By Emily C. Reubush
One very over-used phrase in the world of film reviews is ‘a roller coaster ride of …’ (insert most applicable: laughs, terror, fun, adventure; slap it on a poster and you’re good to go). ‘World War Z’, however, was a roller coaster ride of its own long before it hit the cinema.
The dreaded ‘sources close to the production’ were gushing like a severed carotid artery from the very beginning about problem after problem during the making of the film. Reportedly, weeks before shooting was slated to begin, there had been no decision as to how the zombies would look and move. The original script, in particular the third act, was overhauled – by a different screenwriter – even after production had begun. Numerous crew members were brought on, then replaced. Time scheduled for part of the shoot was said to be a third of what was needed. As issues mounted, disaster sirens were blaring for this disaster movie. By the time more than a month of reshoots were announced, popular opinion from blogs far and wide was that ‘World War Z’ was as good as dead, with less hope for successful reanimation than its legions of extras.
As the film prepared at last for this week’s opening, skepticism reigned supreme on the interwebs. My expectations going in were well tempered.
The opening sequence feels a little too in-your-face in the symbolism department: flashes of happy, simple life slowly become more muddled and complex as our world has become: families all busy with cell phones for instance, and then leave the human realm entirely for sequences of animals tearing each other to pieces as the soundtrack goes from accounts of sunny weather to reports of a rapidly spreading, mysterious disease. Producer and star Brad Pitt has been open with the fact that this is not a simple zombie film—it’s “a Trojan Horse for sociopolitical problems”, and that heavy-handed opening worried me a bit about the intensity of metaphors to come.
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is an ex-UN investigator who retired from that (apparently) dangerous game to spend his time with his wife and two daughters (it seems he has become an expert pancake-maker). The four of them are stuck in traffic in downtown Philadelphia when the action hits with all the force of a runaway garbage truck. From there, it rarely lets up.
There have been too many zombie films over the years to keep track of and, despite all the repetition, each one has its own take on the creatures. Do they lumber? Crawl? Run? Stumble? Are their eyes red or black or glazed over? What sound do they make? How sentient are they? How do you stop them? At this point in the zombie evolution, it’s a bit of a card shuffle – a little of this, a little of that, throw it in the effects oven and BAM! Out comes a piping hot serving of zombie. (All right, maybe not so much piping hot as ambient temperature, but forgive me for butchering a metaphor.) The ‘Zekes’ in this case are running, jumping, climbing, determined feeding machines. They swarm like ants, advance like a tidal wave. Their movement is like parkour on steroids. But they are not always on the move. They go dormant when stimuli (read: acceptable prey) is not around, and turn into the more classic stumblers –they sit down, or even take naps. But make a sound and they do their best hysterical pterodactyl/rabid hamster impression on the way to tearing out your throat.
Perhaps the most immediately terrifying aspect of this version of zombification is the immediacy and violence with which it takes effect: 12 seconds; disjointing seizures; and then immediate and rabid rage. After fleeing with his family to a rooftop early in the film, Gerry is afraid he has been infected and rushes to the very edge of the building to count out a lifetime, intending to hurtle himself into the abyss to spare his family at the first sign of transformation.
There is little fat to trim in this film. Gerry hops around the globe looking for some tiny glimmer of hope of survival, shedding costars along the way with little ceremony. In short: it’s hectic, unpredictable, and possibly a lot like things would be if a pandemic like this suddenly seized the planet.
This film is intense, but not nearly as heartless as some reviewers are making it out to be. There is familial duty and desperation, but it is realistic, not sappy. There’s camaraderie and cooperation, but no manufactured sentimentality to tug at your heart strings.
The score, however, swells a bit too dramatically at times, and the extreme similarity to ‘Tubular Bells’ (the theme from ‘The Exorcist’) was distracting. After nearly two hours of tension and terror, the conclusion comes a little too quickly and easily, and you may walk out of the cinema a bit let down because of the somewhat unfinished note the film ends on. You will, however, likely take a look around at the life and the normality surrounding you, and breathe a sigh of relief. Recommended.