World War Z (2012, directed by Marc Forster), which is a zombie film writ large with nearly limitless resources, gets a lot of things right: it has an awareness of the terror that comes when the machine stops. It has an awareness of what it's like to be adrift in a world where you're surrounded by malign forces around every corner. What it does well is what the best zombie movies have always done well. When it rampages off into new territory, though? That's when it gets itself into trouble.
The story is initially familiar. Family man Gerry Lane has left his high-stress job as a U.N. inspector to spend time with his wife and kids. His job, these days, consists of making pancakes for his two daughters and taking them to and from school. He is content. Unfortunately for him and his family, the world continues to slide into chaos, and there's a new wrinkle: there's some new strain of rabies spreading through the world. On a trip into downtown Philadelphia, they discover to their sorrow that it's not rabies. It's an outbreak of a zombie pathogen, and it spreads fast. Soon, Gerry and the kids are in the middle of chaos as the city tears itself apart. They manage to get out, but Gerry's older daughter needs an inhaler for her asthma, so they head into Newark to find one. Meanwhile, Gerry's old bosses contact him. They need him and can send a helicopter to get him, but not until dawn. The family is obliged to shelter in an apartment building, where they take refuge with an immigrant family. They barely make it out in the morning as the building is overwhelmed. Their hosts are killed except for their young son, who the Lanes take with them. Soon, they're on an aircraft carrier off the coast of New York, where the U.N. is taking stock of the situation. Things are bad everywhere. Washington has fallen and the president is dead. The chain of command is broken. The brains assembled on the ship believe that ground zero for the outbreak is in Korea and they send Gerry on a mission to find out if this is so. The scientist they send with him tells him that if they can follow the breadcrumbs back to the source, they may be able to defeat the disease. This proves a fool's errand that gets the scientist killed. There's nothing in Korea but an ex-CIA agent who asks why Israel closed itself off before the outbreak. Next it's to Israel where their security behind their walls proves false. The hordes of zombies manage to get in. Finally, it's to a WHO facility in Cardiff, Wales, where Gerry wants to test an idea...
While I normally don't care so long as the movie is good, when it comes to zombie films, I am morally offended by the PG-13 rating. Once upon a time, zombie films were at the leading edge of cinematic transgression and by definition, watering such a thing down to make it acceptable to a multiplex audience of suburban teenagers is the antithesis of this. World War Z compounds this mistake by offering a reassuring parable of the resilience of human society and of it's building block unit, the nuclear family. In this regard, it's of a piece with most contemporary multiplex horror, but it's a regression for the zombie film. The great zombie films going back to The Night of the Living Dead are radical: they demolish social institutions in order to demonstrate the rot, and suggest that human beings need to evolve if they are to live. World War Z does none of this. The zombie apocalypse doesn't reflect us, it's a threat from outside. It's essentially conservative, which is the last thing the world needs right now.
Still, there are pleasures to be had here. When it focuses on the moment when the machine stops, when the Lanes are on the run, when the world is visibly spinning into chaos, this is a tense, occasionally even terrifying film. It's fun seeing just how fragile the matrix of civilization really is. The scenes in the supermarket in Newark are as close as this film comes to questioning the norms and integrity of people. We see a police officer stride into an aisle full of looters after Gerry has just shot a man and we think he's going to arrest him. Instead, he starts looting the store himself. That's actually subversive, in a small way, but it's practically the only instance of this kind of insight or cynicism about human nature. The scenes in the apartment building are familiar, too, and as filmmakers have known for decades, the siege scenario of the zombie movie is durable. It almost always works, even when you have filmmakers like these who don't see the dramatic potential of society in microcosm. The scenes near the end of the film: first on an airplane and then in the corridors of a WHO facility are good, too, since they dial back the spectacle for a bit and indulge in pure suspense filmmaking. (Admittedly, the plane crash is indicative of the film's epic scale, but it's the epic as personal crucible; it's a good scene.) The film comes alive during these scenes, in part because it shrinks the scale of the film down to a small group or even down to one man. It benefits from a narrow focus.
All well and good.
But this film wants to expand the playing field, which you can assume from the grand gesture of its title. This is a movie that wants to show the worldwide scope of the zombie apocalypse, and in doing so, it loses something. As I was watching ant-like hordes of zombies scale the walls of Jerusalem, all I could think about was that old saying that, "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million men is a statistic." These scenes don't have the same kind of gut punch as the scenes of more personal chaos and the movie disengages from the viewer by expending so many resources on them. In some ways, this is explaining too much. Part of the pile-driver scariness of the best zombie films comes from the fact that the viewer, like the characters, doesn't know about the rest of the world.
This film offers hope of beating back the zombie apocalypse, and, of course, that's the quest that Gerry Lane is on. I get it, too. This is a two-hundred million dollar Brad Pitt vehicle and if you want to make your money back on a film of this scale, you can't have him fail in his errand. You can't send the audience to the parking lot having crushed their hope for the future. This is why the blockbuster is not, and can never be, the natural habitat of truly transgressive horror, because the commercial needs will make you pull your punches. For what it is, this is about as good a film as one is likely to see from this sector, which is more of an indictment of the system than anything in the film itself.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 10
First Time Viewings: 9
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