World War Z review

Vultures have been circling the lumbering mega-budget production of World War Z almost since the film went into pre-production. First, fans of Max Brook’s highly-regarded novel were up in arms when it emerged that the book’s multiplicity of survivors’ tales was to be distilled into a star vehicle for Pitt. Then news leaked of multiple drafts from various writers being rejected (the film has writing credits for four different scribes). Early trailers were ill received. It emerged that the entire last act of the film (an epic battle sequence) had been junked and fanboy kryptonite Lindelof brought in to write an entirely new ending.

With the mood on the blogosphere toxic, the trades and mainstream press piled in as the smell of blood in the water grew stronger. Paramount eventually stopped even pretending the film was not troubled, allowing Vanity Fair to publish an astonishing account of the difficult production – further increasing speculation that this was a $200 million dollar plus vanity project for Pitt and his production company, Plan B.

Now World War Z has finally arrived, and if the narrative behind its making is as compelling as that of any of 2013’s blockbusters, the unexpected twist ending is the year’s most shocking. Spoiler... the movie is good. In fact, it’s not just good – it’s great.

Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former investigator for the United Nations living with his family in cheerfully chaotic domestic bliss, economically sketched out in an opening breakfast scene that is almost the only moment of calm for the next 100-odd minutes – save that the TV in the kitchen is running disturbing news footage of social disorder breaking out in locations across the world. Driving his family into the city, Gerry gets stuck in traffic gridlock and BOOM! All hell breaks loose as the whole world goes to shit in what seems like five minutes flat and director Forster slams the pedal to the metal for the first of many stunning action sequences.

The subsequent globe-trotting story has Lane is drafted back into service for the United Nations to search for the source of the "zombie" plague that within days has brought the world to the brink of apocalypse. The pace is blistering, honestly comparable to Gareth Evans' The Raid, and the scale is as epic as hundreds of millions of dollars can provide. What makes World War Z really work is humanity of its characters. Pitt himself is at the heart of this. To make a film like this commercially viable, it had to have a major star. But Lane is no superman (or Superman). He isn’t James Bond, Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt – in fact, he spends most of the film running away from stuff. Pitt really sells the notion that Lane is a common man in extraordinarily uncommon circumstances, motivated by love of his family to put himself ridiculously in harm’s way. I struggle to come up with another male star of his stature that could have pulled this part off.

Pitt is in every scene, but around him are a rapidly-changing collection of characters who join only for sections of the narrative. However by canny international casting characters who often have mere minutes of screen time register memorably. Especially good are Enos (from TV’s Big Love and the US version of The Killing) as Lane’s wife, and Israeli actress Daniella Kertesz (in a nearly dialogue free role). Nowhere is it more clear that the film has been substantially shaped in the editing room, than from the fact that the highly-billed Fox is essentially a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him featured extra. Before remarking on Forster’s skills remember that when Terrence Malick does this, he’s called a genius.

Where the film really scores is that despite the fact that it is a "zombie" movie (and unusually one where the reason characters use that term is because they have seen zombie movies), the environments and human characters feel real and convincing. The action has a gritty verite feel while never being less than spectacular. While the threat is fantastical, like Romero’s best zombie films World War Z takes place in a convincing world – in this case a distinctly post 9/11 one. One sequence in particular is sure to inspire debate over the presence or not of a geo-political subtext, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

World War Z is also often very frightening; despite the lack of gore, this is an extremely intense film and one which parents should be very careful about bringing children to. At the time of writing no BBFC certificate had been announced, but it has received a PG-13 in the US – meaning a 12A is quite possible. This is absolutely not a movie for under-12s, and if you take them, prepare for sleepless nights.

The breakneck pace and sheer shock-and-awe of the film’s scale paper over a few cracks. What exactly makes Pitt’s character the UN’s go-to guy is never exactly made clear, and some of the plot mechanics that propel the story from one part of the globe to the next don’t quite hold up to intense scrutiny. However, in my view, one would really have to be committed to not having a good time to find these elements overly troubling. This is widescreen filmmaking at its best.

World War Z is a compelling reminder that for every troubled production that produces a Bonfire of the Vanities or Island of Dr. Moreau, there is Casablanca, Apocalypse Now, or Blade Runner. I’m not putting WWZ quite in that category – only time will tell – but against all the odds, this is the best blockbuster yet seen in 2013.

World War Z at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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