World War Z
Marc Forster certainly believes in bad luck. In “World War Z” (2013), Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is stuck with his family in gridlocked Philadelphian traffic when a zombie outburst reduces the population to frenzied chaos, people running screaming, panic spreading as potently as the zombie virus. Forster shoots it handheld and quickens the cutting to stimulate the fright of the crowd, making the implicit point along the way that a large group of people act as crazily in a dangerous situation as zombies do. As so often in “World War Z” though, the implications are not even touched on or the point made clear: too much is happening for time to reflect. Brad Pitt and his family must be saved, and that takes precedent.
The following scenes of the film where Lane and family shelter in Newark with another family in a tower block are heavily reminiscent of similar scenes in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (2002), the fast moving zombies combined with the dangers of a city at night, the living and the dead, combining to create an almost virtual, albeit slicker, remake.
During the escape from Philadelphia, Lane counts down how long it takes for someone to be bitten to turn to a zombie; it’s strange as there is no indication he should expect this to happen and renders his actions inexplicable, in a movie full of strange, throwaway plot points. Karin (an underwritten Mireille Enos), his wife, for instance, is English, but in reality the actress is American, and the dialogue explaining it is bizarrely shoe horned in. It reeks of the leftovers of a plot point later written out.
Still, during a zombie attack on top of a tower block, Lane rushes to the ledge of the building and counts down, fearing he may be infected. He isn’t, but it’s a good moment, although again very similar to “28 Days Later”. Throughout this epic-scale film, elements of a smaller, more personal film are ever present, particularly in this opening act: the sight of a cop, facing the breakdown of civilisation, helping himself to food supplies like everyone else or a drunk on the streets of Philadelphia calmly oblivious to the confusion and violence around him. It’s a pity the film then is eventually more concerned with death and destruction than the human responses to it.
Later, after being rescued by helicopter, Lane is coerced by his old college and now U.N. Deputy Secretary-General, Thierry Umutoni (an impassioned Fana Mokoena); into helping find the origin of the virus in the hope of discovering a vaccine. Lane was previously a U.N. investigator and is seen as eminently reliable.
Yet upon reaching Camp Humphreys in South Korea, where the outbreak was first reported, Lane and Dr. Andrew Fassbach (Elyes Gabel), who is described as the best hope for developing a cure, zombies attack the team as they disembark from the aircraft; Fassbach panics, slips and shoots himself dead. The macabre, black humour inherent in the situation is largely ignored; the ridiculously mundane, absurd bad luck worthy of Albert Camus. The die truly is loaded.
The entire sequence in South Korea is actually the best in the film, beautifully shot at night in the pouring rain, the Academy Award winning Robert Richardson delivering a series of stunning images. Unfortunately, Richardson was a casualty of the very troubled production and Ben Seresin (a frequent collaborator with Michael Bay), who partially shot the film, took final, sole credit. David Morse has a memorable, single scene as a CIA operative imprisoned on the base, who teasingly lets Lane know that Jerusalem has become a “safe zone”, secured by the Israeli military. It’s a rare moment of calm in a frantic picture, Forster just letting the scene play.
The action scene where Lane and Captain Speke (James Badge Dale) and his troops attempt to refuel the aircraft silently (noise attracts the zombies) is excellent and again hinges on bad luck. Karin calls Gerry on his mobile as he and the troops surreally ride bicycles out to the aircraft, the sound bringing forth the zombies. The flurry of movement, lit by muzzle blasts, is intensely striking in a uniquely cinematic manner, where violence and poor lighting can be combined in a beautiful way.
The phone call from Karin is part of a whole series of cutbacks from the main plot to Lane’s family. Along with Karin, there are their children Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins) as well as Tommy (Fabrizio Zacharee Guidoas), a child rescued by the Lanes after his family where infected in Newark. Housed in an aircraft carrier, part of a fleet of United States navy warships off New York, Karin is given unfortunately very little to do except play the Worried Dutiful Wife. In doing so, Forster, it is clear, hopes to give the film an emotional depth it lacks, but the characters are too shallow to be effective. All it achieves is the bland, false emotional rhetoric of innumerable Hollywood studio pictures. The scenes are too brief for any impact and consequently the film fails to breathe and pause; throughout, the constant linear progression becomes almost wearying, failing to create any sort of accumulative effect.
Worse, Gerry Lane himself is far from interesting. Pitt is good, but it hardly pushes his boundaries as an actor and the script all too often requires him to merely look tense and worried. After the many, many script rewrites, each one taking the film further and further away from Max Brooks’ (son of Mel) 2006 source novel of the same title, the plot took over and abandoned the characters. Pitt produced through his company Plan B and one can only wonder whether the logistics blinded him to what was happening to his character. As detailed in the in-depth Vanity Fair piece, on the making of the film by Laura M. Holson, the script was constantly reworked at Paramount Studios all the time by a rotating, diverse army of writers: Drew Goddard (a long time collaborator with both Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams on their television projects as well as directing 2012’s “The Cabin in the Woods”), Damon Lindelof (the creator of “Lost” and scriptwriter on Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” ), Matthew Michael Carnahan (usually more at home writing political thrillers like “Lions for Lambs”  and “State of Play” ) and J. Michael Straczynski (creator of “Babylon 5” and behind the story of “Thor” ). The budget jumped from $175 million to a rumoured $225 million (although denied by Paramount).
Worse still, the proposed climax in Russia, a large scale battle between humans and zombies was scrapped after the initial edit; throwing away millions of dollars worth of footage, Lindelof and Goddard were brought in to write an entirely new ending, this time set in a World Health Organisation facility in Wales. Christopher McQuarrie was brought on for on set script fixes as well. The re-shoots merely added to the cost of the film and the various on-set troubles, some say that were exasperated by Forster’s inexperience around big set piece action scenes involving large numbers of extras.
It’s almost ironically fitting then, that the film’s action centrepiece, zombies attacking and breaking into the Jerusalem Safe Zone, is the worst sequence in the film. By the time Lane arrives there, the unshakable malaise of globe-trotting ennui has set in, the lack of progression or even regression for our stolid main character meaning the audience becomes distanced from him and events. The Director of Mossad, Jurgen Warmbrunn (Ludi Boeken), explains to Lane how they knew months before the rest of the world the severity of the pandemic; the implicit point being, that like North Korea who supposedly manages to neutralise the zombie threat by taking out the teeth of virtually the whole population, the countries most prepared for war and invasion are those most likely to survive such a global disaster. As ever though, the repercussions of this are not touched upon.
The mass scenes of chaos as civilians flee the ravenous hordes displays fully the weaknesses in the computer generated imagery employed, from helicopters to zombies, some of the shots feeling as if they still a few passes away from being completely rendered. As a result, the impact of the scene is diluted and lacks the clammy terror it deserves. Forster stages it unimaginatively, although closer up it delivers to a certain, compromised extent. If anything, it proves that Forster, a director more renowned for his dramas than action films, works best in smaller scale action sequences; any ambitions for this to be David Lean with zombies, as Matt Zoller Seitz succinctly puts it, are scuttled.
The main saving grace of the entire segment in Jerusalem (actually Valetta in Malta; likewise Glasgow doubled for Philadelphia, although not so you’d know) is the introduction of “Segen”, played by Daniella Kertesz. Her name is never given (Segen is a rank in the Israeli military); she’s tasked to escort and protect Lane. Silent, ambiguous, she’s a breath of fresh air, a complete clash with the other acting styles seen in the film and her entrance and presence suddenly makes everything more interesting. There is another film, layered and introspective, locked away in Kertesz’s character.
Her hand is bitten by a zombie as she and Lane flee the beleaguered city; instinctively he cuts the hand off. It’s a good moment, Lane resorting to crude but effective methods, Forster nicely capturing it amidst the confusion and panic, not allowing it to be overwhelmed by the large scale surroundings, not something he avoids at other junctures in the film.
The plot traipses onward relentlessly, although the entire sequence on the aircraft, being flown to a World Health Organisation research facility outside of Cardiff in Wales, belongs to a long series of honourably staged plane disasters, Hollywood in the past ten years apparently having got the churning horror down pat, tapping into an audience’s innate fear of flying and plane crashes. Although the scene at its heart is improbable (just how did the zombie stow away?), it does help reinforce the theme of the film, if you will, how life essentially turns on luck. Bad luck at first, but then the plane conveniently crashes extraordinary close to the WHO facility. Lane and Segen are the only survivors, albeit Lane is severely injured.
After regaining consciousness, Lane finds himself in the main building of the facility, having been in a coma for three days. The surviving staff, among them Peter Capaldi, are initially suspicious of him and only believe Lane’s story when he puts them on the phone to Thierry Umutoni.
It emerges that most of the facility is inhabited by zombies, including where the most deadly pathogens are stored. This is crucial as Lane has developed a theory, due to seeing an old man and a gaunt young boy completely disregarded by the rampaging zombies in Jerusalem, that the zombies only attack those who not dying, either from injuries or illness, the logic being they would not be suitable hosts for the virus. However, to prove this, Lane needs to inject himself with a terminal, but curable, virus and present himself to the zombies. Thwart with danger, Lane must proceed with Segen and a WHO doctor into the zombie-infested wing of the centre.
Low-key and shot to replicate the character’s viewpoints, the trio’s traverses through the corridors are very, very well made, each sound making the audience wince. It’s not particularly original and it seems on paper to be the sequence that has been done the most elsewhere, but Forster creates a very credible, technically strong suspense sequence. It’s refreshing after the bloated Jerusalem battle, and it was actually probably the right decision to re-shoot the ending, changing from another large fight in Moscow to this more personal, gripping finale.
The climax, with Lane alone (Segen and the doctor having to have turned back) and trapped, blindly choosing a pathogen and hoping it will work, is done well, despite the ever present feeling that he will survive and walk past the zombies unmolested. “World War Z” is a strange beast of a film, but in the end, it inevitably goes for a “happy” ending, never even contemplating a grimmer, more downbeat one. He succeeds, and the ending proper is followed by a coda that spells out how the world is now going to be saved, Lane and family living in a safe zone in Freeport, Nova Scotia. It’s rushed and confusing, a mixture of news footage and film shot specifically for the movie, edited bewilderingly, covering enough ground for an entirely new film. The final shot of Lane and family with him saying in voiceover (a tacked-on element that reeks of Forster and the studio just wanting the damn thing to end): “This isn’t the end. Not even close.” It sounds like the usual contrived attempt to set up a sequel. The appalling buzz surrounding the film before its release seem to put paid for that, but at last count, the film, much to everyone’s relief at Paramount, had outperformed everyone’s predictions and grossed over $500 million worldwide off a budget that has been estimated to have been between $190 million to $220 million. A success and perhaps the promise (threat?) of another film could well happen.
Taken as a whole, the film could well be the grimmest blockbuster since Steven Spielberg’s 9/11 infused “War of the Worlds” (2005). Vast swathes of the population are killed, Forster playing detailed violence beneath the frame, but cunningly using his visual style (a mixture of frantic camera moving and cutting and cool smooth shooting) to suggest to the audience that they saw more than they really did.
Yet in coming to terms with the movie, it is inevitable that one tries to find what the virus and zombie epidemic represent. George A. Romero used it to critique materialism, while the virus movies of the nineties, such as “Outbreak” (1995), used it as a symbolic depiction of HIV/aids. Forster though isn’t overtly preoccupied with investing meaning into the apocalypse, leading to Robbie Collin’s assertion in “The Daily Telegraph” that there is “an elaborate uselessness” about the film ring true. Technique is indulged by Forster more than emotion and intelligence.
Not that emotion is abandoned altogether, but it’s so stunted in growth and ghettoised to virtually the first act that Lane’s final reunion lacks any sort of catharsis or satisfaction.
So how does the technique fare? Robert Richardson’s and Ben Seresin’s cinematography is luminous, but on the debt side there is Marco Beltrami’s bland and literally lifeless score. The editing by Roger Barton and Matt Cheese is a melange of styles, from fast editing to a more measured pace, that manages to work in fits and starts, but disrupts the tone of the picture.
Forster shows his talent, although evidently it isn’t for large scale action scenes. He said he viewed the film as following in manner with the conspiracy films of the seventies. While the political dimension may have been lost, the thriller approach wasn’t. In fact, it is not until the tense search through the WHO research laboratory that he fully touches on and embraces the zombie genre’s horror roots.
Finally, “World War Z” is a mess; a mess of styles, a mess of intent. At times it stumbles into remarkably effective sequences, at others it reveals the multitude of script re-writes, strangely poor computer generated imagery and repetitive pacing. Still, it can be beautiful and intriguing, and in the end, engrossing, which is some sort of recommendation, no matter how qualified.
“World War Z” is released in DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray Steelbook editions by Paramount Pictures on September 17th, 2013.