We’re watching WORLD WAR Z

12 Jun

Paul McAuley collects plot coupons.

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World War Z
Marc Forster (dir)

We’ve had shambling zombies; we’ve had racing, rage-filled feral zombies. Now the blockbuster film World War Z, based on the novel by Max Brooks, presents flash-mob zombies laying waste to vast swathes of the planet. In this ambitious, big-budget attempt to combine zombie horror-flick tropes with a Contagion‑style race‑against‑time search for the cure to a global plague, the undead aren’t after the brains and flesh of the living. Their sole purpose is to spread the disease that’s transformed them, using superhuman speed and strength to chase down and infect new victims.

Unlike Contagion‘s portrayal of global disaster through slick juxtaposition of multiple viewpoints, World War Z‘s story sticks close to its hero, UN troubleshooter Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). When zombies sweep across the world, Lane manages to get his family to a safe berth on a fleet of ships anchored far from land, but in return must help a young scientist search for the source of the disease. The first half hour, with its focus on survival in a city where zombies and panicking citizens are running amok, and infection spreads in visible waves, is rather terrific, but after that Pitt treks from place to place, brow furrowed, dutifully collecting plot coupons. There’s a great cameo from David Morse as a renegade CIA agent caged in an overrun airbase, and for a moment I hoped he’d partner up with Pitt and inject a little drama and oddball to‑and‑fro into the exposition, but no, he’s left behind as Pitt sets off after another coupon – this time to Jerusalem. And then to a WHO health facility in Cardiff, of all places, where Pitt works out a solution to the plague by the usual science-in-blockbuster method of forehead-slapping revelation and dodgy analogy. The story’s energy dissipates in a bunch of running-around-corridors scenes and close-up zombie-fu that appears to have been bolted on from a different film with a much lower budget, and it abruptly ends with the kind of voice-overed montage imposed by studio heads trying to impose some kind of conventional closure.

Director Marc Forster marshals some impressive action scenes – notably zombies swarming army-ant style over a city’s defences and a neat zombies‑loose‑on‑a‑plane bit – but these are interspersed between a great deal of solemn exposition, the global scope of the disaster being conveyed mainly by glimpses of news feeds and a single nuclear explosion. We’re never really made to care about the fate of the hero’s wife and kids (who are mostly written out of the second half of the film), and the PG‑13 rating means that there’s none of the traditional mayhem and spatter. Apart from some shoot‑em‑up stuff, most of the action, like a post‑Hayes code film, is above the waist, which leads to a risible moment as Pitt struggles to tug the business end of a crowbar from a downed zombie like a golfer lining up a difficult putt. World War Z is by no means the disaster that some are claiming, and there are hints that it was originally much more ambitious. In the end, though, its hybrid story fails to cohere.

Read Paul McAuley’s story The Man in Arc 1.2: Post human conditions, out now for screens, tablets, phones and in a collectible print edition.

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