Max Brooks’s novel World War Z is surely the most successful zombie apocalypse novel in history, earning praise for its ability to transform inherently silly subject matter into something not only meaningful but even affecting. It achieved its success through Brooks’s keen understanding of the fact that a zombie apocalypse is essentially a narrative device to allow for in-depth social commentary and metaphor, not a great or interesting story unto itself. It’s the same understanding that makes George Romero’s zombie films so much better than Tom Savini’s and Zack Snyder’s remakes. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, Italy/USA 1978) is a film about consumerism and its supposed anti-intellectual effects, not how zombies could take over the world.
Unfortunately, Marc Forster and his trio of screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof) don’t seem to share that understanding. Instead of delivering a film about the effects of consumerism on the minds of modern humans, the dangerous effects of racism and general fear of the “other,” or the dangers of increasing militarism in the modern political age (all of which have been the point of successful zombie films in the past), they present a zombie film that is nothing more or less than a medical thriller. It’s Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA/United Arab Emirates 2011) remade by someone who didn’t understand any of what made that such an excellent film. There is absolutely no unifying point to the film. It makes some pretenses of having them, repeatedly bringing up the idea that a powerful force’s greatest strength is also often its greatest weakness and focusing heavily on the hero’s love of his wife and children.
The film sets the tone for what it is immediately, opening with some simple family scenes that hamfistedly make the point that our hero, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), is used to working in dangerous situations and has given up such work for the sake of his family. Then, we get a mysterious traffic jam with equally mysterious police presence and explosions that ends up turning into the first great zombie attack, ending with Lane driving his family away in an amazing display of driving skill. He is quickly established as a perfect human being, reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s character in War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, USA 2005), and this sequence immediately sets up the film as a simplistic, one-note action film that’s more about fire, explosions, and fast driving cars than anything else. It establishes that the film is going to spell out everything it wants to say as obviously as possible and will not have anything deeper to say than its surface story. And the rest of the film remains the same.
Visually, Forster and cinematographer Ben Seresin do very little to add to the film. Forster having done some interesting visual work in his past in Finding Neverland (USA/UK 2004) and Stay (USA 2005), it’s terribly disappointing to see him fall into such clear clichés. It’s shot mostly in a cool color palette like most science fiction films and thrillers with all the usual overuse of CGI and series of extremely quick shots that add nothing to the film except to make its pace appear quicker than the plot itself actually moves forward. Forster has previously loved playing with bright shafts of light, interesting color choices, using small amounts of CGI in nontraditional ways, and using mirrors heavily, but none of those elements is visible in this film. Instead, he shoots a standard-issue Hollywood blockbuster, and as a result the film is a failure in a visual sense, something I never would have expected to say about one of Marc Forster’s works.
Acting-wise, there is little that can be said about the film, because there really isn’t anything for anyone to do. The only character who gets a lot of screen time is Gerry Lane, but he is depicted as such a perfect human being that there really is nothing for Brad Pitt to do with the role. He acquits himself well enough with what he has to do, but it’s essentially nothing. And that description could easily be applied to very actor in this film. Mireille Enos is just a scared, put-upon wife and mother; Daniella Kertesz is a just a brave, tough soldier; David Morse is just a loon; and so on. No one does a poor job, but no one has enough to do to stand out in a positive way. It was nice to get a peek at the twelfth Doctor ahead of time for a crazy Doctor Who fan like me, but he didn’t have enough time on screen to do anything even if the character did have any depth.
Overall, this film is essentially the most by-the-numbers zombie film one could ever imagine. It’s competent, sure, but it’s nothing else, and that makes the zombies as dull and silly as possible. It’s a waste of source material, but that’s all this film is.