World War Z review: Pitt delivers competency but nothing more

Posted on 22 July 2013
By Debs Marsden
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World War Z begins slowly, following the morning routine of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters. This grinding start leads the audience down an avenue of misplaced calm, so when the world erupts, it is as startling for us, as for them. An unwelcome change in pace, which brings with it an unsettling fear of the unknown.

In opening like this, both character establishment and story progression are handled simultaneously, resulting in a thrilling crescendo, as it blends seamlessly from the mundanity of packed lunches and asthma inhalers, into a magnificently cinematic long shot of a city-wide riot.

There is little let up in pace from here on, with Brad Pitt flung straight into a slightly pointless overseas mission. In an effort to ensure that his family are given safe passage on a boat offshore, he acquiesces to the order and is catapulted into genuine horror in South Korea; for no greater reason than establishing Patient 0, backed up with a hackneyed cod-science that only a Hollywood blockbuster can truly pull off without chagrin.

The zombies which pervade throughout the known world here, are the fast kind. Far more frightening than the slow, plodding sorts, they sprint at their human prey with frenzied shrieks and bestial howls. With a transformation time of around 10 seconds, and showing immediate aggression upon infection, they are a terrifying prospect, imbuing every scene with palpable jeopardy.

With a relatively small ensemble cast, it can be completely necessary to find some truly felt resonance with the relationships portrayed onscreen, as a framework upon which to hang the sense of danger with any empathetic clarity. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t live up to this regard, with the central family failing to ring true.

The relationship between Lane and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos)is drawn thinly at best, and despite the constant references back to their progress throughout, it is a struggle to care, with any depth, as to their fate. The children, played ably by Abigail Hargrove and Sterling Jerins, are largely unseen, and Enos becomes nothing more than a woman gazing at an archaic mobile phone; a catalyst to action who calls at inopportune times, and a vague notion of a home for him to seek to return to.

By far the most impressive scene takes place in an even more heavily walled Jerusalem, the fortifications soaring high as mountains into the hazy desert air. A safe haven for the human population and the next stop on Pitt’s inexplicable quest, now seemingly guided solely by a somewhat whimsical approach to science or logic.

When the hordes outside are suddenly alerted to the meat within; the spectacle of sheer numbers involved in the attack on the walls is mesmeric; like ants thronging hastily over a spilled blob of picnic jam. The use of close and wide shots is well-balanced and interesting, meaning that a knowledge of where the crucial players are is held firm, while still clearly establishing the wider action.

Starting in downtown New York and ending in a wet Welsh valley may seem something of an anti-climax on paper, but the end confrontation with the hordes is electrifying, in precisely the opposite way to the Jerusalem scene. A taut and heightened suspense is achieved, in a quietly observed scene. The silence is a blackness, against which every accidental loud noise casts brilliant lightning flashes, which turn swift to panicked, quickening heart.

Peter Capaldi is tragically underused, but turns in a perfectly observed performance as a W.H.O Doctor nevertheless, unfortunately only serving to highlight the flaws of the acting around him: with the possible exception of the wide-eyed and generally silent Segen (Daniella Kertesz), whose portrayal of slight dismemberment is one of the best moments in the entire film.

To the film’s credit, it is rare for a heroic triumph, when translated into visual shorthand, to culminate in one of the most majestically casual strolls ever committed to film. Unfortunate then, that this is preceded by one of the worst examples of crowbarred product placement ever seen. In a way, this blatant product placement was as out of place as youtube tags in huge block letters scrolling across the faces of performers in a music video.

So shoehorned and lazy, that it risks eliciting embarrassed laughter in the audience. Given that it takes place in the midst of firmly ratcheted suspense, it is highly inappropriate. Easily the most glaring error of the entire film.

There are some great set pieces throughout World War Z; cinematic in scope and a joy to behold. But these are mainly set in a bed of mere adequacy. A film no greater than the sum of its parts, let down by unrealistic characters, and flimsy plot explanations, rather than the action promised: which is itself delivered with aplomb.

These are the things which root a tale firmly, which thread a story from place to place. Without due care and attention, World War Z, for all its positives, finds thumbs neither up nor down.

When the fetid corpse-filled fanfare dies down, and the dust settles, it is simply one hour and fifty six minutes of something which happened. It is what it is.