Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan,
Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Cinematography by: Ben Seresin
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale
Full disclosure, part one: I’ve read and greatly admire Max Brooks’ novel, but as with any so-called adaptation, I fully expect the two mediums to stand alone. Would it have been great to see the book done justice? Of course, but I don’t believe it’s possible in two hours, that too in a summer tentpole film such as this one. That book deserves a massive undertaking akin to the intricacy and care of something like Band of Brothers. So while the film is essentially the book in name only, that should not and does not detract from the experience.
Full disclosure, part two: I was never fully on board with the idea of a zombie apocolypse. In films, it fell into the genre of horror, and I actively avoided such cinema; while in television, I’d say it wasn’t really being attempted until recently with the acclaim of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Even with my uncertainty towards the genre however, I’ve seen and enjoyed my fair share of them, from Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), to 28 Days Later (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Planet Terror (2007), and Zombieland (2009). I’m inclined to think that what draws me to these particular films is their approach to the material. Yes, they’re all stories about the undead, but what separates them is that they rise above the mere gratification of gore and violence that’s to be expected of them. Some are character/social studies, while others are novel comedies, but all of them require an understanding of vision, an appreciation for all that came before, and the innate realization, however terrifying, that this could actually happen.
From its opening credits sequence, brilliantly rendered over Muse’s “Isolated System,” and containing sequences of world events/news stories laying the groundwork for what’s to come, the film gives off a vibe of eerie realism shrouded in simplicity. That continues for much of the film, as we follow Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), an ex-United Nations employee who finds himself going from a traffic jam in Philadelphia with his family to following a terrible pandemic around the world hoping to get back to them safely at all costs. World War Z takes that internal conflict to a global level, going from Philadelphia to Newark, to South Korea, Jerusalem, and finally Wales, all the while succeeding in not only thrilling, but engaging an audience with its ability to create a fascinating spectacle, yet never losing complete sight of its personal stakes.
A lot of that has to do with the brilliance of casting a literal swarm of unknowns. As entire cities plunge into darkness, we’re left with the only person we can identify with: Brad Pitt. I’m sure that elicits a laugh from some of you, but as I sit here, I can’t think of another actor out of Pitt’s contemporaries who can still play the everyman so effectively and effortlessly. I mentioned in an earlier review that Tom Cruise did it in Oblivion, but unlike Cruise, Pitt doesn’t have entire franchises to carry on his shoulders (though this is looking to be a contender). This is the Brad Pitt of Babel (2006), a family man who isn’t exactly up to the task he’s been given, with the only difference being that this time around, his reluctance is backed up by his former skills at the U.N., which themselves aren’t made clear, but this is where Gerry’s mantra of “Movement is life” is applied heavily in the film.
The sheer scope and scale of this film is where director Marc Forster shines. This is a man who is, unfairly in my opinion, maligned because of Quantum of Solace (2008), when in reality, the man’s got a track record of creating some really good films, from Monster’s Ball (2001), Finding Neverland (2004), Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and The Kite Runner (2007). He understands what it takes to both create and invest in a world, while still propelling the story forward. The film is frantic, frightening, and at times, deeply unnerving. While somewhat limited with its PG-13 rating, what it lacks in immense gore, Forster makes up in with an excellent dispay of tension. He stages the action in a way that is engaging, but highly panic-inducing, all because it feels real. The horror lies not in the visceral, but in the mere vision of it going viral.
Witnessing a Philadephia street erupt into chaos after an explosion is downright nervewracking because it’s unexpected. Our introduction to these creatures (smartly never referred to as zombies until much later in the film) is somewhat humanizing even when inhuman acts are being committed all around us, because any one of these people could be us. Watching them literally kamikaze themselves in front of military fire in South Korea, or come crashing down like a tidal wave in Jerusalem (the film’s standout action set piece), is both astounding and afraidly unsettling; so much so, that when the action in the third act returns the narrative to a more personal touch, the audience mistakenly might think it’s a welcome change of pace, when in fact it still never lets up on one’e pulse. This a film very much in the vain of Contagion (2011) and 28 Days Later in thought, but I’ll admit, it’s execution at times seemed to struggle with the summer blockbuster tag it’s been fitted with. There are some big ideas on display here, but they’re not always given the time to really develop, and that extends to certain characters (I’m looking at you, Matthew Fox). Despite that, it remains a smart and thrilling picture, delivering everything one would expect of such fare.
Most people don’t believe something can happen until it already has.