So guess what? All the doom-and-gloom talk about World War Z‘s troubled $200 million production — its production shutdowns, whole weeks of shooting in Prague left on the cutting room floor, rumors of clashes between Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster — was just that: talk. Far from being the apocalyptic implosion entertainment journalists have been anticipating for over a year, World War Z is a coherent, suspenseful zombie thriller that’s also something more.
It’s a genuine epic, the maximalist yang to The Walking Dead‘s claustrophobic yin. Where AMC’s megahit drama focuses mostly on the relationship dynamics of a core group of post-zombie-apocalypse survivors in backwoods Georgia, Forster takes us globe-trotting, showing us people who aren’t just fleeing for their lives but genuinely fighting to retake the planet. That involves some macro-view political commentary, though not nearly as much as in Max Brooks’ 2006 novel of the same name.
Unlike fellow summer blockbusters Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z dispenses with exposition and almost immediately plunges you into the chaos. Gerry (Pitt), a family man who used to be a UN crisis negotiator, flees Philadelphia with his family as a worldwide virus spreads, killing people then reanimating them as the ravenous undead. These scenes very much evoke Steven Spielberg’s family-on-the-run dynamic, a la War of the Worlds. As in that film, often considered the first blockbuster allegory of 9/11, the breakdown of society isn’t conveyed so much by CGI panoramas of burning buildings — the images of wrecked cityscapes in Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel that are rightly being referred to as “destruction porn” — but by an on-the-ground view of the human consequences. We know all is lost when Pitt’s Gerry shoots an attacker during a looting spree at a convenience store, then lays down his gun to surrender to a policeman, only to have the cop storm right past him to take part in the looting himself.
Eventually the family drama takes a back seat to a global view of how humankind as a whole would react in the face of imminent extinction. Like Independence Day, World War Z suggests that a crisis of this magnitude would actually unite the world in a holistic effort to fight back, making it, for better or worse, one of the more optimistic blockbuster films in recent memory. Once Pitt’s Gerry safely stashes his family aboard an aircraft carrier, he flies to South Korea, Israel, and Wales to piece together how to cure the zombie virus.
The sequences in Israel are particularly complex. On the one hand, the movie’s suggestion that the Israeli government knew about the zombie apocalypse before anyone else, and shut their borders accordingly, echoes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews somehow knew about 9/11 in advance. Except that World War Z‘s portrayal of the Mossad, of a tenacious Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) who won’t even let a severed hand stop her, and of Jerusalem as a welcoming ecumenopolis, is very positive.
Since the human characters are so very much at the forefront of World War Z, the zombies do inevitably get short-shrift. Forster seems content to just give us quick glimpses of them, often clustered together in CGI hordes like insects working in tandem. Expect none of the fine makeup you’ve become used to on The Walking Dead. In fact, close-up shots of the zombies show them chomping non-stop, even when they’re just biting air, as if they’re Hungry Hungry Hippos in human form. But focusing attention more on the human characters actually ratchets up the suspense. A scene in which infected souls turn into zombies then start biting fellow passengers on a commercial airliner is absolutely terrifying. As is the final set-piece, which I will not spoil for you here. Those moments of tightly-wound dread show that World War Z, unlike the zombies it depicts, or most other summer blockbusters for that matter, is far from brain-dead.
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