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World War Z – Review
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World War Z – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Gerry (Brad Pitt) used to be a special investigator for the United Nations. Now, he’s a house husband in Philadelphia.

During the school run with the family one day, the traffic comes to a standstill. Emergency services sirens can be heard. An air of panic sets in as people start running from their stranded vehicles. The few cars that can still move are dashing through gaps until they crash into others trying to escape – but escape what?

Dozens – maybe hundreds of people – are running towards them, growling, pouncing, biting, eating anyone they can get their teeth on. A virus is spreading that gives people a voracious appetite for fresh flesh – in modern parlance, zombies are taking over not just Philadelphia, but the world.

A resourceful former UN investigator, Gerry manages to get his family to the safety of a roof-top, where his old colleagues collect them in a helicopter and fly them to a warship off-shore. But they’re not helping him out of any sense of duty; he’s the only person the UN thinks can find the source of the outbreak and save humanity.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

When you’re making a film that’s so deeply embedded in genre, there’s a tough balance to strike between ticking the right boxes and conjuring up something fresh. The recent Byzantium had little new to offer the vampire film and World War Z has even less to freshen up the zombie-apocalypse world.

This is more Dawn of the Dead than Shaun of the Dead, and with the globe-trotting search for patient zero, there’s more than just a nod to Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion.

The film clearly springs from the Max Brooks novel of the same name, but where that was steeped in political commentary, the film is aiming for the blockbuster audience, so a UN investigator becomes an improbable war hero. The change of emphasis leaves the film without a clear identity or a coherent purpose.

The opening sequence effectively sets up the sense of impending doom, but once Pitt – who also produces – begins his travelogue, the film becomes little more than a series of action sequences, tied together with the thinnest of narrative threads.

As he flits around the globe, he witnesses how different countries are trying to cope with catastrophe – Israel builds a wall to keep the enemy out, in what could be seen as a commentary on the security barrier designed to keep Palestinian militants at bay – but how odd that there are thousands of zombies swarming around outside Israel’s walls, while there’s not a single one trying to get into the medical centre in Cardiff where a group of hot-blooded humans are trying to find a cure for the pandemic.

Pitt’s investigator learns what he can about the soul-destroying illness and tries to piece together the clues to help him work out how to stop the march of the zombies, but every step of the way, we see what he sees, yet he jumps to conclusions no rational person would – which is probably just as well, because without his insightfulness, the world would clearly have no hope.

It was clear from an early stage that the novel was not going to make a comfortable transition to the big screen; six months before it’s original release date, new writers were being hired to come up with a new ending – which required millions more dollars being spent on reshoots. It’s almost impossible to imagine how much more incoherent it would have been as previously envisaged.

Pitt is by far and away the most recognisable actor in the film – indeed his is the only character given any weight – but there are a handful of other familiar faces, not least The Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi, in a disappointingly straight role – without a whiff of sarcasm or irony, you might wonder why he was even cast.

It will be unsurprising to learn that the film-makers envisaged this being the opening part of a trilogy, since “end of part one” would seem more appropriate than “the end” if a final caption were needed over a closing scene that feels unsatisfyingly incomplete. That’s not to say that it feels like a cliff-hanger to tee up World War ZZ, or whatever it might be called – where do you go from Z? But a title aside, after the production problems, who would be brave enough to invest more than the $200,000,000 already thrown at this mediocre, inconsistent, unoriginal tale? Perhaps it will need more of the political provenance of the book to give the brand a more thoughtful edge.

Almost all that makes World War Z stand out from the crowd is its overblown budget, since zombies and their ilk are usually the realm of low budgets – a bit of green eye-shadow and ketchup can be as effective as the most state-of-the-art SFX if the narrative works.

If you’ve never seen a zombie film, this is a well-enough made act-one of far-too-long a thriller – but for anyone who’s familiar with the undead, your two hour would be better spent watching 28 Days Later again.

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