Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan & J. Michael Straczynski (screen story), Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof (screenplay), Max Brooks (novel)
Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, and Daniella Kertesz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Is this thing worldwide? Is anyone doing better than we are?"
"We don't know."
"We don't know."
It’s hard to believe, but not even a decade ago, George Romero ended a decades-long struggle just to get the modestly-budgeted Land of the Dead into theaters, an act that seemed like a cherry on top of the undead resurgence. In retrospect, though, it was sort of like the moment that Raoul Duke rhapsodized about in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “the high water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
In many ways, World War Z should represent another crest for this genre’s place in pop culture—we’ve reached the point where it’s become a summer tent-pole staked on a budget that Romero could have never imagined. Never has a zombie movie been this expensive nor tackled such an epic scope. Unfortunately, none of this does much to help World War Z avoid an ordinary fate—beneath it all, it’s just another ripple of a zombie movie trailing in the wake, albeit one that squanders some legitimately unique source material along the way.
Sharing its title (and little more) with Max Brooks’s novel, the film eschews the novel’s kaleidoscopic, journalistic approach to hone in on a relatively intimate story considering the otherwise grand scale. After a mysterious worldwide epidemic begins to teem through their hometown streets, the Lane family is sent on the run and suddenly find themselves fleeing from a zombie apocalypse. Luckily for them, patriarch Gerry (Brad Pitt) still has contacts at his old job at the UN, and his old bosses offer them a sanctuary at sea if he agrees to aid a scientist’s investigation of the outbreak. He reluctantly agrees, and heads off to South Korea, which ends up being the first of several pit stops on a globe-hopping journey.
For a film that winds up feeing intensely familiar, World War Z has a fairly fresh, intriguing hook in the context of this genre. Whereas so many of these films wallow in the apocalypse and insist on a certain amount of hopelessness, this one at least dangles the possibility of a cure out there. As such, the film takes on the mode of a pandemic thriller, sort of like a more hyperactive form of Contagion. It’s really fascinating needle-in-a-haystack stuff that has Gerry scouring for clues in an attempt to figure out where the virus originated. The setup is a refreshing change of pace from traditional undead films, which are so often hemmed up in claustrophobic spaces and become visceral survival tales. I found myself taken in by the propulsive mystery that unfolds here, as it’s treated like a chess match between mankind and mother nature (here likened to a ruthless serial killer that can’t help but leave breadcrumbs behind), and the interlocking puzzle pieces eventually—and briefly—provide a solid framework.
Once the film abruptly shifts into another direction, that framework crumbles, though, and World War Z degenerates into a pretty small (but effective) zombie movie, complete with the requisite stalking and hacking as Gerry creeps through a medical facility swarming with the undead. The scope completely deflates, and the film conjures up a different sort of resolution that’s at odds with the setup. On one level, this is forgivable—after all, it makes a little bit of sense that Gerry would realize that his initial quest is fruitless and attempt to find a more practical solution. However, the execution here is quite clumsy and results in a thudding anticlimax that reeks of the film’s highly publicized last-minute rewrite. It almost feels like the movie just quits and is content to act as the first part of a larger story, especially since the final moments heavily hint at a sequel (the Damon Lindelof special, apparently).
Regardless of which mode it’s operating in, World War Z is still a largely brainless action-horror hybrid that aims pretty low despite its lofty posturing. Forget the usual social commentary or allegory that sometimes accompany these films—this one’s just a multiplex thriller. Once upon a time, the zombie film satirized mall culture—now they're just digested in malls. And that’s okay—we can’t all be the smart kid in class, and sometimes you just want to hang with that guy who flings pencils into the ceiling. Basically, that’s World War Z, but it at least provides a handful of strong sequences that work in a vacuum. The opening provides some of the most chaotic and authentic replications of an apocalyptic breakout that I can recall; director Marc Forster opts for the jittery camerawork that left many viewers nauseated during Quantum of Solace. It seems to be even more prominent here, but it’s at least fitting since it drops viewers right into a horrific, frenzied mass that hits all of the expected post-apocalyptic beats: looting, distrust, and even a super gratuitous rape attempt (seriously, two guys go after Gerry’s wife right in the middle of a crowded supermarket).
From there, it’s one sequence to the next—you get a nice little [REC]-style scene in an apartment building before Pitt is gallivanting around the world, collecting exposition, and encountering hordes of zombies that wind up devouring just about everyone he meets. These early episodes especially tease some cool stuff—for example, we learn that the Israelis somehow knew about the impending zombie apocalypse and erected a wall, which might hint at something a little sinister. The actual truth is much less interesting, and whatever narrative intrigue the film holds is similarly lost in the undead swarm that keeps showing up to wreck Gerry’s day and ferry him on out to another country to repeat the cycle. Even though it doesn’t add up to much, there are some striking moments (even the mass of CGI zombies crawling and flinging themselves over the wall is impressive), and the climactic sequence is sort of conflicting: on the one hand, it’s the most technically sound and tense part of the whole movie. On the other, it’s sort of a letdown (in fact, the denouement that shuttles us to the credits offers a glimpse of the bigger, more exciting film that’s initially teased).
As a zombie movie, it’s kind of a tedious, familiar romp that at least has the decency to empty the clip of all the possible clichés and tropes. You get both the fast-moving, 28 Days Later-inspired infected throngs and the Romero-esque shamblers (the film even provides an explanation for this, so it’s not completely without wrinkles). When Forster deigns to actually show them off towards the end, they look gruesome enough and exhibit a creepy teeth-chattering tic that substitutes for the usual groaning (I don’t think they’re allowed to moan for brains because there are none to be found here—seriously, even the super smart scientist suffers the sort of fate reserved for dumbshits). The PG-13 rating is another sign of the mainstreaming of zombies into pop culture; I know we got Warm Bodies earlier this year, but this one feels calculatedly sanitized in an almost laughable way. While there are a couple of squirm-inducing bits, the gore-starved zombie attacks ring false, especially since the film is otherwise so ugly and grimy. Maybe it’s a superficial complaint, but the lack of splatter speaks to what a dry experience World War Z is at times—try as it might to posture and hit the required emotional beats with Gerry and his family, it’s mostly just a shoot-em-up with CGI targets falling by the wayside.
If nothing else, the film is at least relentless and breezy—even at 116 minutes, it flies by so quickly that I was sure it had another act left in it when it unexpectedly petered out. Pitt is also a fine anchor for the whole thing. He’s got a 70s leading-man-in-a-disaster-movie vibe going for him—we know he’s Brad Pitt, but he’s somehow believable as an everyman. It’s cool that he’s not exactly meant to be a gruff badass (though there are a handful of those scattered in, including a criminally underused James Badge Dale)—he’s just some dude who would investigate crimes for the UN and report back. Of course, he’s thrust into situations where he has to take charge, which he does with an alarming ease that lets you know he’s been in the shit before without having to hammer that point home. World War Z is his pet project, too, though it gained a ton of infamy during production; after the film was delayed and endured some lengthy reshoots, all sorts of wild stories emerged (at one point, it was reported that Paramount didn’t even have an hour of usable footage). Truth might eventually separate itself from fiction, but the final product doesn’t resemble the disaster one might have imagined.
It’s definitely a patchwork sewn together by four writers (five if you graciously include Brooks), seven (!) production companies, two editors, two composers, and a host of other talent that got axed along the way (including original cinematographer Robert Richardson). Maybe it was wise of Paramount to let all these complications leak out because it admittedly set the bar pretty low, and I feel like I’m subconsciously observing it on a curve since it’s not as bad as expected. Then again, that still only leads to damning with faint praise and the sobering realization that World War Z somehow ballooned into a $200 million endeavor and only yielded the biggest, most obvious, and blandest zombie movie imaginable from Brooks's wry, clever novel. In a perfect world, Romero would have made that kind of money over the course of his career; instead, it’s only being used to feast off of his legacy. Sure, zombie movies are as popular as ever now, but the cannibalization is only becoming more noticeable. Rent it!
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