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World War Z is one of the smartest blockbusters in years. It’s not a popular opinion, lost as it is inside the miles of column inches devoted to the movie’s cost overrun and reshoots, but it’s the truth. Despite the gleeful feeding frenzy of the press, World War Z isn’t just a passable movie, it’s an actively good one and that all comes down to one thing; its intelligence and the intelligence of its lead, Gerry Lane.
Played by Brad Pitt, Gerry is a former UN investigator. He’s a peaceful warrior without any of the hippy baggage that comes with the term; a man fluent in the complex and subtle nuances of calming down dangerous people with guns. He’s physically tough when called upon to be, proficient enough with weapons to get by and a good communicator. Most of all though, Gerry’s intelligent and that intelligence is what buoys the film along again and again.
There are three moments, all vital to the plot that involves nothing more than Gerry standing still and paying very close attention to something. The first comes in the film’s opening scenes, where Baltimore falls. In the midst of the chaos, Gerry, making sure his family are all accounted for, stops to pick up his youngest daughter’s favourite toy. As the Zombies bring down a man trying to protect his own family, the toy begins to count and Gerry uses the count, timing how long it takes for the victim to become a predator. In the space of 12 seconds, and using his eyes and what he has to hand, Gerry makes the first retaliatory strike against ‘Zeke’. It’s a simple, tiny little beat but it speaks oceans about his character and sets the tone of the film. This isn’t the increasingly tired histrionics or chest beating of a lot of zombie movies, this is a war. On one side is an extremely unpleasant, hugely effective virus and on the other is humanity. We have no weapons but our intelligence whilst the virus can use every single one of us as a weapon against the survivors. It’s the entire movie in 12 seconds; instinct vs intellect, mind vs masses.
The second moment comes during the fall of Jerusalem. The movie cleverly echoes the global nature of the novel by setting Gerry off on a wild goose chase for patient zero and, through them, the possibility of a cure. The chase leads him to Jerusalem, and the discovery that Israel knew the plague was coming and was able to erect colossal walls around the city. Had it been left there, the script could legitimately be accused of pandering to the stereotypes of the region’s history. However, covered entryways ring the wall and Jerusalem welcomes anyone in who isn’t infected. As Gerry’s Mossad contact Jurgen puts it ‘Everyone we save is one less human to fight.’
It doesn’t last. It was never going to. A song of peace is taken up by hundreds of those waiting to get in and the noise attracts the zombies. In one of those moments finely balanced between insectile horror and CGI excess, a mountain of ant-like bodies builds up until the zombies can get over the wall. The effect is instant, brutal and absolute. The city dies, and Gerry is frantically dragged through the streets by his latest protection detail, making a run for the airport.
Grabbing a moment’s safety, the soldiers begin fortifying their position and Gerry notices something again. Nearby a thin, shaven headed body throws a rock at the swarm of rushing bodies. It’s as brave as it is stupid and the boy drops to his knees and waits for the swarm to take him.
They don’t. They move around him. 12 seconds or less from bite to infection and not everyone gets bitten. One more bullet in the gun. One more way to fight back and all because Gerry opened his eyes and looked.
The third moment comes after the gruelling, disastrous escape from Jerusalem. Literally hijacking the very last plane out of the city, Gerry finally makes contact with the tattered remnants of the UN and tells them what he found and, crucially, what he’s figured out. The plane is redirected to a WHO facility in Wales. It doesn’t get there intact, and neither does Gerry, but he does get there. With the help of Segen, the only survivor from his Israeli security detail and the few remaining scientists, Gerry breaks into the contagious diseases section of the facility and infects himself with something. His hypothesis, based on what he saw, is simple; the zombies won’t attack someone who’s seriously or terminally ill. The disease is a picky eater. It has a weakness
It’s not just a clever plan it’s pretty solid scientific method. Gerry observes something, hypothesises about what may have caused it and tests it. His test is the very definition of in extremis but it’s valid, and, crucially for him, works. Crucially for the film too, it’s just the first step in the fight back. By the closing scenes, the planet is still over run, the zombies are still winning but for the first time humanity has a breathing space. That space, what we do with it and what it leads to look set to form the second two movies of a planned trilogy and if they’re half as smart as this then this will go down as one of the smartest horror franchises in years. World War Z has marketed itself on the swarms of zombies and understandably so, it’s a terrifying spectacle that changes the visual grammar of an increasingly crowded genre. Underneath that spectacle though, the film is built around the first weapon humanity has in the war; intelligence. By using his brain, Gerry strikes back and opens the door not only to a retaliation but to the second, even more powerful weapon; hope.