Zombie movies, including Marc Forster’s recently released blockbuster offering World War Z (2013), can often become overly tied to generic conventions. Adversely, however, what’s most enjoyable about genre filmmaking is how directors bend and flex those boundaries. Sadly, Forster – still bemoaned for helming limp Bond entry Quantum Of Solace (2008) – fails to make full use of the material at hand, giving us at best a conventional zombie action flick, and at worst a tiresome bore with a bloated budget. Bratt Pitt plays Gerry Lane, the epitome of the family man, now retired from his career as a UN investigator.
We first meet Gerry in his happy Philadelphia home, making pancakes for his cherubic daughters Constance (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove), as well as wife Karin (Mireille Enos). On what should be a happy drive to work, the city is swarmed with extremely agile, flesh-eating creatures. This results in Lane and his brood being swept up by the surviving military force, who subsequently coerce Lane into travelling the globe in order to find the source of the disease – or else his family will be not-so-politely kicked off a navy carrier and left to fend for themselves. What makes Max Brooks’ source text so interesting has ultimately little to do with the ravenous undead – quite unlike Forster’s glossy take.
In World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Brooks uses the hordes as a literary device, playing with generic conventions to explore American foreign policy just as George A. Romero once did with racial inequality and consumerism in his …of the Dead cycle. In Forster’s cinematic version, however, zombies are the focus. Whilst Forster hasn’t totally abandoned the heart of Brooks’ novel, the elements (which become pertinent for the scenes set in Israel) he has opted for are all spectacle over substance. For all the merits of Pitt’s impassioned performance as Lane, the film is also stalled by an extremely repetitive structure. A scene will open calmly, hinting at the danger to come, before Gerry flees once more, repeating the cycle.
We become quickly accustomed to this rhythm, destroying the illusion of danger. This is perhaps reflected in the last-minute decision to set the film’s dénouement in Welsh countryside – with Peter Capaldi as a World Health Organisation doctor. The action here is contained, avoids slathering CGI indulgence and generates tension through its characters. Finally, we get the sense of peril we’ve been waiting for. Forster’s World War Z is more-or-less guilty of the same studio-pandering crimes as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel; namely, choosing to focus on elaborate set pieces and CGI spectacle over heart and human drama.