Sunday, June 23, 2013


In the absence of much in the way of political complexity or deep-dish social commentary, the relative intimacy at the heart of World War Z, amid the global devastation of an unexplained viral zombie attack, is perhaps the summer’s biggest movie surprise so far. (The complexities and social observations that characterize Dawn of the Dead and subsequent movies in the George A. Romero canon were never that deep-dish to begin with, if you ask me.) WWZ, directed with heartening fluency and a facility for coherent, intelligently applied tension by Marc Forster (Monsters Ball, Quantum of Solace), quickly establishes quiet unease with reports of mysterious disturbances in nature and in civilized society.  Then all irrational hell breaks loose, starting with the way our awareness of the onset of the horror runs parallel to those of the characters, expanding from the ease and protection afforded ex-UN peacekeeper Brad Pitt and family (in their home and then from inside their car) as the illusion of their safety is slowly eroded away from the outside. 

After seeing the trailers, I fully expected World War Z to be one relentless big-budget zombie-kill sequence after another (or, as David Edelstein termed it, just another goddamn zombie movie). But this epic moves in some satisfyingly mysterious ways, specifically in reverse, from grandiose to the more microcosmic. The terrifying sequence of the family’s desperate flight from chaos and search for shelter establishes the movie’s focus, but its chills are nearly matched later on in a scene which couldn’t feel more different. In one of the movie’s more quietly devastating moments, Pitt’s wife (Mireille Enos) and daughters, who have been floating safely at sea on an aircraft carrier with naval and UN officials and other VIPs, are relocated to a ground-based quarantine camp to make room for others after Pitt is mistakenly assumed dead, and the look in the mother’s eyes says everything she suspects, but dare not verbalize, about their newly reshuffled chances for survival on land.

After Philadelphia falls, we follow Pitt, recruited with a twist of emotional blackmail by the government to search out the origins of the outbreak, into a walled-in Jerusalem which is soon overtaken by shrieking Zekes, Army-speak for that other “Z” word. (The Jerusalem section is, despite the frightening, apparently already iconic sight of the undead swarming over that protective wall, also the movie’s most formulaic-- Romero by way of Black Hawk Down.)

From there, the focus is further reduced to the jet airbus on which Pitt and a horribly wounded Israeli soldier escape certain doom on the ground, only to be faced with the inescapable worst once airborne. Finally, the fight to save humanity is brought into the eerily hushed halls of a Welsh W.H.O. compound where Pitt and a group of surviving researchers must navigate around 30 or so ex-colleagues-turned-flesh-eaters that are wandering the halls, literally standing and shuffling (and eventually sprinting) in the way of a possible vaccine.

The movie ends not with a bang or a whimper or, de rigueur for the genre, a cynical scream, but instead on a note of hope that seems right, given the trajectory of the movie from the grandest canvas down to the most unexpectedly quiet, even if it feels like a bit of a fizzle in the context of a summer movie spectacular. I completely understand those who complain that the relatively subtle political awareness of Max Brooks’ novel has gone unserved (ignored, really) by the spectacle-by-committee that is World War Z. But given the many ways that fidelity to Brooks’ oral history strategy could have turned a more faithful translation into just another disaster movie sporting a blue-ribbon international cast, the movie we actually have before us this summer stands to be appreciated for what it is rather than dismissed for what it is not. It’s a movie that, for all of its concessions to demographic research and the contours of the international market, still feels unexpected, one which could have regurgitated the tiresome Roland Emmerich-approved template of escalating geographical destruction, but instead boils down to the sacrifice of a single man looking the most fearsome horror right in its milky, dead eyes.


1 comment:

le0pard13 said...

Fine look at this one, Dennis. I quite enjoyed it.