World War Z (Review)

(6/21/13; Zombie Horror, Action; 3D)
Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena
SCR: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
DIR: Marc Forster
MPAA: PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.
1 hour 56 mins

In the history of Big Loud Hollywood Event Films, few have proven as costly or as problematic as World War Z. You could write a book about the controversies that dogged the production, the spiraling budget, the extensive re-shoots – and I’m sure somebody will. But on its own, it’s a little surprising to discover that this cinematic variation on the “Zombie Apocalypse” meme is tense and consistently entertaining.

I say this as somebody who is not steeped in zombie lore, and finds the entire genre in need of a much-needed re-animation. In 2013, zombies are ubiquitous. They are the star of the most popular show on TV (The Walking Dead), have shambled into a popular romantic comedy (Warm Bodies), and now a major summer event thrill ride. I hope George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) is getting a cut of all this.

World War Z and its $200+ million budget add a degree of scope usually missing from such films, but there is some fine print. Typically, the budget of the film stays low but the gore is off the charts. Not so here. When a body is eviscerated, or a hand chopped off so the zombie virus does not spread throughout the body, it is a bloodless PG-13 affair. But don’t let the rating fool you. This ain’t for kids.

World War Z depicts a global zombie outbreak that spreads fast and causes societal breakdown. It’s shot on video, which at times, magnifies the on-screen immediacy, but often just calls attention to itself. And all too many times, the episodic nature of the story seems like the set-up to a video game (“The virus is in the sealed-off wing. You have to avoid the zombies, not make any noise … AND there is only one way in or out!”)

But the movie does have it’s fair share of kicks. From an opening sequence in which a routine traffic jam reveals itself as something infinitely more sinister, chases in claustrophobic stairwells, and an explosive struggle that unfolds on airplane – yikes! – World War Z takes the concept to its zenith without a shred of guilt it might not make any damn sense.

The director is Marc Forster, the same guy responsible for the one bad movie on Daniel Craig’s 007 resume, Quantum of Solace (2008). Although he cut his teeth making small dramatic films and Solace became the ADHD Bond movie, Forster has finally found a style that knows when to hold ’em, and knows when to run (from zombies).

The original novel was written by Max Brooks as first-hand historical fiction, but instead of embracing the natural faux-documentary approach, somebody decided the material needed a big star like Brad Pitt and enough money to animate millions of speedy twitchy zombies. Fans of the book have embraced Brooks’ subversive critique of government ineptitude, corporate corruption, and human short-sightedness. But there are no such commentaries here, not when there are so many things to blow up.

Brooks has gone on record saying that his only involvement with the project was to cash his check, and that fans should know that the movie and his book share a title only. Ouch.

Pitt plays a retired United Nations agent (aren’t they all) named Gerry Lane. He’s a nurturing, loving father but can kick ass, dispatch the undead and make tough decisions like most people put on socks. When the zombie pandemic strikes, he is forced to leave behind his family and travel to the far corners of the earth in pursuit of – well, he doesn’t even know. A cause? A cure? A script?

I will give the film this: the “cure” is something I’ve never seen in a zombie flick before, even if the central logic behind it makes not a lick of sense. A few questions: what is it about zombies that make fluorescent lights flicker in a creepy way whenever they are around? If the zombie virus only attaches itself to a healthy body, ignoring the weak, then how come the (now) 1-handed soldier doesn’t become the secret weapon?

Oh, because Brad Pitt is the star and he needs something to do. His character has been compared to that of Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code movies: a bad haircut in search of a character. I wouldn’t go that far. Brad Pitt is as good as he can be, given the material.

World War Z may not be faithful to its original subject, and may fall apart with slightest bit of thought, but its a thrilling, engaging ride that works on a scene-by-scene basis with a brooding scope and a general sense of foreboding. It’s clearly setting up a sequel, but I think reading that inevitable behind-the-scenes tell-all book would be infinitely more exciting.



Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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