by Matt Levine
It was bound to happen sooner or later: the first prestige zombie movie. The living dead are such a ubiquitous trope in modern entertainment (from AMC’s The Walking Dead to blood-soaked video games like Left for Dead to spoofs like Shaun of the Dead) that they were destined to be transformed into middlebrow symbols for political turmoil by a faux-respectable hack like Marc Forster. The director who almost ruined James Bond with Quantum of Solace (2008) and foolishly indulged the most exploitative elements of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (2007) is tasked with turning Max Brooks’ World War Z into a zombie movie that can be loved by people who consider zombie movies beneath them. But in translating Brooks’ novel—which is admittedly a tricky task, considering the oral-history conceit of the book (in which the zombie apocalypse is recounted by a group of disparate people from various countries)—Forster and company forget to make these zombie hordes frightening or unique. From the undead armies to the human protagonists, all of World War Z’s characters exist in a similar state of lifelessness—which makes sense, considering the bloated, lethargic movie in which they appear.
Director: Marc Forster
Producers: Ian Bryce, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Brad Pitt
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, J. Michael Straczynski (story), Max Brooks (novel)
Cinematographers: Ben Seresin, Robert Richardson
Editors: Roger Barton, Matt Chesse
Music: Marco Beltrami
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Elyes Gabel
US Theatrical Release: June 21, 2013
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The film starts promisingly, in fact, thrusting us into the first stages of the impending apocalypse with jarring immediacy. Former UN peacekeeper Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karin (The Killing’s Mireille Enos, completely wasted), and their two daughters are driving through Philadelphia when, from the midst of an endless traffic jam, Gerry spies a gaggle of speedy zombies tearing through human flesh. Chaos ensues; the streets of Philly turn into a war zone as blood stains the streets and semi-trailers soar over parked cars, demonstrating the movie’s exorbitant budget. There’s nothing unique or especially stylish about this opening carnage, but its scale is impressive and its rapidity effective. Avoiding the senseless shaky-cam action of Quantum of Solace for a more coherent style gives us reason to believe (at least at first) that Forster has matured as a genre filmmaker.
But World War Z unfortunately begins at its zenith and quickly plummets downhill. Utilizing the survival skills gleaned from his time in warzones like Rwanda and Chechnya, Gerry steals a van and flees with his family to Newark, where they break into a towering apartment building. They meet a kindly Latino couple who provide them with food and water, only to be infected moments later by invading zombies; luckily, Gerry is able to call a UN helicopter to their location, from which the Lane family (along with the son of the zombified Latinos—the sort of precocious cherub who never exists as a flesh-and-blood character) are flown to a Navy vessel in the Atlantic Ocean.
The supposedly retired Gerry is coerced into assisting the UN’s mission to impede the zombie outbreak, and is sent to South Korea to investigate what appears to be Ground Zero for the pandemic. A wild goose chase (zombie chase?) ensues, sending Gerry from South Korea to Jerusalem to Cardiff, Wales, where a World Health Organization compound may provide a dangerous cure for the zombie infestation. A few of these later scenes are chillingly effective as Gerry and his cohorts (including a female Israeli soldier whose hand he had to amputate when she was bitten) sneak down the W.H.O. hallways, avoiding the attention of the lumbering zombies that have broken into the facility. But even this high point is quickly ruined when Gerry, having ingested a virus that makes him improbably invisible to the zombies, walks stoically past the bloodthirsty monsters, the music and lighting pompously suggesting him as a 21st-century Christ figure.
World War Z’s production was a troubled one. Six months before it was set to open, the premiere date was pushed back as several screenwriters were brought in for rewrites and seven additional weeks of shooting were necessitated. It’s easy to see some of these pressures in the finished product, as tones shift abruptly from veiled political allegory to superhero blockbuster to weepy family drama, and the abruptness of the ending (one of the issues that originally compelled the reshoots) remains a significant problem. The resuscitation-by-committee approach also failed to deepen Gerry’s character: a cardboard action hero who’s both a sensitive family man and indestructible survivor, he’s so flawless that he carries with him no personality whatsoever. Maybe Brad Pitt simply wanted to play an uncomplicated summer-movie hero, but he’s opted for the most boring one imaginable.
Even World War Z’s plotting and tonal issues might have been saved by a director who could create frightening imagery and an intense, aggressive style, but the bulk of the blame for the movie’s failures has to be placed on Forster’s shoulders. He seems to have little interest in working with his actors to create engrossing characters, and his lazy approach to action/horror filmmaking—in which a dizzying camera haphazardly records the events while the majority of footage is computer-generated—effectively saps any excitement from this zombie apocalypse. The process by which humans turn into zombies is replete with contorting skeletons and frenzied shrieking, though these effects are so obviously engineered by a team of computer animators that there’s nothing interesting about this transformation (28 Days Later is a textbook lesson in how to make zombification a truly terrifying process). This isn’t to say that the non-CGI sequences are any more effective: when Gerry is face-to-face with a zombie late in the film, it ludicrously chomps at him with a pronounced underbite, resembling Hungry Hungry Hippos more than any undead monstrosity. I also hate to seem like a gore-monger, but making a PG13 zombie movie is like making PG pornography: the visceral awfulness of undead humans cannibalizing the living is precisely what makes the idea of zombies so nauseatingly scary, and eliminating 98% of the blood and carnage is a surefire way to make a dull, timid horror film.
Arguably more obnoxious is the film’s bloated intention to provide some kind of allegory for a fractious, post-nuclear global state. The political nuggets smuggled into the dialogue aren’t exactly subtle: North Korea, it is claimed at one point, is the healthiest nation on earth because it came up with the ingenious idea of pulling all of its citizens’ teeth to prevent infection, an image of the country as coldly despotic that has become commonplace in American media (justifiably or not). Similarly, Israel has warded off the apocalypse by building immense walls around Jerusalem, with multitudes of refugees waiting outside, begging for entry and protection—an image that bears an unsettling resemblance to the current state of affairs on the West Bank. What is all of this vague commentary on modern diplomacy supposed to mean? Nothing really—they’re simply pretentious indulgences meant to denote how “serious” and “intelligent” the movie is. But the allegories of 28 Weeks Later and Land of the Dead have already wedded the horrifying milieu of zombiedom with political metaphor, and much more effectively; World War Z arrives late to the party, then stumbles around witlessly and ends up annoying everyone in attendance.
The fact that a highfalutin zombie flick is apparently an original concept to World War Z’s producers and director suggests a Hollywood-centric, misguided view of postmodernism. The value of postmodern media, supposedly, is that the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow have been deteriorated, allowing for complex, intelligent art that is also populist and entertaining (and vice versa). Examples of unassuming genre films that also carry thematic and political audacity are countless, from District B13 (2004) to The Host (2006) to Eden Lake (2008). The best Hollywood directors can achieve this balance, as Paul Greengrass and Martin Scorsese demonstrate constantly. But Marc Forster cannot; his films often retain the self-congratulatory metaphor of highbrow art alongside the flat characters and incoherent plotting of lowbrow entertainment. World War Z might be his worst film to date—a zombie adventure that, in trying so hard to be important and respectable, forgets to be scary or exciting. Zombie-lovers perusing Netflix should bear in mind that The Walking Dead is also available to stream instantly; rewatching any episode of that show is preferable to sitting through World War Z.