On your marks …
Get set …
RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!
That may sound like a flippant way to commence a review of one of the most terrifyingly-realistic, taut zombo-apocalyptic thrillers I have ever seen, but it is essentially the imperative that drives this relentlessly full speed ahead heart-constantly-in-mouth movie forward.
(Except for the “On your marks” and “Get set” parts; you simply don’t have time to observe them.)
What is heartening though is that the Marc Forster-directed, Brad Pitt-starring film, which underwent extensive re-shoots leading to accusations it was a Dead Movie Walking (a rather apt, if inaccurate, description given its subject matter) does not sacrifice a basic well-constructed, character-driven narrative in its pellmell rush for visceral thrills.
Loosely based on Max Brooks’ 2006 bestseller of the same name, the film, which documents civilisation’s frighteningly fast descent into death and chaos at the hands of a lethal pandemic, is at heart the story of one man’s desperate worldwide fight to save his family – both his own wife and two daughters, and the one he builds on the way of desperate isolated survivors.
Pitt acquits himself superbly on this front, vividly portraying the pain of a man who must leave his family on the US battleship that his friend and colleague, UN Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) has spirited them all to, if he is to eventually save them.
This focus on one man, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a burned-out but talented operative for the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) who is forced to resume his relinquished duties in the face of the city-toppling scourge, elevates World War Z from just another derivative action-packed popcorn blockbuster to the realm of rippingly good, edge-of-your-seat storytelling which more than ably documents an improbable tale of survival against nightmarishly brutal odds.
(Granted it is not a Shakespearian-style musing on the fragility of love, life, and the impossibly slender, and easily broken threads of civilisation, but then such naval-gazing would never have served the story well anyway.)
And those odds are fearsome indeed.
In a matter of days the world is ripped apart at the seams by a disease that may have come from any and all points on the globe – Lane’s frantic continent-hopping journey to find the source of the infection, and possibly a cure, takes him from an isolated military base in South Korea to Jerusalem and then a W.H.O. medical facility in Wales where the climax takes place – and moves with savage speed to transform everyone it comes into contact into a mindless virus-replicating machine.
Once infected, those who have been “turned” leap with predator-like ferocity and a turn of speed that make their onrushing, tumbling swarms a thing of overwhelming terror, onto healthy human specimens infecting them within seconds.
It all happens so blindingly quickly that one infected person becomes a hundred then a thousand and so on until all that is left in a city in a seething mass of mindless killers looking for fresh, physically-well hosts (once they run out the zombies power down and become dormant till noise or fresh hosts stirs them to a frenzy once again).
It is against this rapidly multiplying threat that Lane, who is rescued in the nick of time from the top of a Newark apartment building, along with his wife Karen (Mireille Enos), their two children, and a young boy Tomas (Fabrizio Zacharee Guidoas) by UN forces, must work, conscious that if he fails humanity has at best 90 days before it is effectively extinct.
So no pressure then?
With the words of a young Harvard-educated virologist Andrew Fassbach (Elyes Gabel) who warns him that “nature is the ultimate serial killer … there is no one better … or more creative” ringing in his ears, Lane races to find patient zero, conscious, once again thanks to Fassbach, that a virus’s greatest weakness will be deviously presented as its greatest strength.
While the solution, when it does come, owes more to narratively-convenient developments rather than to actual science, it nonetheless is not the neat, everything’s better again remedy that Holywood tends to favour.
We do get a resolution of sorts, along with the expected reuniting of Lane with his family, but it is not the overly tidy and neat ending you might expect from a movie of this genre.
To be fair Pitt, who produced the movie through his company Plan B Productions, has his eye on an ongoing franchise so too tidy a resolution would not have served the likely sequels well, but even so the fact that the measures put in place at the conclusion of this gripping thriller are little more than temporary salves, bandaids on the gaping bloody wounds of civilisation, means that World War Z ends much as it began – in brutally realistic fashion.
And that I think will be the franchise’s greatest strength should it happen (given the overwhelmingly positive reviews and likely robust word of mouth recommendations, it is likely that only a zombie pandemic will get between Pitt and the expected second and third instalments in the saga).
World War Z, whose opening credits are an artistic triumph of compressed visual storytelling in and of themselves as they move from scenes of everyday life to the ferocity of predator on prey images, is an intelligent, well-crafted movie that tells a gripping and immersive heart poundingly-intense tale without sacrificing character or humanity to naked storytelling momentum, managing in the process to hide the occasional logic-defying narrative leap within events that are all too real, and unnervingly possible.
No one can say for certain how an apocalypse, should it arrive, will actually unfold, but World War Z, far from the car crash the speculators of doom were predicting it would be, gives us a real and frightening insight into how terrifying an event that would be.