Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Peter Capaldi | Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof | Directed by Marc Forster
World War Z won’t win many if any awards but if there was a prize for a film being more satisfying than it ever had any right to be it would certainly be a contender. A director whose only big budget film was the insanely messy and at-times incoherent Quantum of Solace, on-set troubles which led to stories of director and star barely being on speaking terms and a third act which was found to be too poor to use after it was written, green lit and shot which in turn has had co-producer and star Brad Pitt earning his money by journeying across the US and the UK introducing screenings in a PR blitz to turn the general feeling of “bomb” around. Despite all of this, and with a few very real problems in the film still, World War Z emerges as a fine effort to add to what’s been a strong summer already.
The key success of the film comes down to its scale, whether big or small depending on the moment. With a budget at the very least totalling around $200 million we get sights that you just wouldn’t see in most zombie films. The initial burst of the on-screen outbreak sees them run, jump and smash through car windshields and while the bloodlessness of it all is jarring, it captures a vicious, nervous energy which holds on for all the zombie encounters.
Also adding to proceedings is a conceptual idea for the zombie which adds a certain freshness. With the film sharing very little with Max Brooks’ book of the same name, we have a general concept and some moments of dialogue and background events to remind readers of the connection, the idea brought to the film specifically of having them work much like a colony of insects swarming and using each others bodies as platforms to get to previously unreachable places, is one that leads to visuals which do stick in the mind, giving an almost subliminal impression that the zombies are a kind of army in themselves though inadvertently, and like in any war the situation constantly changes and has to be adapted to.
With all the talk of a junked third act, it’s also with genuine astonishment that the last third of the film feels natural and fitting and if this report of the original third act is true, is probably the right decision all things considered. After the bang and bluster of the previous action including a credibility straining plane attack sequence, the film shifts down a gear with a quieter, somewhat more traditional horror setting of research lab in Cardiff, something which got audible cheers in my packed Welsh screening incidentally. This section sees the investigative arc of the film fulfilled in a rather pleasing way and offers unexpected periods of tension which work well on the big screen with our only real close time with the zombies offering a glimpse of solid practical make up in a film which up to that point felt a little too splashed with Zombie CG. Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard’s re-written third act is overall a palpable success and manages to make the film end on a note where you don’t need a sequel but wouldn’t begrudge one either.
Where World War Z does lack though is in characterisation. The opening 10 minutes set up Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane and family as an idyllic unit, all loving, laughing and smiling before the bad times hit. That we barely learn anything else about them, and indeed Gerry becomes an almost messianic combination of loving father, action hero and great UN investigator all of which is just too improbable to ever connect emotionally. This combined with certain moments which feel a bit too clunky to really hit the audience in the intended way do knock the film down somewhat but in its position as blockbuster fare it’s got a lot of company in these faults.
Probably the most pleasant surprise of the year World War Z works as action-horror and as a tentpole blockbuster event proving that in rare cases too many cooks in the kitchen can make an effort worthy of your time after all.