-looking CGI bodies from the film’s trailer, mounting atop each other to form a human pyramid, are a key part of the film’s Israel sequence – renamed Middle East for the film’s Turkish release, incidentally – where giant stone walls are used to (ineffectively) stave off the swarm of non-hungry undead scramblers. Inside the compound, Israelis and Palestinians conjoin to form a unified resistance, one whose hysterical volume and lack of attention to detail leads to the crumbling of its defences. Forster, Brooks, screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard, or even the interfering studio suits are seemingly inserting here a sly fist bump to Israel; the location is appropriate considering Jerusalem’s status as the city of the end times, though the not-so-subtle bias is staggering.
A zombie apocalypse lies in the heart of a scientific dialectic. It’s an answer no one foresaw in their complacency; ergo, we seek the originating question. How did this pandemic begin and moreover, how can it be reverted? There’s some interesting notions flouted concerning the prescient clues scattered by Mother Nature, anthropomorphised as a ‘total bitch’ and staged against the diligent Gerry whose status as a father is the only level at which we can afford to care about him. For much of the film, Gerry and the people he surrounds himself with – including Peter Capaldi’s WHO doctor, Mireille Enos as Gerry’s wife Karin and standout Daniella Kertesz as Israeli soldier Segen – are little more than ciphers commanding an emotional investment from the audience that is never fully justified. (Take a look at the synopsis for the original script ending and you’ll notice a handful of reasons to finally care about these characters.)
As such, the first two-thirds of the film focus less on a human fight-back against agile zombie assailants than an insentient uprising. Forster commits to his thrills, diving into a string of heart-stopping sequences that reach their bombastic zenith during an utterly ludicrous airplane sequence, to be seen to be (superficially) believed. From there, the film scales back for its final third into something marginally more cautious and compensatory for the dearth of humanity displayed thus far, as catapulted bodies and exploding engines are displaced by a stealth section that revolves, crucially, around a MacGuffin.
Furious Seven, the summer’s so-far undisputed highlight, managed to sequence its set-pieces evenly apart whilst making each one more astounding than the last, cumulatively setting the bar high and then leaping way, way over. In last week’s Man of Steel, Zack Snyder began with a shaky plea for emotional engagement before yanking his film’s volume from seven to eleven, keeping it there for the entire second half – a heft that didn’t sit well with critics, including myself. Forster’s film plumps for the opposite course of action, reeling in its core players from a globe-trotting adventure in pursuit of a far-reaching pandemic, to a localised area where all answers lie personified as in-the-know health officials, or embodied in a single object at the end of a final, testing stretch.
The structure is adequate, but the script fundamentally denies that plot-transgressing crackle, and forbids the characters any form of distinctive personality required for suspension of disbelief and total immersion. But what say the people? Strolling out of the screening, the two most common responses I overheard either concerned Mr. Pitt’s ‘criminally wrong hair’ or the objective belief in his being ‘well fit’. Considering Pitt’s substantial bankability and appeal to those inclined toward both mainstream and underground fare, is it a real issue that audiences be truly invested in the intricacies and depth – or lack thereof – of his onscreen character? The ordinary, rightful answer would be yes, though something suggests that when presented with Brad Pitt wielding a red axe on one side of the frame, and a rotting, Bill Nighy-looking creature on the other side, most would by default will their pop culture hero to succeed, and perhaps vicariously share in his trivial emotional quibbles without an overt request to do so. What’s more, there are some interesting questions to be raised about audience awareness of the context surrounding this film’s production – mainly centred on its original script – and whether that impacts upon their overall enjoyment of that which made it into the final cut.
Whatever the weakness of script and characterisation, it’s Forster’s steering hand that commits the greatest offence. His take on James Bond in Quantum of Solace appropriated the worst trademarks of Greengrass’ Bourne series to drag 007 kicking and screaming into a shaky dinginess he had no intention nor need of ever entering. Lessons of elementary composition and editing have not been learned in the years following; Forster has the source material to inform his grandiose sequences of spectacle, but what he does with this series of shots in terms of spatial coherence leaves a lot to be desired. With two strikes against him for action, Forster would be better off returning to some of the more personal, sensual style of filmmaking he attracted acclaim for (not from me) with 2003’s Monster’s Ball. Although in light of the stories surrounding World War Z’s creation, it would be a wonder if the man even desired to lay his hands on a summer tentpole project for the foreseeable future.