It's the end of the world as we know it. At least for the film industry.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently gave a talk at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where they discussed what they think's in store for the future of the medium. They suggest the recent spate of hundred million dollar flops - more John Carters, more Battleships - will force distributers to drive up the price of tickets, making visiting the cinema more akin to attending a Broadway or West End show. Less than ideal for those who, like me, are unemployed and have a blog to keep updated.
Given that Spielberg and Lucas together basically invented the blockbuster (Jaws followed by the original Star Wars trilogy), they're certainly something of an authority on the matter, though they may have failed to account for the impact of the online market.
Even so, World War Z initially bore all the hallmarks of a giant disaster in the making. Half a decade's pre-development? Check. Huge budget overshoot? Check. Last-minute rewrites? Delayed release? Fan-based controversy? Check. Check. Check.
In the case of the latter concern, setting the film during the zombie crisis as opposed to after it, as in the case of Max Brooks' original novel, made a lot of people wonder, myself include, as to the point of adapting World War Z at all. The novel takes place ten years after the pandemic and detail how society has responded in the wake of near-extinction, e.g. the alteration of US troop tactics following the failure of their traditional "shock and awe". Without trying capture this aspect of the novel, described as an alternate history in the mode of Studs Terkel, the question became why bother? Anything else would be just another zombie film.
While Marc Forster's World War Z is in many aspects "just another zombie film", it succeeds in capturing something no previous entry in the canon has: what a zombie infestation would mean on a global scale. It's this world building that sets Forster's adaptation apart from the rest of the brain-ravening pack.
The set up, that of former UN investigator Gerry Lane who is forced back into the field to uncover the source of the devastating virus, is mostly an excuse for an exercise in jet-setting, as Gerry rushes from one toppling culture to another in search of answers, as well as giving forty-nine year-old star Brad Pitt what could be his last chance at his own action franchise. Gerry is an everyman trying to do right by his family. Pitt doesn't so much occupy the role as ride along in it, but he's a more-than capable actor and Gerry makes for a likeable, sympathetic protagonist.
With him we witness chaos on the streets of Philadelphia as commuters are chased down and brutally infected by the leonine undead, the plight of American soldiers on an isolated army base in South Korea, the siege of Jerusalem, and, perhaps somewhat anticlimactically, the search for a cure in rural Wales. All of this is accompanied by a vast number of civilian deaths with Gerry and his companions of the moment fleeing through foreign streets. Stylistically, it's very much a thinking man's Roland Emmerich.
While Gerry's wife Karin, played by Mireille Enos of AMC's The Killing, is quickly reduced to motivation for Gerry, the voice at the end of the phone, other actors are better served by more marginal roles. David Morse is memorable in essentially a cameo as a toothless, demented CIA operative while a haunted Daniella Kertesz and gung-ho James Badge Dale (last seen as a top-ranking henchman in Iron Man 3) play two soldiers from very different backgrounds. Peter Capaldi and Ruth Negga, however, are sadly wasted as a nameless scientists.
The film's "realistic" treatment of zombies is intriguing with the virus that creates them at one point being compared to Spanish flu. Reduced to animalistic plague carriers, these zombies swarm en masse in their thousands, tumbling over each other, scaling walls as mountains of flesh. Their behaviour is reminiscent of ants, hive-like. It's an interesting take on the monster du jour (that or sexy vampires), one that helps you appreciate the pace with which they've laid civilisation to ruin.
World War Z endeavours to be genuine, to be gritty, dwelling on the physical reality of what it must be like to live through the zombie apocalypse. A desperate trip to the pharmacy for the Lane family places them amongst fellow looters and rapists with a nearby police officer too busy filling his own basket to help. It might not possess the all-encompassing detail of Brook's novel, but it's more a portrait than the snapshot offered even by The Walking Dead.
I'm gonna take a little time to talk about the final act given it was this section of the film that held up its release. When Damon Lindelof (of Prometheus fame/notoriety) was bought in to carry out rewrites, I lost a lot of faith in the likelihood of World War Z managing to tell a comprehensive story. Then Lindelof went and Drew "Cloverfield" Goddard entered the picture, making me at least a little more hopeful. So, how did it end up?
Given that this is a mostly spoiler-free review, I'll leave it at "mostly satisfyingly". After some fairly epic sequences of cities falling that the stakes should be brought down to such a human level, making it once more about Gerry, his survival, his sacrifice, is strangely refreshing. The solution, while strongly telegraphed, is clever and worthy of Brooks' novel.
Despite some substantial reservations, I really enjoyed World War Z - it kept me if not on the edge of my seat then far enough forward that my legs were sort of dangle-y -, enough so that I hope it gets a sequel. It's even made me rejudge my praise of Man of Steel.
Verdict: World War Z is a dynamic if less-than-faithful adaptation, ambitious but generally conventional. Diehard fans of Brooks' novel may be irked by the loss of detail, but the film is nevertheless a persuasive bit of world-building. While it's not the absolute classic it might have been, it steers well clear of I Am Legend territory. For making me interested in zombie cinema again, against expectations, I award World War Z ****. Who knows, maybe there's life in the old corpse yet.