A zombie film made by zombies

World War Z is high on CGI, painfully low on imagination.

India Ross

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The blockbuster business is a tricky one. Today’s studio exec, already up to his ears in the humid squalour of Los Angeles profiteering, has a fresh head-scratcher to contend with: what in God’s name are we going to do when everyone’s sick of CGI?

The digital effect, in all its vapid glory, has carried the industry of artless cinema from Titanic to the present day. And an insatiable public has been guzzling on its own comic-book fantasies for the past 20 years like so many foie gras geese. A trip to the movies has become an exercise not in culture but in theme-park sensationalism – a ride into the jaws of death with none of the wearisome splash-back. Alas, all commercially vulgar things must come to an end: a ceiling has been struck on this particular technical parabola which no amount of Manhattan-smashing will surmount. In a war of spectacle-attrition, the audience has outrun the industry.

If, then, World War Z is in line for any kind of congratulation (it isn’t), a cap must be doffed for far-sighted marketing. With a truly half-assed aesthetic, it has leaned instead on the more traditional advantage of a headline star – in this case, arthouse-convert Brad Pitt, who, with his humanitarian hair on, fittingly sets off to save the world or something. Pitt, despite his impressive array of real-life children, is barely passable as a functional adult, let alone a father. Alongside the forgettable Mireille Enos, hers and Pitt’s marriage makes for the kind of depressing viewing at which one wonders if Jennifer Aniston made the right call. Brad, for future reference, is at his best at his zaniest: Burn After Reading-crazy, yes, Indiewood-intense, no. Perhaps he picked it up on the set of The Tree of Life, but Mr Pitt seems able to wring neither words nor facial expressions out of himself on this outing; I’m reminded of Friends‘ Joey Tribbiani and ‘smell-the-fart acting’.

World War Z tracks the course of an extraterrestrial virus across the planet to its logical result: zombie apocalypse. Pitt is a fittingly grizzled former UN employee dragged grudgingly out of retirement on a mission to save humanity – transpiring, inevitably, to be a very good sport about it. There is not a frame of this picture which isn’t at least two derivations away from other movies: it is a righteous rip-off, but therein lies its commercial strength. It is a good-looking film with structural coherence and a satisfying plot – numerous reviews have indicated as much – but it is so because of the shameless extent of its borrowing from what is an already-saturated genre.

As a group, the undead are greatly underappreciated. All they are good for, in the eyes of Hollywood, is a good baseball bat in the face – something I could have experienced with twice the fly-swatting satisfaction in an innings of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The zombie is a horror staple because it evokes better than any other assailant the immediacy of death; that our own mortality can be right beside us, walking among us. Danny Boyle, whose life’s work (Olympics aside) has been to champion the human spirit and its resilience against death, coined the modern zombie picture with the anguished 28 Days Later (budgeted, incidentally, at £5million, versus a cool $190million for World War Z). A human being, Boyle argues, is less alone on a deserted Westminster Bridge than he is surrounded on all sides by the dead. It echoed the call from one of Boyle’s earlier films made by a skinheaded Ewan McGregor: ‘Choose life.’

Perhaps Pitt, whose production company, Plan B, financed World War Z, deserves a little more credit. He is after all a nice enough sort of guy, who has certainly been known on occasion to associate with smart people. Perhaps the picture is allegorical; perhaps ‘World War’ refers to a civilisation which transcends inner conflict to unite against a greater external foe – the film’s inversion of Israel as a walled sanctuary of human life would intimate some kind of political gesture. But such avenues run into dead-ends and clichés. World War Z is no more than an exercise in surviving two apocalypses: the zombies, and the blockbusters.

India Ross is a former film editor at Varsity. She is a columnist for PopMatters, blogs for the Huffington Post and is a regular contributor to The Playlist.

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