We like a good story, and every now and then film journalism alights upon a film to prophesy certain failure about. There are some common ingredients to these stories: the budget of the film must be both high and perceived and ever-expanding; it must be a high-profile film, often adapted from a much admired source; it must involve at least one very well-known star or director. Journalists and readers salivate at the prospect of high-profile failures like this – it punctures hubris and we all laugh. Heaven’s Gate. Bonfire Of The Vanities. Waterworld. We do love a good story about a bad one.
World War Z had all the ingredients, and was frequently presented as such. It stars Brad Pitt. It’s directed by Marc Forster – he’s clearly not that well-known, but he did direct the critically adored Monster’s Ball as well as the messy Quantum Of Solace. It’s adopted from a book loved by many as ground-breaking, challenging example of what you can do with the familiar material of a global zombie-crisis. And yes, the budget kept rising. To complete the picture there were re-writes and ending changes.
The scene was duly set for disaster and blood-letting.
Here’s the thing, though. Despite the gleeful promises of doom, it’s quite good and it’s making enough money to already have had a sequel commissioned.
I haven’t read the book, but those who have read it tell me it does diverge significantly from the source. Clearly this was done to translate what was a deliberately un-structured narrative into something more coherent. The coherence is only partially there in the film, which is a real mix of genres and tones. Brad Pitt is a former United Nations worker who narrowly affects the escape of his family from a zombie epidemic to UN safety. In return he agrees to help get to the bottom of the crisis sweeping the world. What is the virus and why is it spreading so quickly? Improbably the answer is in Wales.
The first section is solid zombie-shocker fare. There’s a few jumps and scares; the chaos of suddenly spreading epidemic is well-handled. Pitt’s family, importantly, do feel like a family. Then the first change of gear. After some family deliberations, Pitt is off to solve the crisis. The film moves off too – away from shocker to action movie with a few jumps. It’s well handled, directed and choreographed action – especially when there are large crowds involved. The main tone is suddenly thrills not fear, though. Then in the final 3rd we’re into haunted house/hospital territory as a solution is honed in-on. Again effective, again odd.
It’s all entertaining. It’s all clearly the product of an uncertain vision of how to take the film forward. It’s exciting and gripping, but I was jolted out of the film too often by the changes of tone and shift from one genre to another. It’s a let-down to the zombie genre in that it doesn’t use the format to explore bigger issues – witness Romero’s classic …Of The Dead films, 28 Days Later and sequel or even Shaun Of The Dead. World War Z verges on indelicate issues of geopolitics and even religion on one or two occasions but never has the guts to explore the themes properly.
Speaking of guts, this is (as the title implies) an action film not a horror one. There’s not of the literal or metaphorical guts of those films named above or TV’s The Walking Dead. There are a few winces, but this is a zombie film lacking teeth.
World War Z is uneven, clumsy and imperfect.
It is also fun, exciting and entertaining.
I look forward to a sequel with more confidence and coherence.
And maybe some guts.
I rated this movie 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com