DIR: Marc Forster WRI: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof PRO: Ian Bryce, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner CAST: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Fana Mokoena, Matthew Fox, Ruth Negga
What’s the collective noun for critics? A pack? A coven? A murder? Watching this film I was moved to reflect that critics certainly can display a herd mentality not dissimilar to a rampaging zombie horde. The merest scent of blood in the air about a supposedly troubled film and they can swamp the resultant project in a ravenous tide that is often utterly disconnected from the quality of the final film. In the wider media, judgement is often summarily passed without even viewing the actual completed movie. For instance, last year’s John Carter seemed doomed before it was even released or seen.
Early word on WWZ had the critical masses sharpening their incisors. The gossip grapevine contended that Marc Foster was presiding over a sprawling, incoherent mess with a ballooning budget and a never-ending schedule. An apparently fractious set and extensive, expensive re-shoots seemed to confirm this film was going to be a pre-ordained turkey. It was open season and now…it’s all gone a bit quiet.
I’m as susceptible as anyone to being infected by this behaviour. Who can’t resist a sneaky kick to the torso of a stricken studio blockbuster? They fail so rarely that once one is wrestled to the ground; it’s hard not to relish dissecting the hubris of both stars and studios as gargantuan budgets are wasted on puny ideas. We all know the vitriolic slam dunk reviews are the most pleasurable to write. And probably the most fun to read too. Which by a circuitous route brings me to World War Z and I gotta say – it’s not half bad. That is a backhanded compliment in blockbuster season but bear in mind Man of Steel is half bad. Granted that horribly elongated concluding fight is not really half the movie – it just feels like it is.
World War Z certainly opens strongly as chaos grips gridlock in downtown Philadelphia. A palpable and organic sense of panic is superbly evoked and maintained as Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family are enveloped in a stampede of swarming bodies. At first, it’s spookily unclear what people are fleeing from. We’ve seen scenes like this before and it’s usually a wall of water or Godzilla. The reveal that it’s blood thirsty commuters acting in a cannibalistic manner is deeply unnerving. This is no shuffling zombie saunter. It’s a torrent of milling indistinguishable limbs and manic propulsion.
Gerry quickly displays the resourcefulness and survival skills that suggest a past beyond suburban dad. And so it transpires – in the middle of a nationwide outbreak, Gerry gets a call from his former employer the U.N. to track down the source of the zombie virus. After some pitifully hilarious protestations that he’s not a hero, Gerry embarks on an extremely heroic world tour of zombie hotspots as he traces the evolution of the outbreak. The plot doesn’t really advance much before that really. The film moves at the now customary breathless blockbuster pace but to my mind, this project justified that pacing more than most. The world is literally being devoured. Gerry’s in an understandable hurry. So the action switches from South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales with sequences of varying effectiveness in each location.
Cleverly, the film amps up Pitt’s hero stature by populating the cast with emerging and unknown actors rather than the usual rota of reliable and recognisable character actors. Everyone acquits themselves well even if the writers push the boat out on thankless female roles by literally pushing the ostensible female lead Mireille Enos out onto a boat where she spends most of the movie looking elegantly stressed. Or ringing her husband at the exact wrong moment.
Against the odds, Marc Foster emerges with some credit. Or is it damning him with faint praise to say he doesn’t ostensibly do anything wrong. Some of the bigger scenes like the storming of Jerusalem are impressively rendered. There’s nothing as problematic as his chronic mishandling of the action in Quantum of Solace (or ‘Pond of Wood’ as Mark Kermode deliciously dubbed it). Could it be that Foster is simply on a learning curve himself where he gets to evolve and improve with each outing? He’s learning in public on a big canvas but keeping creative control of a mammoth project like this must be a head wrecker. This could have been a career wrecker but by accident or design, ‘WWZ gets there in the end.
In the third act, World War Z bucks another prevalent trend. Apparently, out of necessity but regardless of the reasons, this film reverses the blockbuster tendency to ram up the scale as the finish line approaches. Apparently, the ultra busy scribe Damon Lindelof was drafted in to construct an emergency ending and a lean, tense and unbearably claustrophobic sequence set in a lab was constructed as a band-aid remedy. Well sometimes, band-aids are needed and sometimes they work. In this case, I think the action is focused down to telling effect. While other blockbusters invariably resort to bombast and visual frenzy, WWZ distils the essence of the film down to stillness and silence. Instead of the typical ear-drum damaging souped up sound, we get unforgiving quiet. Instead of drowning in zombies, Gerry is confronted by one zombie clacking his teeth in a deeply creepy manner.
It’s not perfection by any means especially when the film has no real sense of closure: only a cocky insinuation that a sequel is going to be needed for viewers to see any more. WWZ may still fail but I don’t think it’s a failure. However in a bid to please everyone, it may please no one. Too unfaithful to the source material to please die-hard fans of the book. Too bloodless to placate gore hounds. Too internationally focused for an American audience. Too inconclusive and open ended for those seeking a rounded one-off cinematic experience. In falling between so many stools, the danger is the film is regarded as a stool of a whole other variety.
It isn’t. It’s not Grade A but it’s not Grade Z either.
15A (see IFCO website for details)
World War Z is released on 21st June 2013