Watching World War Z took me back to the first thriller I saw on the big screen as a kid: Jurassic Park. Most of us will never forget the scene when the T-Rex breaks through its electric fence and begins hunting the giddy scientists-cum-tourists in the pitch black of the rain forest. Or there was the scene in the kitchen with the Velociraptors systematically stalking Dr. Grant’s every move in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. World War Z approximates this surge of heart-pounding suspense, combining massive chase scenes with claustrophobic face-offs in which every inch is fraught.
Also like Jurassic Park, World War Z’s central theme focuses on man’s place in nature or humanity’s stature in the world. The dystopia of Jurassic Park criticized and chopped down to size the human quest for boundless “progress” through science and technology, showing human powerlessness in the face of prehistoric monsters. In World War Z, we are our own monsters – mysteriously infected humans-turned-zombies rabidly driven to destroy one another – and the “park” is literally the entire globe swept up into an apocalyptic world war. As we rush from the urban jungle of New York to South Korea, from Jerusalem to Wales and Canada, we see entire cities and countries overrun and ruined by “the undead.”
And here’s where I found World War Z to be particularly interesting, exploring the flipside of Jurassic Park’s critique of human power. Early in the film, we see a herd of bloodthirsty zombies race past an old hobo in an alleyway of New York. Later in Jerusalem, the main character, Gerry (Brad Pitt), sees another swarm of monsters bypass a sick child in a street like a stream around a stone. Soon enough, these random crumbs of experience become crucial clues for confronting the catastrophe: the zombies only want to prey upon the healthy and the strong. Paradoxically, it is the sick and the weak that hold the secret of salvation from the dehumanized undead. And thus the only “immunization” against disaster is willingly to infect oneself with potentially fatal bacteria.
Here one is reminded of Plato’s maxim that “to philosophize is to learn how to die” or St. Paul’s confession, “I am crucified with Christ” and “when I am weak, then I am strong.” It is “the undead” that are pathological and dangerous – those who are unwilling to live in light of the recognition that they are fragile, finite creatures that are dying and will surely die. By contrast, it is those who are willing to confront their own death and acknowledge their human limits that are “dead” enough to live and “weak” enough to be truly strong – even in the face of the monstrous.
This point is alluded to in Gerry’s back story. Midway through we learn that Gerry once worked for the U.N. in conflict zones but was then terminated for publishing a paper in which he exposed the U.N.’s wastefulness and ineffectiveness. Ironically, in the time of crisis, it is Gerry – the terminated truth-teller – that is most urgently needed and “resurrected.” And it is the man who is willing to pay attention to the unjust underside of things that can also see the strength in weakness necessary to deliver humanity from the undead.
In this way, World War Z’s romping zombie apocalypse accomplishes something somewhat subversive. In the midst of edge-of-your-seat suspense and action, the film doesn’t fall into the typical Hollywood pattern of making even more violence the solution to violence. Instead, salvation and the exercise of power are ultimately mediated through the embrace of weakness and respect for human limits.