This is a gripping, dystopian roller coaster ride, intelligent but not dense. Marc Forster, who showed action skill in Quantum of Solace, opens with an enthralling scene. Brad Pitt, wife Mireille Enos, and two daughters are stuck in downtown Philadelphia traffic as a fast-moving rabies epidemic sweeps the city, and by fast, I mean that people are transformed into frenetic, vicious predators 10 seconds after a bite. Complete societal breakdown follows, but Pitt, who has experience as a U.N. global crisis expert, is extracted and tasked with investigating the source in an effort to combat the epidemic.
There are some ragged connections as Pitt goes from the U.S. to South Korea to Jerusalem to Cardiff, but his journey is packed with thrills and terror. Better, there is none of the preaching and sophistry so typical in modern dystopian films. Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play), with an assist from a couple of the writers of Lost, stays focused on moving the story forward and avoiding cliche’, showing no interest in the standard “what have we done?” crapola. I kept waiting for the suits to show, explaining that things just got out of hand when the military tried to weaponize and/or the evil corporation tried to monetize. Thankfully, they did not.
Forster’s judicious use of CGI is also to be commended. While the digital monsters of I Am Legend became less terrifying the more you watched them up close, Forster only uses CGI in broad scope, to show the mass of humanity infected, moving almost as an ant colony. Up close, real people play these very gruesome zombies, and they are frightening.
Finally, the film embodies an “every man for himself” quality that is refreshing and eschews the hackneyed twin of “what have we done?”, the dreaded “what have we become?” When an 18 wheeler tries to make his escape from Philadelphia at high speed, crushing innocents left and right, Pitt pulls his car into the lane opened up to escape, marveling at his good fortune. When the authorities, ensconced in a naval ship, believe Pitt has died in his efforts, his family loses their most favored civilian status and are evacuated to the more dangerous site of a refugee camp in Nova Scotia. This is the moment when a bad screenwriter would have penned Enos’ “how could you?” speech to the chastened authorities. Instead, she stoically accepts the verdict.
Finally, the set piece, and there are several, are finely drawn. The scene in the airplane is particularly memorable.