(Marc Forster, 2013)
There are all sorts of dissonances in seeing a Zombie film so - so - so bloated with money and effects. The Zombie sub-genre is a small one. It's cheap, and nasty, and disreputable. It features creatures eating brains and dragging entrails from bellies with their teeth. It allows for shock cut frights but also for a sort of grim atmosphere of sustained dread which comes when the audience knows all hope is gone and all that remains before the characters onscreen is horror and loss after loss.
Well, World War Z, for all its epic scenes of cities falling as zombies swarm chaotically through overcrowded streets, captured nicely by Marc Forster in a series of impressively evocative helicopter shots, is something different entirely. This is the zombie film as summer blockbuster, a humungous corporate tentpole with a colossal budget and too much to lose to really allow for the sort of hopelessness that zombie movies generally demand.
Not that it is a happy film; about 40 minutes in, things look unblinkingly doomed. Most of the worlds major cities have been overrun, Governments have toppled (the severity of the situation is made clear when Brad Pitt's Jerry, our fearless and resourceful survivor of a hero, is informed that the US President is dead), and survivors live in cramped boats in an Atlantic flotilla or in refugee camps.
Only the barricaded Nation-states - North Korea, Israel - are doing well, primed as they are to see off all comers. There is some dull political commentary here, and the whole film seems to be a barely articulate essay on the issue of overpopulation, but really all it's interested in is its series of set-pieces.
It begins depicting Jerry at home in a scene of familial breakfast so blissfully idyllic it feels almost like a parody, but soon the action begins. A drive in downtown Philadelphia is interrupted by a zombie attack which sweeps through the streets like a wave.
These early scenes work extremely well; Jerry is made vulnerable by the presence of his children, who cry and whinge and freeze at all the worst times. They escape the city only to find themselves in set-piece number 2. This is a hint at the mild schizophrenia gripping Forster's film, butchered as it was in post-production and with six separate credited writers involved. In the midst of all the grand-scale chaos Forster orchestrates he narrows focus to follow the family as they climb a darkened stairwell to a helicopter rendezvous on a rooftop. This scene is entirely about tension, suspense, a sort of distilled fear. For long stretches, World War Z seems in no way to be a horror movie, despite its genre-specific content. And then occasionally it decides it wants to make us jump. And it does so quite effectively.
After that Jerry is persuaded by his old bosses at the UN to take a trip to South Korea to attempt to discover where this zombie outbreak originated, and the plot follows him from there to Israel - location of the most spectacular scenes - to an eerie, greyish Wales reminiscent of the BBC science fiction tv of the 1970s, where he and a team of scientists attempt o create something to give dwindling humanity some edge on the zombies.
Throughout Forster follows surging action sequences - a zombie attack on a plane, the breaching of Jerusalem's walls by an ant-like tower of the undead - with exposition, explaining to the audience what is happening, allowing characterisation to suffer to some extent as he does so. Pitt is crucial to what success the film may claim, anchoring it throughout as the unflappable Jerry. He is desperate to return to his family, grimly getting on with his mission purely to that end. But he is also a somewhat generic hero. He sees things nobody else does, makes connections, figure things out.
Other characters flit across the narrative without ever really sticking.
The film it reminded me most of is Spielberg's War of the Worlds, though it lacks the style of that film, that sense of a director with a natural flair for such material. Instead it sporadically throws up a few great moments, indelible images and fantastic actors; Forster has always had a good eye even if he is less confident with action. The likes of James Badge Dale and Matthew Fox are briefly glimpsed, the score is by Muse, and it is, ultimately, far better than it might have been. There may be a future for teh zombie blockbuster after all....