At one point, World War Z looked set to join the pantheon of great Hollywood failures, with a budget of anywhere between $200 million and $400 million wasted on an overlong and trite mess. After dedicated reshoots and editing, however, Marc Forster’s film has instead emerged as a predictable, but nonetheless effective and tense action-thriller.
The film’s pandemic outbreak does away with the over-used trope of a character waking up from a coma/surgery/sleep to a changed world, instead opening with the strongest portion of the film, a day and night in New Jersey, as Brad Pitt’s Gerry marshals his family towards a UN extraction. The section is taut and nervous, and the sense of vulnerability and panic is at its height; it is also the only part of the film which feels true in a significant way to the tone of Max Brooks’ novel of the same name, which inspired the screen version.
Here we get short glimpses into other people’s stories, such as the Hispanic family who briefly shelter Gerry, his wife and his children. There are clues that this multiplicity could have been a calculated direction for the film before the studio or producers got a hold of it, such as when a threatening police officer beelines past the family to hastily grab childcare supplies from a looted shop, rather than arrest the gun-wielding Pitt. The subtlety of such hints at everyone having desperate stories to tell is lost as the film progresses, growing into a more predictable and safe affair.
Gerry, a UN investigator, is despatched to investigate the origin of the disease, in the hope of eventually finding a cure, and his globe-trotting adventure features stints in Korea, Israel and, somewhat amazingly, Wales. Each effectively boils down to a pattern of exposition, set-piece, then progress onwards, but this is not necessarily a problem. The dank rain of the Korean night is foreboding, and the finale in a Welsh World Health Organisation outpost is full of tension; the attack from hordes of zombies moving with almost hive-mind-like efficacy in Israel strains the borders of belief, though, and ends up feeling too action-packed and unbelievable. That this is the only point when such an issue arises is thanks to the reshoots – the initial ending featured Pitt escaping Israel for Moscow, and eventually participating in a multi-level pitched battle in the Red Square, in what sounds like a very literal interpretation of the title. Instead, the plane he boards heads for Wales, and a less bleak but more effective conclusion.
The film’s main issues are that, as a trade-off of the reshoot, the last forty minutes are overly predictable, and more consistently there is an odd lack of gore for a film in the zombie tradition. We see Pitt creep around, ending undead lives with axe, crowbar and gun, but whenever he delivers a killing blow, the camera is pointedly not looking. While too much gore can be comedic, as AMC’s The Walking Dead has evidenced at times on television, the lack of intimate violence leads to the zombies as individuals feeling too weak. This is only exacerbated by the extras playing zombies’ clacking of jaws and overly jerky movements – the audience I watched with laughed at multiple points when the film-makers clearly wanted the opposite reaction.
These flaws aside, however, World War Z does not do nearly enough wrong to earn itself the status of ‘flop’, and has jump-scared aplenty to keep you on edge – unless the intelligence of the source material is sacrosanct to you to the point where deviation will cause distress, there is nothing that much wrong with World War Z, if nothing outstandingly right either.