Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dawn of the Zed: WORLD WAR Z

Hollywood’s latest rehearsal of total worldwide destruction is World War Z, a globetrotting zombie film that approaches the zombie problem as a plague to be contained and cured. It has more in common with the techno-thriller novels (turned films, usually) of Michael Crichton – Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain – than the gross-out shock satire horror films of George Romero – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead. In the detail-oriented, goal-driven throughline, we follow a representative of the United Nations played by Brad Pitt travelling through countries ravaged by zombie attacks hot on the trail of Patient Zero and, hopefully, a way towards understanding the outbreaks in order to stop them. The film is grimly satisfying, hopping from one nice suspense sequence to the next, treating the destruction soberly and the stakes with a sad weight.

It works because of the humane star power of Pitt. He’s playing a role that Robert Redford or Warren Beatty would have played if it was made in the 1970s with, say, Alan J. Pakula or Sydney Pollack behind the camera. Pitt’s aged into a still, strong, warm everyman persona very well. In this film he’s a man defined by his profession, a humanitarian, and his family, a wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove). His crisis-activated goals dovetail easily. He wants to keep his family safe and stop the developing worldwide calamity as best he can. That’s easier said than done, which gives us more than enough reason to root him on as he reluctantly leaves his family in the care of a refuge ship and flies around the world in a military plane, stopping in various countries, trying to trace the outbreak back to its source. At each stop, zombie attacks are inevitable. He meets character actors (like David Morse, Peter Capaldi, and Fana Mokoena) with helpful information (or not) to impart and traces the mystery as far as he can. Then zombies swarm into the picture in moments built out of small jolts and massive setpieces, and we’re off to the next stop.

Loosely based on a novel by Max Brooks, the film’s troubled production caused it to take on screenwriters like a sinking ship takes on water. The end result gives story credit to such heavy-hitters as Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), Damon Lindelof (Lost), and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5). That makes it hard to say who I should credit with coming up with tremendously effective sequences like the opening in downtown Philadelphia in which a traffic jam erupts in violence, or the late-night rainstorm attack on a darkened runway, or the scene in which a tidal wave of zombies scramble like ants against a protective wall meant to keep them out. Director Marc Forster, used to helming prestige dramas (Finding Neverland), likable mainstream oddities (Stranger Than Fiction), and widely disliked Bond films (Quantum of Solace), along with editors Roger Barton and Matt Chesse, have somehow created a film that’s slick and propulsive all the same. Some combination of rewrites, reedits, and reshoots has left the film shiny and slick, with little evidence of behind the scenes squabbles.

Creepy and overflowing with horrifying imagery both on-screen and, more often, implied, World War Z has such an overwhelming approach to its devastation that it’s wise to keep it small on a scene to scene basis. We get the impression that calamities are occurring without needing endless shots of total disaster to understand. (Though there is one of those big disaster-movie control room maps that light up the biggest problem areas in red. I always like picking out my area of the country on those things just to make sure I’d be caught up in any given mess.) As we dash around the world following the main mission, I appreciated the matter-of-fact global respect on display here as characters from different countries and backgrounds get to be real people instead of stereotypes. Also appreciated is the way in which the filmmakers understood and valued the effect of the large-scale havoc they conjure. It’s not cheapened into a tunnel vision hero’s tale with collateral damage brushed aside as long as the wife and kids are fine in the end. The burden of stopping this plague weighs heavy on Pitt’s shoulders.

And this is no usual zombie plague of shuffling undead. The zombie effects are modern and twitchy, the once-human creatures swarming like deadly insects and chattering their dead jaws with bone-snapping sound effects. This makes for a primal, animalistic dread in their heavily-CG pack behavior, but it’s never mined for the kind of body-horror, living-dead drama so successfully vivid in Romero’s films or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and its sequel. Here the zombie virus is nothing more than an existential threat. It could be anything, even the flu of Soderbergh’s Contagion or the aliens of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In fact, WWZ often plays like a clever cross of those two better films. But it’s also a competent success all on its own, a kind of gripping summer blockbuster that kicks up a great deal of mood and suspense in moments intense and frightening, before fizzling out slightly into the end credits. The effect doesn’t linger, but it’s strong and engaging enough while it lasts.

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