This is the pretty decent way the world endsA UN worker and father tries to find out the cause of the zombie plague, before its too late.
Max (son of Mel) Brooks’ 2006 novel World War Z bills itself as ‘An Oral History of the Zombie War.’ Essentially this means that it unfolds as a series of interviews and other sources trying to peace together what happens when the world fell, unfolding over a period of decades.
For fans of the book, the film version is markedly different. For one, most of the action takes place over a matter of days and the focus of the narrative is on a single character – Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane. It’s also a much smaller story, a search for patient zero that becomes an intimate struggle for survival.
World War Z comes to screens with a checkered history including a long development cycle, numerous delays and the reshooting of much of the third act, at massive expense. The biggest surprise of the film then is not only that it still makes sense but actually manages to create a genuinely engaging experience out of such a familiar genre.
Quantum of Solace and Monsters Ball director Marc Forster gets right into the action within minutes of the opening, including a proper title sequence – something I really miss in the movie-going experience. The first salvo of action in New York sets the bar for what’s to come, sweeping shots sell the scale of the terror which is taking over humanity, mixed together with smaller moments which help to get across the real danger of the Gerry’s family.
Gerry is quickly forced on a globe-trotting trip to find a cure, taking him to Korea, Israel and some more unusual places. There’s a surprising amount of variety in the set pieces which are presented, which grow out from the methods humanity uses to survive.
Best of all, World War Z takes serious pains to deliver something we rarely see in action films – genuine tension. These zombies are fast and frantic and there’s terror in seeing them swarm over the living. But the smaller and more carefully paced moments are much more effective, particularly the extended final third which pits a small group of survivors with limited resources against this terrifying enemy.
If there are cracks in the façade of the film they’ve mostly been papered over with competent filmmaking and a narrative focus which keeps the pacing high. It’s strange to see Matthew Fox’s character flit by in a split second, suggesting many trims to this new version, but it’s never jarring enough to take you out of the experience.
Pitt grounds the film well, with his star power managing to keep your attention even as millions of others are dying. And its more or less a one man show, with The Killing’s Mireille Enos making little impression and interludes from James Badge Dale and David Morse. It’s good to see Irish lady Ruth Negga going toe for toe with the Pitt and I must admit I giggled when The Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi showed up.
World War Z may be a million miles away from Brooks’ book but, as a stand-alone feature, its much better than I expected. Disregard the utterly pointless 3D and prepare yourself for a spry, well-made and properly thrilling zombie flick. Though gorehounds need not apply.