When a film is earmarked as a flop from the beginning there really isn’t much expectation for it to be anything other than a disappointment. This can work in a film’s favour since surpassing low expectations can lead to a perception of it being better than it really is, and perhaps even boosting a box office that was supposed to be entirely devoid of money. Marc Forster’s (Finding Neverland) World War Z was supposed to be flopping more than a fish out of water at this point if its turbulent production history is anything to go by, but instead it has performed very well, grossing $119mn in its first week. The news in some quarters is that a sequel is already in the works. What’s curious, though, is that the film itself plays out like the flop it really should be.
The film starts out as what seems like a survival horror movie, with tense sequences, jumpy moments and lots of wide shots of thousands of ‘zombies’ running about the place, so naturally you buckle in for a high-octane and tense zombie horror, and the film manages to keep this feeling going for about 40 minutes, as it takes us through a family’s attempt to reach safety while chaos reigns around them. After this point however, the tone shifts and we begin to see a transfer in to the realm of disaster movie, and lots of fuss is made about who is important and how humanity is going to be sustained. As tenuous as the link here is, it is possible to accept this tonal shift as long as it manages to maintain it for the rest of the film, but somewhat predictably, it doesn’t. It undergoes yet another transformation as we devolve in to a B-movie horror film set, somewhat astoundingly, in Wales. These very strange structural decisions do smack of the various rewrites the script received, as writer after writer abandoned the project, and make it very hard to engage with a film that seems to contain three different main premises.
Brad Pitt does give a competent performance as main protagonist Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who is made to return in order to track down the source of the infection that is decimating the world so quickly, and there are sections that are genuinely interesting to watch, but the plot becomes more and more farcical as time goes on, and it’s very easy to find yourself becoming more and more detached from characters you’re supposed to care about because the script is unintentionally funny, or the zombies themselves look more like they should be in a comedy than in any sort of horror or tense drama. Other good performances from Mireille Enos and Daniella Kertesz are similarly undermined as product placement also becomes the name of the game, with Mountain Dew cans eerily being kicked across rooms and our main character, somewhat absurdly, stopping for a can of Pepsi from an open vending machine. Even Budweiser get in on the act as the calming drink for responsible parents to have before they embark on a mission to get their children to safety, as is normal procedure apparently.
Ultimately, World War Z is far too disjointed and contains far too many unresolved plotlines and underdeveloped characters to be considered successful, but the seeds of something good are there in all the three incarnations that we see over the course of its 112 minute runtime. Indeed, I would gladly have watched an elongated version of the end section of the film, which would have worked quite nicely as a 90-minute feature, but it’s the sheer incomprehensible way it gets there that means it never works. It does make a few quirky remarks, and even a few well-placed jokes about current affairs and stereotypes, but these moments are too few and far between to sustain it, and ultimately I think the press about it preparing to fall on its face, as well as a deceptively well-cut theatrical trailer have been what has got it out there in to the public eye. The fact of the matter is that succeeding in parts is not enough, and World War Z 2 or whatever it’s going to be called needs to ensure that production issues do not impede too much on the film. I’ve been told the book’s quite good, check that out instead.