“WORLD WAR Z” (Movie Review)
WORLD WAR Z is an often exciting action epic, and a pretty gripping saga of one man’s attempt to survive amidst, and perhaps find a solution for, a global catastrophe. What it is not is a zombie movie that will satisfy some die-hard fans, or a close adaptation of Max Brooks’ modern-classic novel, so some adjustment of expectations is in order to best enjoy it.
Perhaps there was no way to truly faithfully adapt Brooks’ sprawling oral history into a two-hour movie; perhaps a cable-TV miniseries could have worked, and based on recent evidence, it might have allowed for more of the graphic bloodshed that undead fans crave. Considering the extremes that PG-13-rated studio flicks have achieved, WORLD WAR Z seems surprisingly timid about the gory details, and in a few scenes, the lack of money shots is actually distracting. Less than personal dismemberment or disembowelment, director Marc Forster and his creative team are more concerned with the mass chaos that would result from a ghoul outbreak, and in that they succeed, sometimes spectacularly so.
Given that his last film was the James Bond opus QUANTUM OF SOLACE, it’s appropriate that Forster’s zombie film is a globetrotting adventure instead of a typical siege scenario (and one key act in a confined setting has the creatures already inside, partitioned off from the human survivors). The shaky-cam and jerky editing that made a mess of his 007 outing are more appropriate and finessed to be more coherent here, conveying a sense of panicked disorientation, most effectively in the first act. Here we are introduced to Philadelphia family man Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karen (Mireille Enos from TV’s THE KILLING) and their two daughters, and we’ve barely been dropped a hint by his youngest about his former covert government job than they’re stuck in a Philadelphia traffic jam that, with the suddenness of a terrorist attack (an analogy the movie nonetheless doesn’t push), becomes a nightmare. Hordes of people afflicted by some sort of rabies-like disease descend upon the streets, and the Lanes are suddenly fleeing for their lives, grabbing what supplies they can from a looted supermarket and searching desperately for sanctuary.
In the midst of all the punchily staged insanity, Forster makes room for a couple of grace notes, most crucially pausing as Gerry observes a man being bitten and succumbing, counting the seconds to time out the victim’s transformation. It’s a well-judged device to express Gerry’s analytical mind and establish him as a man capable of thinking his way through tense situations—a quality he’ll need in spades as the movie progresses. Consistently undervalued as an actor, Pitt (also one of WORLD WAR Z’s many producers) proves a fine choice to anchor the sprawling story, coming across as physically capable without indulging in superheroics and very relatable as he struggles to save both his loved ones and the world at large.
Gerry is pressed into the latter service once he and his family reach a safe haven thanks to his former UN supervisor Thierry (South African actor Fana Mokoena, making a strong impression with limited screen time in one of the film’s many resonant bits of multiculti casting). Tasked with tracking down the source of the infection and thus the possibility of finding a cure, Gerry is soon hopscotching all over the world, each locale given a distinctive look and feel by cinematographer Ben Seresin and production designer Nigel Phelps. Much like a Bond picture, WORLD WAR Z settles into a comfortable rhythm: Our hero arrives in an exotic setting, gets a bit further in his investigation and then all hell breaks loose, though the action setpieces too possess enough variety and genuine excitement to prevent a feeling of repetition from settling in.
Along the way, WORLD WAR Z follows Joe Bob Briggs’ key rule of horror films—anybody can die at any time (except Gerry, of course)—which helps the sense of danger. It also makes up for the fact that the zombies themselves lack the visceral punch of undead/infected past, even the better fast-moving ones like the marauders of 28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER. As presented here, they’re more of a palpable threat as a mob than as individuals, and setpieces in which swarms of them invade streets and scale walls, even though recognizably crafted via CGI, are undeniably arresting. When the film—in defiance of typical megamovie trends—actually scales things down for its climactic sequences, Forster is able to foster a certain amount of tension with a more limited number of undead—though you may giggle while biting your nails from the number of ways the characters find to inadvertently make noises that threaten to alert the ghouls to their presence.
While Brooks’ book was lauded for its pointed political commentary, the film smooths over that subject in its pursuit of populist thrills. (Reportedly, a reference to China being ground zero for the plague was altered in postproduction to make it more playable in that lucrative market, though North Korea is still fair game: There’s a great, sick joke when we learn of the direct approach that country took in dealing with the problem.) As mentioned above, any potential terrorism metaphors are largely eschewed, though the human toll of the widespread carnage is allowed to resonate—as opposed to recent films, from TRANSFORMERS to MAN OF STEEL, which co-opt 9/11-style mass destruction without addressing the thousands of lives undoubtedly being lost. Saving lives, in fact, takes precedence over wiping out the threat to them in the narrative thrust of WORLD WAR Z—for which, in this interpretation, the title is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than focusing on military-style engagements, it’s more a sort of espionage thriller in which the enemies are not Russians or religious extremists, but walking corpses.