It’s fair to say I went into this without high hopes. I was aware of some of the fraught production history, though primarily from having read a few reviews beforehand. Yet I like Brad Pitt as an actor, and in the end really enjoyed this tense and gripping thriller about a zombie apocalypse.
It has limitations obviously. For a start, it’s probably best to think of it as a film about a catastrophic viral outbreak, with the zombies being a sort of convenient writers’ short-hand for something Very Bad that is nevertheless Obviously Fictional. I don’t think these zombies share much in common with other cinematic and fictional zombies: they’re in essence just monsters (quick, lethal, dangerous). As an outbreak that needs to be contained, the hopes of (yes) all humanity are basically on the shoulders of Brad Pitt’s former UN investigator Gerry, whose singular ability to spot the zombies’ weaknesses is surely only explicable because the numbers of intelligent people have been so depleted — mostly it’s just military types remaining, with the odd civilian like Gerry who’s been whisked to the safety of a convoy of ships in the Atlantic.
What the film is good at — what I enjoyed about it — is that it manages to sustain for most of its running time a claustrophobic tension, from the initial scenes set in Philadelphia as Gerry and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) take their kids to school, to Gerry’s attempts to track down the cause of the virus first in South Korea, then in Israel and finally at a WHO laboratory in Wales. The film has a very sure control over the mood it creates, and there’s a feeling of constant peril around all the (human) characters.
That said, it does indulge in some rather reductive and spurious analogies, foremost amongst them the claim that North Korea and Israel have resisted the zombie invasion thus far thanks to their paranoid border security. David Morse is even wheeled on as a toothless defector to the North Koreans, his scenes set in the barely-filtered half light of a dingy cell, a Cassandra figure by way of Hannibal Lecter. The Israeli scenes are no more subtle — and when that country’s borders do succumb it’s ironically due to the amplified singing of peace song “Od yavo shalom aleinu” — though Gerry does at least pick up a companion in his fight against the zombies in the form of a laconic soldier played by Daniella Kertesz, which somewhat balances Enos’s rather thankless ‘worried wife back home’ role (though she does that very well).
Of course, the focus of the film is at all times on Pitt’s investigator, and he does well in this thinly-veiled saviour role. At the very least, the film doesn’t greatly outstay its welcome, restrainedly clocking in at under two hours. If the ending is a bit vague — suggesting the (surely remote) possibility of a sequel — it is at least suitably bittersweet, given the ravages of the previous two hours. World War Z doesn’t deserve all of the ire it’s received, and winds up as a more than competent thriller.
Director Marc Forster; Writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski (based on the novel by Max Brooks); Cinematographer Ben Seresin; Starring Brad Pitt, Daniella Kertesz, Mireille Enos; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Wednesday 3 July 2013.