Known for directing films about death, drugs and dying, Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) does right in adapting a novel about zombies, making World War Z starring Brad Pitt an involving mystery-thriller about what it takes to beat what beats the living down.
This purpose-driven movie, rumored to be troubled in production and stacked with more writers than is desirable for a quality picture, puts it plainly: kill the enemy with everything you’ve got – cars, guns, anything you can grab and we’re not limited to those weapons, so don’t let the United Nations part of the plot fool you. This is not a politically correct version of world war, so don’t look for a ‘just war’ or some such nonsense. Here, the living actually learn to annihilate the corpses (which are caused by some unknown worldwide plague) with total war if necessary. The best weapon comes courtesy of family man Pitt as Gerry, a reluctant U.N. detective with a track record for success, who personifies the film’s theme that, to borrow Leonard Peikoff’s signature phrase, to save the world, all one has to do is think.
By now, you probably know that I can’t stand horror movies, let alone zombie movies, which rank with vampire movies in my book. I take the interest in them as a sign of the worship of the nothing and, other than an occasional laugh while watching a chiller movie for grins, I avoid them as detrimental to one’s health and I think in general the genre is exactly that. But in a world full of what amounts to zombies – people standing obediently in line at airports for government inspection, clusters of government road crews standing around doing nothing, people shuffling along at the job, on the freeway, and sitting on couches staring blankly at nothing-celebrity babies, honey boo-boos and boobs or biceps – I figured World War Z might just have a point.
And happily, almost trigger-happily, it does. But unlike Man of Steel and other decent movies, its violence is moved by the plot. So what starts off slow and suspiciously, with everyone inexplicably watching CNN and scenes of dog-eat-dog madness that made me wonder where this was going, gradually unspools the story of one man who has removed himself from avenging the world for the U.N. to tend to his own life and he is pressed back into service only for his own sake. Zombies are quickly consuming the globe, in city after city, nation after nation, as Pitt’s Gerry and his family witness, without the apocalyptic glee of Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg global destruction pics, and such parasitism is literally engulfing the entire world. Only a few outposts – at sea, on islands and, interestingly for what happens, Israel – remain free from the infestation and Gerry hasn’t much time to calculate why.
At every point, and this is why World War Z succeeds where other movies fail, Gerry chooses to think, listen, observe, re-think and act on his knowledge. Not unlike a brainier version of the John McClane character in Die Hard (1988), every step is part of a logical progression. Yet the repulsive subject matter, as against, say the godawful I Am Legend (and this is more like The Omega Man with Charlton Heston) doesn’t get in the way. No matter what disgusts, leaps or clings, it’s all about Gerry and his goal-driven journey to solve the mysteries and buy some time to avert the end of the world and that is what’s at stake. “Movement is life,” he instructs a fellow comrade early in the picture show, which is as gray as ash, and it must be thoughtful action, as a scientist discovers when he fails to grasp the difference between action and reaction. It falls to Gerry, who like Homer’s Odysseus travels the world seeking to return to his beloved wife, bonding with other individualists who don’t just follow orders from family, state or tribe, to show everyone how to think and act.
Intended or not, Forster and company seed other themes, too, such as people’s refusal to believe that evil is spreading around them as they tune out voices of dissent, soldiers losing limbs and body parts amid a mindless population that’s so busy chanting religious incantations that they’re oblivious to their own defense, and of course the idea that it’s going to get worse before it gets better and the worst is yet to come because, as Gerry intones at a crucial point, it’s not even close to the end. With his wife (Mireille Enos) and daughters under U.N. protection, which Gerry doesn’t trust, either, he at least has something to fight – which means to live – for and that’s more than many of his comrades (Matthew Fox, Pierfrancesco Favino, Fana Mokoena) can say. Those who choose to think fare best in a movie with the question are you a man or a zombie? as its fuse (much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and, if you don’t want to experience World War Z at that depth, that’ll work, too. But there you have what amounts to my first positive appraisal of a motion picture with zombies – and this epic horror film suits the times in which we live – that’s baldly about reason as man’s basic tool for survival, if only to buy time to dodge an endless onslaught of zombies.