/ world war z
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Finally, a zombie film to take your mum to. World War Z is concerned with the titular Z’s in name only: a wannabe blockbuster cut more from the cloth of Independence Day than George A. Romero’s brain-munching brethren. Bunking almost every element of a conventional zombie picture, World War Z aspires to be a thinking-man’s thriller – bombastic, brutal, and bloodless – but is ultimately as brainless as its eponymous boogiemen.


We open early morning, downtown Philadelphia. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former U.N. investigator, sits in traffic with his wife and two daughters, on their way for an overdue family holiday. His hopes of a relaxing sabbatical, however, are put on hold with the sudden outbreak of a violent zombie apocalypse. Without further hyperbole, Gerry and his family are flung into a wild flight for survival. As cities across the United States are torn apart, their only hope lies with Gerry’s former employer (Fana Mokoena), who agrees to harbor Gerry’s family on the U.N. flotilla in exchange for Gerry’s expertise. Together with a hot-shot young scientist and a small team of crack SEALs, Gerry must embark on a suicidal search for the origins of the deadly pandemic, and in doing so, discover mankind’s only hope of survival…


Plagued by development problems and last-minute re-shoots, World War Z emerges as surprisingly lucid end-of-the-world thriller. Unremarkable in most regards, it’s competent in its aims and broad in its appeal. Making the shambling horrors of Warm Bodies seem positively stomach-churning, the focus here is very much on ridiculous non-stop action and special FX set-pieces in the grand, sweeping scale favored by Roland Emmerich, circa 1999. While it styles itself on meatier fare such as Children of Men and War of the Worlds, there’s more than a touch of Godzilla to some of its more turgid flourishes (the scrambling floods of writing CGI corpses among them). 


Rather ironically, the film’s fierce insistence on mass-market appeal all but robs its primary threat – the zombies – of any real bite. Director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, rivaling Die Another Day as the least effective of the Bond canon) goes out of his way to ensure his flesh-eaters are as bloodless as possible: they snarl and scream, hurtle themselves against doorways and windows, and leap out of shadows for a satisfying jolt, but do seemingly little else. Gunfights are strictly of the ‘bang-bang, you’re dead’ variety, and almost every instance of possible viscera is presented deliberately off-screen. While off-screen violence can often be employed for horrific effect, the intention here seems blatantly self-censoring. This is a zombie film bled of its blood and guts, and it’s a curious (if cynical) artistic proposition.


Undead purists will debate whether the film’s monsters actually meet the criteria for such a lofty and venerated title, but the emphasis here is strictly on thrills rather than chills. World War Z would function just as well if its chief concern was, say, alien invaders, or giant sentient ants. The “zombies” here are merely a stand-in for the peril that inhibits the procedural mystery at its heart. That mystery sees Pitt’s increasingly death-defying investigator scramble from one exotic location to another – a frantic, unnecessarily episodic chase that resembles nothing so much as a series of linear video-game levels.


Ultimately, the film’s decision to embrace scale and spectacle over characters and meaningful narrative robs it of any real tension. The zombies may as well be angry marathon runners for all the visceral threat they present, and the film’s rules and logic regarding them balks against any kind of casual scrutiny. Only a small-scale sequence late in the final act offers anything in the way of genuine suspense, adhering (finally) to the conventions of good zombie cinema for maximum impact.


Still, World War Z is an undemanding diversion. It’s not often a zombie apocalypse ends on what could be called a heart-warning note, nor does it do so with such a careful and considered mass-market agenda. World War Z won’t set the world on fire, but its own burning world is a mindless, engaging, and occasionally spectacular place to lose your brain.