Unconventional undead tale is rousing but redundant

Unless you’re a pubescent male or a member of the burgeoning geek brigade that dominates with its zeitgeist of zits, bits and bytes, you probably wouldn’t know that in the well-researched philosophical discourse on the undead, zombies have long been the subject of metaphors that play with the notion that human behaviour can be explained in purely physical terms. Philosophical zombies are just like us, minus the consciousness – or if we assume that the mind is a residual or secondary phenomenon associated with the brain, they then parody our pretentions to consciousness. The zombies of World War Z, on the other hand, conquer the world in a single morning, but when their grizzly work is done, they enter a dormant state – apparently even zombies suffer from ADD. Unlike philosophical zombies, they cannot eat, drink, speak or procreate, so unless Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster’s film is granted the sequel it rather unjustifiably alludes to, one can only assume that the zombies will simply die of boredom or a lack of sustenance. 

Not that anyone in the film could ever know this, and it thus falls to reluctant hero Gerry Lane (Pitt), a former UN war crimes investigator turned traumatised house husband, to find the chinks in the brain eaters’ armour. Admittedly, the bloated budget does buy some exhilarating scenes – nightmarish shots of swarms of zombies over-running cities with such dramatic effect that the skin does crawl – but what’s missing is a sense of loss, the horror and grief that should be etched on the faces of the living. The $200 million budget should also have sufficed to create a sense of ever-increasing drama throughout, but by the end, the pulse of World War Z is rather weak and the narrative simply isn’t invested with enough brain matter to emulate the speed at which the zombies consume it.

Airlifted by his former boss from the apocalyptic ruins of New Jersey, Lane flies around the globe picking up clues, eventually coming to the realisation – more by intuition and chance than deduction – that the zombies ignore the terminally ill. The film ends with a Pitt voiceover (conceivably as a producer rather than a star ) admitting that this is clearly a placeholder conclusion and that there are still many plot points to clear up, like the origin of the disease, the very thing his character was sent to discover. 

This non-ending is exactly what one has come to expect from Damon Lindlof, the executive producer of television series Lost, who was inexplicably brought in to rescue the film when it was found to lack a satisfactory final act. The last half hour or so now consists of a disproportionately long-winded hide-and-seek sequence in a Welsh medical research lab, but at no point does the film really cohere as an intelligible narrative – not surprising when you learn that Lindlof also produced the brain-rottingly dire Cowboys & Aliens and the highly underwhelming Prometheus. 

Pitt’s character is thrown the occasional bone of exposition from the people he meets, but the most important of these could easily have been relayed by phone, making his Bond-esque journey of discovery feel rather redundant. He learns in passing that Israel has managed to contain the attack – something that apparently escaped the notice of the US military’s high command – and is also apparently the only person anywhere to notice the zombies’ weak spot. Also, the reason for Israel’s survival is an incredibly crass allegory that is meant to be taken as a sophisticated one. In this way, World War Z resembles not, as its makers seem to desire, a Roland Emmerich film with a mind, but instead the parodic philosophical zombie alternative: an automaton that only thinks it is thoughtful.

World War Z (15)

Dir: Marc Forster; US sci-fi, 2013, 112 mins; Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos,

Matthew Fox, David Morse, Eric West, James Badge Dale, Daniella Kertesz

Premiered July 11

Playing nationwide