Warning: Contains spoilers
For weeks I’ve heard stories about how there were egregious production problems including a rewritten and reshot third act resulting in a reported over-budgeted affair and strife between star, Brad Pitt and director, Marc Forster. And going by the trailers, it appeared obvious that the film’s only similarity to the Max Brooks’ novel was its namesake. Add in a PG-13 rating for a zombie flick and skepticism abounded from this film fan.
Trust in Pitt, then, because the film works largely due to his role, as well as some taut directing by Forster. Forget the concerns about the rating, as this film works more as a zombie thriller film rather than a zombie horror film, which puts it in a class all its own.
The film follows Pitt, as Gerry Lane, a stay-at-home dad with his wife, played by Mireille Enos, and their two children. His previous profession involved doing dangerous work in dangerous places. Such lends itself to surviving the zombie apocalypse when it commences. Pitt is directed by the officials in charge to track down the impetus for the breakout and that leads him to traversing the globe in places like South Korea, Israel and elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, given Pitt’s versatility, he’s able to pull off the “everyday man” vibe for his character while still maintaining that subtle, “He knows what to do when the shit hits the fan,” core element. In fact, some of the best moments of the film are the tender, human exchanges between Pitt’s characters and his wife or his kids. Some may have preferred the more broad geopolitical scope offered in Brooks’ novel, but by localizing the zombie apocalypse to the experience of one man and his family; not only does that lend a more empathetic touch, but it also is still, nevertheless, the vehicle by which we can examine those geopolitical issues.
World War Z’s thriller elements help to elevate it above generic B-level zombie flick. There are genuine moments where one goes through the general physiological reaction of stress when watching this film: the sweaty palms, the tightening of the chest and the overwhelming urgency to look away. Primarily this is so because the zombies are not only fast, not only frenzied, but almost seemingly coordinated in their movements and attack.
There’s also a certain intelligence infused within the work, as Pitt’s character tries to first, discover how this happened and then, ascertain how to solve it. Eventually, he learns, mostly by observation and then through necessity (to avoid a zombie right in front of his face), that the zombies avoid the infirm. Therefore, the “cure” or more aptly, as Pitt’s character points out, “camouflage” is to inject the soldiers and survivors with other diseases. From which, one can start reclaiming the world. And then, there’s your sequel.
Overall, what I find most fascinating about this film is the meditation on how humans would react to such an outbreak (and it doesn’t have to be “zombies”, just fill in the pandemic blank with anything) and how that differs depending on geographical location. For instance, as one would surmise quite hastily by a casual observance of American political theatre, we reacted with diversion, skepticism and quite rightly, panic. On the other hand, the Israelis were on top of the outbreak before everyone else and essentially barricaded their country, literally, from the rest of the world. Of course, that didn’t stop the zombies from eventually penetrating the walls – they’re zombies – but pre-emptive defensive measure aptly reflects Israel’s sociopolitical mindset.
Moreover, it was revealing to see how the top military officials reacted to the outbreak: somewhat callously, very mechanical and with overwhelming force. To the point of callousness, they only want essentials on their floating sanctuary in the Atlantic Ocean. As such, when Pitt’s character is presumed dead after a horrific plane crash fleeing Israel, his family becomes “non-essentials” and are shipped off to some refugee camp in Nova Scotia. As for overwhelming force, well, that’s about par for the course given the size and available machinery in the United States military, but it wasn’t the right reaction to the zombies. They just kept coming…and coming. And coming some more.
Despite all the pre-release babble, Pitt’s most ambitious film outing succeeds as an intense, but human zombie thriller.
As an aside, I’ve always wanted a zombie film that examined the post-apocalyptic world in how humans rebuild after being sent to the precipice of extinction. With that sentiment in mind, I say bring on the sequel.