World War Z (2013)

World War Z first published by Cinetalk.

Few will enter World War Z entirely unprepared. Some might have read Max (son of Mel) Brooks’ polydiegetic source novel. Many will have heard the stories of a plagued production, ever-changing personnel, multiple rewrites and even extensive reshoots, leading to a long-delayed release. And most will be aware of its monstrous budget, rampaging out of control to world-busting proportions.

Circumstance has both surrounded and blighted World War Z with toxic levels of low expectation – which is perhaps the best environment possible for so mediocre a final product. With so much expenditure at stake, ‘not bad’ is hardly a good enough return, but then again, when there is so little hope in the first place, even middling thrills can come as a pleasant surprise – and the whistle-stop itinerary of Marc Foster’s apocalyptic odyssey certainly offers plenty of pacy tensions. Still, much as the fast, enraged zombies here prefer spreading their infection with vampiric nibbles to ever actually devouring their victims, the film too serves up its geopolitical allegories as tiny, unsatisfying morsels rather than as meaty slabs of provocative sustenance for viewers hand-reared on Romero-style social subtext.

Sure, there is a vision of the West – and especially of privileged élites within the West – bunkering down against the massed mobs of humanity that so terrify them. Sure there is a throwaway line about North Korea’s (ingenious) survival strategy, delivered by a fittingly toothless David Morse. Sure Jerusalem’s successful (and then not so successful) hold-out tactics involve a giant encircling barrier reminiscent – and resonant – of the controversial Wall that is already there. Sure Welsh endurance seems bound up in the fact that Britain is a nation of quiet curtain twitchers too scared to speak to their neighbours anyway. Yet all this is merely skimmed over, as the story races from place to place and episode to episode, always trusting more in action than in ideas. The zombies are figured now as America’s underclass, now as monomaniacal Middle Eastern hordes, now as Europe’s angry recessionary masses – but the film, in all its barreling, globe-hopping trajectory, appears incapable of settling on or committing to any notion kicked up in its dust. In the end, the clearest ‘message’ on which the World War Z seems able to fix is an entirely conventional endorsement of the all-American patriarchal nuclear family – and on the truism that, in a clinch, it always helps to have friends in high places.

Where the original novel filtered its story through a multiplicity of perspectives, the film, despite its literal billions of infection carriers, has only one narrative vector: Brad Pitt’s former UN special agent Gerry Lane. Yet where this singular focus might have been intended to provide a coherent through-line for the film’s two hours of epic intercontinental mayhem, in fact the opposite turns out to be the case. For while Lane is the only character of any substance or interest here (and even he is little more than a cola-chugging Jesus archetype), the plot itself remains desultory at best, while requiring its hero to jump through more hoops than seems plausible for a single individual (outgunning the military, outthinking the eggheads, surviving zombie onslaughts and even a plane crash). It is telling that for all the big set-pieces and different global locations (think Bond vs. the undead), the most effective sequence unfolds in a secluded Welsh medical complex, and might have (indeed, already has) appeared in any number of other, altogether less ambitious zombie flicks.

This relatively intimate, enclosed hospital setting in the final act allows the film for once to go easy on the frantic, choppy Bourne-style camerawork that had obscured so much of the earlier bigger-scale action and reduced the pointless 3D to a blurry mess at the margins. World War Z, you see, is also World War Z-axis, as its ‘more is more’ approach gradually consumes itself, bloodlessly. Those who survive the experience will shuffle away shaken, but also numb and struggling to care. For though virtually unkillable, these zombies also prove all too easily forgettable, making little dent on the ever-evolving, overcrowded subgenre. Still, ‘not bad.’

Anton Bitel