In a long-troubled trip from the multi-voiced novel of Max Brooks to the screen adaptation by J. Michael Straczynski, World War Z gained more negative press heading to its arrival in theaters in June 2013. But in the first few weeks of its release, it has gathered in more than three hundred million dollars and received much higher critical acclaim than expected. Given its proximity in genera to one of my favorites, AMC’s The Walking Dead, I felt obligated to give it a shot, even though I have a rather low view of Brad Pitt, the film’s leading man. And I must admit: the film is one of my cinematic highlights of the summer.
On an average day, Gerry Lane’s (Pitt) family finds itself stuck in the suddenly dangerous streets of Philadelphia, as zombieism spreads quickly (and I do mean quickly). These zombies move suddenly, swarming like insects over, around, and above anything, throwing themselves like kamikazes at animate objects, as if they are united in common thought like bees. In fact, there’s a naturalistic approach to the epidemic that spreads, like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, Scott Smith’s The Ruins, or some other nature versus humanity apocalypse. And that naturalism gives the film a reality that blends well with the humanity of Lane’s family, especially his taut satellite phone calls with his wife (Mirielle Enos) as he globe trots for the U.N. trying to track down the epidemic’s origins.
Indie director Marc Forster (can I still call him that after the Bond bomb Quantum of Solace?) uses some of that Paul Greengrass-like shuddering handcam shooting that nearly makes my stomach explode but doesn’t overdo it. We feel the palpable tension of the initial “arrival” and the need for escape; we understand the rock-and-a-hard-place situation that Lane has to accept when his family is given sanctuary in trade for his services; we recognize classic military gunbattles as they occur between trained Navy Seals and zombies; we can see the hide-and-seek of Lane and his fellow survivors as they traipse around the country looking for a cure. WWZ is basically three or four films within the film itself (and Paramount has already greenlit the sequel).
But what I’ve always found fascinating about the zombie genre from I Am Legend to Walking Dead is the way that the sickness is in us, not just alien and other, in a way that speaks to my theology. The theologian Ben Horrocks wrote, “As always, I think zombie/alien/monster movies fundamentally are about what it means to be human, how challenging it is to live fully as a human.” Lane moves from “not my problem” to “how do I impact this?” And it’s very apparent how the zombieism is aggressive, even called “a serial killer.”
It’s clear that “nature” is hunting healthy humans in WWZ and an inoculation of what’s NOT in us is required to keep those healthy humans safe. I believe that Jesus came to live life as a human because we couldn’t save ourselves from the sickness. In fact, Jesus had to become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) because otherwise we couldn’t be saved. Lane deduces the need for the inoculation to make humans the “same” as zombies because they would then be left alone. Jesus’ death allows us to be forgiven, to be “left alone” when it comes to death and final judgment.
Now, I’m sure that’s a reach for some (as it sort of inverts the order of created good versus sinful nature), but how about this? When Lane amputates the recently bitten Segen (Daniella Kertesz) arm, he takes a full form approach to Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” If the zombie virus is the sin and it is threatening Segen’s wellness, then Lane’s amputation provides a cutting off of the “sick”/sinful part, so that the rest of the body would not be compromised.
But it still misses the obvious Christ-figure element of the final moments, and Lane’s decision. In this case, it’s more of a “well, might as well,” than a bold moment. And it definitely harkens back to Legend, even as Lane becomes the brave, the bold, the heroic, the sacrifice that no one else is willing to risk. Sure, it seems that he MUST but isn’t there a sense that Jesus MUST go to the cross, because that’s what he’s here to do? Just like Lane is an “essential personnel” because he’s a retired U.N. investigator, he becomes the most essential personnel by taking the greatest risk.
[One more takeaway that jumped out at me, for those of you who like a scene to discuss. When Lane meets with the Mossad leader in Jerusalem, the Israeli references the “10th Man” policy. Upon discovering a reasonable threat, if nine people saw it exactly the same way, the tenth man was responsible for arguing heatedly the counter or opposite point. This was a response to the way that the nation had failed to address other attacks head on… I was instantly struck by this policy and wondered what would happen if we applied it in our communities and our churches? If the first nine people said, “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it,” then the tenth must say, “but here’s a better way.” Too often, that’s the pastor (if we’re talking church), but what if we as a group determined we’d actually explore every avenue? Food for thought.]