Maintaining a veneer of realism is pretty tough for World War Z.
World War Z is a film that I was dragged to around the time that it premiered in 2013. Starring Brad Pitt, World War Z is a zombie blockbuster with a twist: Pitt’s character must investigate the source or cause of the zombie epidemic. The general plot of this film is just fine, but for a number of reasons the implementation of that plot is cringe-worthy. Let’s dive right in.
Disease Doesn’t Move That Fast, and Virologists aren’t That Good Looking.
The zombie outbreak of World War Z is pretty typical in appearance: infected rush through the streets, infecting others. The infection occurs via bodily fluids or bites from infected to uninfected, and complete conversion from healthy to raving zombie occurs in less than twelve seconds. That’s pretty fast–unbelievably so, given the rate of every single other interaction that the human body has with chemicals or microbes. I can put this concern aside for the sake of dramatic license, but the movie started on a tone which immediately raised my science hackles.
The depiction of scientists within World War Z is, to put it gently, asinine. While hunting down the cause of the disease, the viewer is regaled by a scene depicting the lead virologist and a few of his cronies speculating about the disease. Perhaps the most stupid line uttered is along the lines of “Mother Nature is a serial killer, but always leaves her mark on those who she kills so that we can figure it out.”
Yikes. That’s not how any of that works. Nature has no intentional ability; disease has no intentional betrayal of its identity. Anything that can be forensically used to diagnose a disease is a side effect of the disease’s pathology–and not all diseases have biomarkers that we can detect or understand, currently. Thankfully, the lead virologist accidentally shoots himself in the head during an encounter with zombies.
For the record, having known a number of prestigious virologists, none of them are as charismatic, sociable, well-dressed, incompetent with firearms, or pretentious as they are depicted in World War Z. This isn’t just a matter of Hollywood-ization of the type of scientist, it’s a complete fabrication. Virologists are bookish, quiet, too-intense, frumpy, wild-eyed types that are rarely seen outside of the laboratory, and rarely engaged in off-topic conversation when they are seen whatsoever. They also drink like fish, but that’s a story for another time.
The UN Doesn’t Work That Way, Either.
Infectious disease hesitations aside, the film also has a childlike understanding of the United Nations. Brad Pitt’s character is allegedly a “former UN investigator” of some kind, though the opening sequences of the film make him out to be more of a stay at home due to unemployment dad figure. What is a “UN investigator,” anyway? I assume that they’re kind of like the people who monitor the adherence to ceasefires in war zones, but the film never specifies, leaving us to be constantly surprised by the extremely broad expertise that Pitt’s character possesses.
Aside from being a jack of all trades, Pitt’s character is also a good buddy of the UN secretary general. How convenient… and completely unbelievable. There are likely hundreds or thousands of investigators within the UN, and they probably rarely bump into the higher ups, given that the UN is an international organization.
Okay, so the film swings and misses about infectious disease–which is excusable. It also swings and misses about the UN–okay, whatever, maybe it is faintly possible that the UN is actually a tight-knit organization in which random investigators are on good terms with the very highest ranks. But one thing that further beggars belief is the ease which the UN integrates itself with the US military, and also how easy the patient zero of the outbreak was located.
In World War Z, the outbreak of the zombie virus which overwhelms the US is accompanied by a bizarre relocation of the UN government apparatus to an aircraft carrier operated by the remaining US forces. I highly doubt that the US government would allow civilian foreign nationals to dictate the disposition of their strongest assets. Anyway, the film assumes that this goes off without a hitch, and the US military is quickly hopping around the world at the UN’s beck and call, with Pitt as the putative commander of the mission to discover the source of the zombie disease.
Apparently Being in the UN Makes you Immune to Plane Crashes.
Pitt’s mission takes him all over the world via plane. Due to a zombie stowaway on one of the planes Pitt is riding on, he’s forced to detonate a grenade inside, crashing the plane. I doubt that a single grenade detonated inside of the passenger compartment of the plane could bring it down, but that’s not even the main problem here. Pitt and his companion walk away from the crash, arriving at the doorstep of the World Health Organization (WHO), exactly where they wanted to end up. What the heck? Somehow, on a plane of a few hundred people, Pitt and his supporting character are the only survivors–and they’re relatively unscathed. And they’re within a quick stumble from their intended destination, despite their plane crashing.
After being just fine after the plane crash, World War Z manages to dredge up new bits of science to completely butcher. At WHO, Pitt’s character hypothesizes that it may be possible for healthy people to camouflage themselves from zombies by getting themselves sick with a curable minor disease. To test this, he raids WHO’s cache of extremely dangerous diseases, attempting to infect himself with samples of tularemia, smallpox, the flu, and others. Aside from leaving a number of massive “how the heck would that work” questions completely unaddressed, the technical details of the scene are entirely wrong.
WHO stores diseases in little cabinets within secure areas marked “biohazard”. Realistically, samples of dangerous viruses or bacteria would be stored inside of a liquid nitrogen cooled freezer or a minus 80-degree centigrade freezer. Either way, nobody could just reach in and grab a vial, open it up, then infect themselves instantaneously–these samples are stored frozen solid and must be thawed with the correct procedure.
Having pulled samples of diseases from these special freezers many times myself, I can attest firsthand that carelessness during this process can cause horrendous frostbite and cold burns–definitely not something for an untrained UN dude to do while chasing a hunch while being chased by zombies. Even if he could, I imagine that the diseases themselves would have to infect the host and cause detectable signs of illness in order for the “zombie camouflage” technique to work, meaning a lead time of at least a few hours.
It’s a Mess
These technical points are entirely lost on World War Z. The film’s lack of logic, technical accuracy, or attention to even the most cursory of scientific details really give it a cobbled-together feeling that is hardly watchable. Sure, the film was a commercial success–but seriously, didn’t anyone else get fed up when Brad Pitt survived a plane crash like it was a strong breeze?
What did you think about World War Z? Were you bothered by the technical errors? Comment below!