The short review: Despite the rather public production issues, World War Z is a massive zombie film that doesn’t provide much in the way of innovation, but packs in plenty of frantically paced, jaw-dropping set pieces that make it a solid summer popcorn flick.
The long review: World War Z, loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the book of the same name by Max Brooks, is a $200 million, chaotic, globe-hopping zombie action film. I know what you’re thinking – another zombie film? Must we endure yet another apocalypse? The answer, for better or worse, is yes. In a summer season glutted with blockbusters involving the rampant destruction of cities, World War Z doesn’t rock the boat so much as it provides an enjoyable ride down a river choked with still-twitching bodies.
Is it the best zombie film to come out this year? No. Is it faithful to the book? No – it’s more in line with Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide than World War Z, and even then it’s barely related. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Probably. Although it may have Brooks’ more vocal fans up in arms, World War Z is a competent zombie film that makes ample use of its sprawling set pieces to create a palpable sense of tension and some truly awesome moments of seeing entire cities fall prey to the undead menace. Whereas most summer films build towards the city-destroying mayhem of the final 45 minutes, World War Z smartly gets it out of the way in the beginning, leaving room for a more intimate, thoughtful and suspenseful third act.
In comparison to other, more intelligent zombie fare like The Walking Dead, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, or even Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland, director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace) takes a bit of a step back. It doesn’t seek to elevate the genre, nor does it use the zombies as an allegory to discuss the philosophical and moral implications of the effect of the apocalypse on mankind and human behavior. Rather, Forster uses the film as a canvas for video game-like action sequences that play out like quick-time events and tries to simply entertain within the genre’s existing confines.
The story centers on Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former U.N. employee who now spends his days as a stay-at-home dad/pancake making machine. It’s never really clear exactly what Lane did for the U.N., but we’re told several times that he had experience in disaster-affected areas. Honestly, it’s best not to think to much about it and just accept that Pitt is our handsome, steely protagonist. After opening on a fairly standard happy family breakfast scene at their Philadelphia home, the film drops Lane and his family — his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) — into the thick of it as the City of Brotherly Love rapidly transforms into the City of Flesh-eating Monsters and cheesesteaks are replaced by facesteaks.
From there, the family must make their way to the relative safety of an apartment complex rooftop where a helicopter is coming to evacuate them because, for some reason, Lane is the only one who can save humanity and the U.N. needs him alive. Fast forward to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean, which we all know is a zombie’s worst nightmare, and Lane is coerced by his old U.N. boss and General Scowly McWhitehair, who offer his family safety aboard the ship in exchange for Lane traveling to Korea in search of patient zero.
Although Lane’s family is used as the leverage needed to send him on a globetrotting search for the cure that sends him to far-flung places like Korea, Israel, Wales and Nova Scotia, they lack the emotional weight the film tries to give them. We barely know them as people; they merely serve to fill the notion of a “wife” and “kids,” two terms that are supposed to trigger something deep and primal within us. In World War Z, however, they may as well be cardboard cutouts, because they lack any real substance or depth and undermine the intended emotional throughline.
For a film with a $200 million budget, it sure didn’t feel like it. Take, for instance, a film like Warm Bodies, which managed to balance humor, heart, and horrifying zombie action with a comparably paltry $35 million. When it comes to directing action sequences, Forster prefers screen-filling chaos over tightly choreographed set pieces. The scenes are filled with legions of writhing computer generated zombies and carefully made-up walkers for the film’s close-up shots. When we do get up close and personal with some of the zombies, they are genuinely creepy, with their milky, glazed over eyes, shambling stride, incessant Last of Us-style throat clicking, and affinity for sound. Despite our relatively few close encounters, these zombies are a truly disturbing lot.
As Pitt mentioned at an earlier press day, he wanted to make a movie his kids could see, but the result is a relatively bloodless affair — both emotionally and in terms of on-screen violence. Rather than showing blood or any semblance of true zombie-related violence, Forster quickly cuts away much like Tom Hooper ending every single scene in Les Miserables. It is this lack of innovation and lack of heart that prevents World War Z from reaching the balance of humanity and horror that attracted so many people to Brooks’ book.
At 116 minutes, the film feels full without overstaying its welcome, which is to its credit considering recent overlong blockbusters like Man of Steel and the forthcoming The Lone Ranger. The third act, which was rewritten by Damon Lindelof and reshot, provides some of the tensest moments in the picture. For a film with five credited writers and very public production issues, it had no right to be as entertaining as it was.
As my colleague at EP Daily, Miri Jedeikin, said to me recently, “World War Z seems like it was running the cleverest counterhype campaign ever.” Given all the negative buzz surrounding the film, my expectations were rather low going into it. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It may not be the adaptation that fans of the book were hoping for, but as far as summer popcorn flicks go, it will sate your appetite for destruction and leave a smile on your face (provided the zombies haven’t already eaten it).