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World War Z

Entry updated 22 December 2020. Tagged: Film.

Film (2013). Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions in association with Hemisphere Media Capital and GK Films present a Plan B Entertainment production. Directed by Marc Forster. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof; story by Carnahan and J Michael Straczynski, based on Max Brooks's World War Z (2006). Cast includes Ludi Boeken, Peter Capaldi, James Badge Dale, Mireille Enos, Matthew Fox, Daniella Kertesz, Fana Mokoena, David Morse and Brad Pitt. 116 minutes. Colour, 3D (converted).

Brooks's retrospective narrative is constructed as a series of interviews about a long Zombie Apocalypse, climaxing after decades in a guarded, partial triumph for Homo sapiens in the moderately distant Near Future over the dread Pandemic; it is peppered with factoid inserts, commentaries and documentary riffs. Brooks wisely declined an offer to write the screenplay for World War Z, presumably at least in part because he understood that the film version could not replicate the structure of his hindsight epic. Straczynski, the first writer on the project, nevertheless tried, by injecting the unifying character of Gerry Lane (Pitt, whose production company Plan B had purchased the rights with Paramount after a bidding war with Leonardo di Caprio) as a Studs Terkel figure collating an oral history of the outbreak five years on; but this was discarded in Carnahan's drafts for a more conventionally embedded action role. Resemblances between book and film are accordingly fleeting, with the forensic, systemic, and geopolitical retrospective narrative which was the novel's original selling-point displaced by a safer and more familiar tropic arc, albeit expensively inflated to pseudo-epic scale.

The first scenes (originally Straczynski's prologue) make this very clear with a plot strategy clearly designed to normalize the tale. Former United Nations officer Lane drives with his wife Karin Lane (Enos) and family into an apocalyptic traffic jam in Philadelphia as zombies – fast-moving creatures whose bite has almost instantaneous consequences – attack the city. Two consequences reassuring to veterans of twenty-first cinema take immediate effect: Lane is soon separated from his family, despite the intervention of UN Deputy-Secretary General Thierry Umotoni (Mokoena), but with the entailment that they will be reunited at the end of the film; Philadelphia is devastated, ensuring a sequence of CGI-shaped action setpieces whose enactments will control the plot.

Such as it is, the story involves Lane in a McGuffin-hunt for an antidote capable of containing the virus (see Medicine) responsible for the zombies. Venues include a beleaguered aircraft carrier; a monumentally fortified Jerusalem, which finds itself attacked in the film's digital money scene by a siege-wall of undead; an intercontinental airliner; and a rural WHO research complex near Cardiff, Wales. This last is the setting for an emergency-substitute third act, devised by Lindelof and co-written by Goddard with uncredited further work by Christopher McQuarrie (later the architect of a similar rescue job on Edge of Tomorrow [2014]), which replaced the much bigger ending originally filmed featuring a mass zombie battle in Red Square, and forced a six-month delay for reshoots. Lane has now discovered en passant that zombies are sensitive to sound, and will not attack a silent person; and that – exhibiting an extraordinarily prescient capacity to preselect victims – the virus forbids zombies from attacking "defective" humans, as these may die before passing the infection on to others. In Wales, after persuading researchers hiding there that his theory is correct, Lane manages to infect himself with a deadly pathogen, which he survives, so that the researchers can develop a vaccine. This works.

Perhaps as a token recognition of the typical Paranoid Zombie-Apocalypse undertext – in which zombies stand in for a society without sustaining values, or capacity to resist the enemy within (see Survivalist Fiction) – Lane's family has been deported from America, in the belief that he has been killed and that the agreement to protect them is no longer valid. But though they recede ignominiously from narrative attention in the latter part of the film, they survive in Canada, where (thanks to the reshoots) Lane finds them at last.

Despite its huge cost, fraught genesis, and make-do plotting, the film turned out an international hit, deflating ghoulish anticipation of an exciting box-office disaster; the war against the zombies is projected to continue in at least one sequel. [JC/NL]


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