Well, Brad Pitt got his Jesus movie. Will Smith got his with I Am Legend. Remember, the one where Richard Matheson’s novel was turned into Resident Evil 7 featuring Bob Marley? World War Z is kinda-sorta in the same vein, but it’s better and smarter and less pious.
The Jesus movie involves a man whose role in his family’s world becomes, quite suddenly, superseded by his role in the entire world. The thing about the Jesus man – here it’s retired United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt) – is that he didn’t ask for this. In the morning, his mind was relaxed enough to hang on the memory of his wife’s (Mireille Enos) faded British accent (which only comes back after two bottles of wine) as they sit in traffic in Philly, but by nightfall, he’s shooting at her attackers in a grocery store in Newark.
This Newark is zombie pandemic Newark. Mayor Corey Booker isn’t saving you or your cat from a burning building, because burning buildings are now everywhere. Don’t bother flagging down policemen; Gerry already tried, and they’d rather round up canned beans for whatever “later” has in store for them than guide frantic families to safety. (Cops have frantic families of their own). So yes, Gerry’s retired, but no, he’s not submitting his wife and kids to a layman’s fate. He calls Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Thierry (Fana Mokoena), and he and his family narrowly escape an assault by some of the infected before Thierry swoops down and extracts them via helicopter.
It’s on board a US Navy ship that Gerry begins making his transition to total selflessness; his agreement with Captain Mullenaro (David Andrews) to join a team of soldiers and investigators to determine the root cause of the sudden viral outbreak (identified early on as rabies) comes with utmost reluctance, and is reached only when faced with the reality that he and his family will be tossed back on the street if he abstains from helping. From here, World War Z becomes less about the collapse of a society in peril into total Darwinian individualism and more of a globally encompassing, checkpoint to checkpoint action/adventure narrative – starting with Gerry and Co.’s trip to South Korea and eventually leading to Jerusalem, where a safe zone has been established by way of a massive wall. (Whether this is a satirical jab at the politics surrounding the territorial conflict in the Middle East or a reinforcement of it is unclear). Moments of clarity, during which director Marc Forster heightens Gerry’s perspective to emphasize his “Aha!” moments about the nature of the virus, are interspersed throughout the film, but it’s in Israel where his revelations come to a head.
The extent to which World War Z is Marc Forster’s film is demonstrated in its heavy reliance on kinetic action sequences – some whose pacing and tireless handheld techniques laugh in the face of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later‘s reputations as the gold standard of “fast zombie” offerings. Forster’s lackluster James Bond installment Quantum of Solace is a fitting precursor to World War Z, in that the latter draws from the knife-fight-in-a-phone-booth tension of the former’s grittier depiction of the Bond franchise’s patently breezy moments of action. And, like Quantum of Solace, whose villain schemed to control an entire nation’s water supply, World War Z uses a blockbuster cash cow (there, 007; here, zombies) to sneak in subtext about what Forster must perceive as a gradual man-made contamination of the planet and the abuse of its resources.
It’s through this lens of moral outrage that Pitt gets his Jesus movie. Although the cause of the virus is never made clear (the film’s opening credits sequence strings together news broadcasts that ambiguously hint at carbon emissions’ potential contribution to the outbreak), there is a consistent implication that it is man-made; Gerry’s ceaseless journey to counteract it, then, elevates him above man and into the realm of immortality within World War Z’s universe. Consider a sequence on a flight, in which Gerry blows away part of a plane to eliminate the threat of zombies on board. Save for Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz), Gerry is the sole survivor of the plane’s inevitable crash; the implausibility of his luck is upstaged by the reason for his survival. Rather than emphasize the realism of the crash, Forster focuses on the piece of metal that happened to stick through Gerry on the way down, which he twists and turns to remove from his side, his painful writhing akin to that of the biblical crucifixion. Refusing to halt his investigation, Gerry takes his wounds in stride, fulfilling a sacrificial and symbolic rite of passage which viewers can identify as Christ-like in its redemptiveness.
Plus, Pitt’s hair is pretty Jesus-like here. We’re not talking full-blown Legends of the Fall Pitt, but look at that part in the middle. Even if you’re doubtful that JC is even remotely related to a blockbuster about a zombie apocalypse, there’s no denying that, at the very least, Moses came in and split Pitt’s hairs to the promised land of box office glory. In any case, something holier-than-thou is going on, and that’s not a bad thing.
Anyway, World War Z’s final act takes this representation and runs with it. This is the part of the review where I have to remind myself that my analysis can get in the way of your viewing experience, so I’ll be sparing with details. It takes place in a research facility, and Brad Pitt’s character does something very benevolent at the expense of his own health. There, that’s it.
With a budget that exceeds $200 million, World War Z is the most expensive zombie film ever made, and it shows, in both its directorial approach to genre and its massive spectacle. A shot that’s been widely advertised, of a giant mountain of the undead piling up on top of each other to traverse a wall, is quite breathtaking, and provides a rare moment of CGI-induced artistry. I haven’t stressed the whole “zombie” thing, probably because the movie doesn’t either. One early scene even has a government official scoffing at the word “zombie.” Nonetheless, despite the film’s PG-13 rating, much of the action, though blood and gritless, makes up for its tameness with real heft and weight.
As its closing moments will show, World War Z isn’t about the flesh-eating. The film ends with a call to action, much like a documentary championing a social cause. Gerry urges mankind to do whatever is possible to help one another, and adds that “This isn’t the end. Not even close.” It’s Gerry’s world; zombies are just living…and dying…and living in it. Brad Pitt alone can’t deliver us from evil, but he does deliver.
– By Max Weinstein