World War Z (2013) Review:
Zombies are a staple of horror cinema. They’re one of the only movie monsters to stand the test of time and still hold a profit. Sure Twilight technically has vampires in it as well as werewolves but the quality of those films aside, the monsters aren’t presented as monsters and instead take the role of the protagonist and ask the audience to root for them. Zombies achieve the most commercial success out of any of the established demons of entertainment, being used in film, video games and one of the most successful television shows on air. Some claim that zombies are on their way out and currently are experiencing over-saturation that will eventually decrease their entertainment value as a story device. Unfortunately, those people have been claiming that for almost a decade.
Although zombies have maintained commercial success in the film industry, the quality of these films can be said to have depreciated with the better zombie stories being either a deviation from the horror genre delving slightly into parody or are simply told in a different medium such as television or video games. Notable examples of this are ‘Zombieland’ and ‘Warm Bodies’. The last film I can remember with a bare bones, no fluff, pure zombie fueled story was ‘The Crazies’ but that film came out 3 years ago, almost no one saw it, and was itself a remake. That is of course until I saw this movie.
‘World War Z’ is a curious film. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Max Brooks, although it reportedly deviates greatly from the original source material. It’s a zombie movie that doesn’t identify itself as a horror movie but doesn’t hide from that association either. It uses the unrealistic and impossible conflict of zombies but presents it as not only realistic but plausible one. Surely a film with this many inconsistencies must then itself be another of the mind-numbing unfocused street trash that often occupy the summer season.
Actually? ‘World War Z’ for the most part pulls off all its crazy stunts.
The film begins with a montage opening credits which switches between clips of wildlife living in their respective habitats (ants crawling on a leaf, lions running across a plain) and news reports of a violent epidemic. This pretty much sums up the film’s representation of zombies as being both a force of nature and a super disease. It also gives the identity the film tries to work with attempting to be part supernatural horror movie and part sci-fi thriller.
While the film juggles these well it also attempts to play off a narrative with no definitive setting. That’s not just concerning the place in which the story is told, which moves from country, to aircraft carrier, to country. World War Z also doesn’t define itself chronologically. The technology of the film is in no way advanced, safe for standard military equipment, the most advanced of this being a satellite phone. There’s no mention of Wi-Fi, the internet. Computers themselves are out of sight and any television depicted may very well be said to have existed 20 years ago. This is in no doubt intentional as the story itself is the main focus of the film and the story isn’t exactly dependent on a particular time period.
Speaking of the story, the plot of the film is relatively simple. Not that that’s a bad thing. It revolves around main character Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt, whose task it is to discover both the origin of the zombie apocalypse and a way to combat it. It’s never outright told why the character is chosen for this aside from a few throwaway lines of dialogue about his adventurous past working previously for the U.N and it does beg the question as to why this apparent family man is the best for the job. Although the numerous references to the character’s past give the impression that an extraneous prequel is to be expected.
It is instead shown on multiple occasions where the character portrays an intelligence and resourcefulness that is no doubt a result of that aforementioned experience. It’s a refreshing portrayal of the main character who we are given a reason to understand their capability without daunting exposition. It follows the tried and true rule of filmmaking “show, don’t tell” making use of the visual medium.
Upon his adventure the character goes to numerous locations around the world, establishing the threat as a worldwide event. The reasons for each of these locations is well communicated and are furthermore substantive enough to warrant the change in location. This leaves the audience to never go “Wait, why are we here again?” for either ignorance of mere confusion.
Every location is then spent a reasonable amount of time in, being not too short or too long avoiding the feeling that the change in location was inconsequential or unnecessary. They bookended by action set pieces that lead into the different scenery but never serve as the primary motivation for the change in scenery.
The film also avoids the feeling of becoming formulaic and without peril as the longer it goes on the more danger increases. Although the world’s greatest resources are at our heroes disposal, it isn’t lost on the film that at this stage that doesn’t mean much and what little it does mean is shown to depreciate over time. Although the film is extremely tense in some scenes, it balances this with light dialogue, with characters joking in between serious conversations.The film takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, ensuring not to overwhelm the audience.
As I mentioned earlier the film treats zombies in an interesting way. It relies on your understanding of zombies to a certain extent while still explaining the inner workings of the creatures in this universe as the characters themselves are understanding them. The most explanation is done near the end and is not done in a way to induce eye-rolling. The zombies are depicted in familiar fashion as horror movies prior have depicted them when characters are in enclosed locations, whether it be a hospital or an apartment, playing upon claustrophobia and restriction. It is in these scenes where the “monster” aspect of the creatures is amplified. Otherwise the zombies are treated as a spreading infection depicted in insurmountable hoardes. Both portrayals are sufficient in providing the thrills and drama necessary for the scenes to work and to present the zombies as an incredible threat and both help to keep the film feeling fresh instead of dull.
I should also note that the film does somewhat delve into the story mechanic of any apocalyptic film of the conscious human threat, with the average person doing horrible things once society crumbles. It’s present but it’s so brief that I almost forgot it writing this review.
Of course the film is not without it’s problems. The film does not exactly excel as far as character work. There’s no notable arc to be told here as the main character is already as capable as he can be. The most that can be said for his development is briefly near the end of the film, but this is so brief that it doesn’t exactly register as strongly as seemingly intended. Secondary characters suffer as the only notable characterization that they have is in moments that they have with the main character. These are fine with regards to establishment but since so little time is spent with them it’s difficult to connect with them as much as we’d like to. This is similar to ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ in which most if not all of the secondary characters were cardboard cut out caricatures, although it is less extreme in this film.
Visually the film somewhat falters. On the large scale the zombies are less than stunning as in their hoardes the zombies are digitally inserted. When in a large group it can all seem like a massive brown blur with no discernible features. When the hoarde is separated, the effect worsens as the quick paced individual zombie looks too unrealistic to be threatening. However when the film presents the zombies in it’s claustrophobic horror movie settings, proper old practical effects are used with delightful rotting skin and jagged teeth.
Furthermore the film has some difficulty with its action and suspense shots. There are shots in particular in which it feels as if this could be avoided. The film is hell bent on not displaying blood and gore, no doubt to secure a pg-13 rating. Because of this certain aspects of the scene are not visually present and leave the viewer frustrated. Other times the camera is much too close up and it is difficult to discern what precisely is going on, however this can be said to portray the chaos of the action.
World War Z is a creative zombie summer movie with a large scale that feels natural and earned. The simple plot, so-so character work, and convoluted camera movements keep it from being great but the film feels genuine by not trying to be more than it is, and what it is, is smarter than anyone expected, complete with an intelligent main character to boot.
Rating: Half Price
Sub-review note: A while back Cracked.com made note of 5 actors who do the same thing in every movie. Brad Pitt was noted of having something of an oral fixation, always putting something in his mouth. The biggest fear I had in this film was that he would not live up to expectations in this regard. I’m ecstatic to say he does not disappoint.