The familiar zombie routine has never been realized on such an epic scale, but that is the film’s only claim to novelty.
WORLD WAR Z is not merely a movie about zombies; it is a bit of a zombie itself: shot and re-shot, cut to pieces, bloody and battered, it nevertheless refuses to die, staggering to the finish line and beyond with remarkable resiliency, though bearing only a superficial similarity to its former self, its higher brain functions faded. Which is to say that, in spite of extensive rewriting, re-shooting, and re-editing, the finished film does not resemble a Frankenstein-monster stitched together from disparate pieces. It looks like a healthy human being – until you get up close and stare into the empty eyes, devoid of personality, and realize that its movements are the force of habit, not spontaneous actions initiated by intelligent thought. Fortunately, the familiar zombie routine has its appeal, and never before has it been realized on such epic scale. Big-budget horror blockbusters are few and far between; therein lies the film’s only claim to novelty. If worldwide mayhem, wrapped up in a globe-trotting thriller scenario, is enough to animate your interest, WORLD WAR Z is not a bad way to kill a couple hours.
After a moment of domestic calm before the storm, introducing us to Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family, WORLD WAR Z quickly dives into the zombie apocalypse with an outbreak, with effectively convincing chaos spilling onto city streets with alarming speed. Gerry turns out to be a former U.N. investigator, with experience getting in and out of hot spots around the globe; he is pressed back into service in exchange for room and board for his family aboard a battleship, safe from the death and destruction on shore. With the countdown to human extinction ticking, the goal is to trace the viral outbreak to its source in the hope of finding a cure. This proves to be easier said than done, with most of the world in flames, able to offer assistance but no useful answers.
The first weird thing you notice about WORLD WAR Z is that, despite the impressive long shots with virtual armies of the living dead overwhelming helpless victims, the film as a whole never truly captures a sense of impending doom as well as its own trailer. What should be the motivating force behind the narrative is instead soft-pedaled – not eclipsed but definitely subordinated to what really matters: family values. Gerry, you see, is less interested in saving the world than in saving his family – a point emphasized when he refuses the mission, changing his mind only when the military commander informs him that there is no room for non-essential personnel aboard ship (translation: if he doesn’t go, he and his family will be kicked off).
Consequently, Gerry’s quest is less about completing his mission than it is about getting back to the wife and kids. Which might be okay if they were not such a generic, forgettable lot. The cutaways to the wife and kids awaiting Gerry’s return, and the occasional phone call, are meant to lend an emotional foundation to the story; instead, they are mere distractions. You get the feeling that, as far as the filmmakers are concerned, the world can go to hell as long as the family is reunited at the end. It’s not exactly the best way to generate a sense of apocalyptic horror.
Horror of any sort is in relatively short supply, perhaps due to the studio-mandated PG-13 rating, which leaves the film not only bloodless but generally scare-less. Producer-star Pitt reportedly wanted to push the rating to the limit, but there is little evidence of this on screen, although there is a nice decisive moment when his character (bloodlessly) severs a victim’s hand to prevent infection from spreading.
There are plenty of thrills, but for the most part they are presented in the action idiom, with chase, gunshots, and explosions that keep you on the edge of your seat but seldom have you squirming with dread. The exception is an expertly staged, extended set-piece near the end, in which Gerry and a few others must negotiate the corridors of a World Health Organization building, relying on stealth to prevent detection by the roaming zombies. Director Marc Forster (who helmed the excellent STRANGER THAN FICTION and the not so excellent QUANTUM OF SOLACE) does his best work here; the 3D imagery (a post-production conversion that looks great throughout) seems to put you inside the hallways, shoulder to shoulder with the humans, so close you almost feel as if the zombies could reach out and grab you (though, sadly, such a nifty 3D shot as an arm shooting out of the screen is never attempted).
The zombies themselves are a not particularly imaginative variation on the creatures we have been seeing on screen for decades. There is a certain spastic nature to their movements that is unnerving, and some of the makeups are good, though not particularly innovative. As in 28 DAYS LATER (2002), they are victims of a virus, and they run like Olympic sprinters. This made more sense in the previous film, in which the zombies were not really zombies at all but living humans infected with a “rage virus.” Here, we have humans who die within seconds but remain healthy enough to outrun the living, swarm up walls like overactive insects, and overwhelm well-equipped soldiers.
Speaking of the living dead, the characters seldom do. There is some initial scoffing at the use of the word “zombie,” and Gerry later asks someone how Jerusalem managed to prepare for the zombie menace that no one else believed was coming. But no one even tries to come to grips with what must be a tremendous psychological shock, a complete overturning of our fundamental reality – the inviolable demarcation between the living and the dead. Beside a brief snippet on the soundtrack, there is no “end of times” rhetoric, no reference to the religious implications of the resurrection of the dead, no acknowledgement that the threat being faced is not merely a rampaging virus but something totally unprecedented in human history.
Consequently, the metaphorical force of the zombie is diminished. The walking dead have stood for conformity, consumerism, slavery, and many other concepts; here, they are just really fast dangerous people who are very hard to kill. (Yes, a bullet to the brain will do the trick, just as in George A. Romero’s films). Apparently, Pitt’s original intent was to examine sociopolitical ideas (what would this outbreak do to society? which countries would fare best), but that got lost in the effort to create a blockbuster that would launch an action-oriented franchise.
This leads to the inevitable open ending, primed for sequels – though not quite as blatantly open and unsatisfying as the director’s cut is reported to have been. The post-production revisions reunited Gerry with his family and deleted a major battle sequence in Russian, which showed the protagonist morphing from Everyman to Action Hero.* You have to admire the filmmakers for switching to a more small-scale, suspenseful conclusion, although this winds up feeling rather anti-climactic (Pitt’s closing narration tells us it’s not the end, or even the beginning of the end, just the end of this movie, with more expected to follow).
Should there be more? The productions values and the star performance, the lavish locations and epic scale – all show signs of potential, even if that potential was hampered by a studio eager for a family-friendly blockbuster rather than a horrifying vision of the apocalypse. Hopefully, a sequel could explore some ideas left unrealized here. Perhaps we should be grateful that Gerry gets back with his family at the end of WORLD WAR Z – a plot thread left dangling in the first director’s cut – at least that will not be the basis for a sequel.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention the film’s one interesting concept: The Tenth Man, which is basically a variation on the Devil’s Advocate. This idea is offered up as the explanation for why Israel was prepared for the zombie onslaught: after decades of dismissing early warning signs, the country adopted the concept of “The Tenth Man”: if ten people hear the same evidence, and nine of them come to the same conclusion, the tenth is obligated to assume the opposite is correct, and explore the possibility rigorously. Fortunately for Israel, the Tenth Man was able to prove the truth of the zombie threat in time to make preparations.
On the CFQ Review scale of zero to five stars, a moderate non-recommendation, though there are redeeming features
- In case you have not kept up with WORLD WAR Z’s production saga, you can learn a little bit here. Essentially, the ending of the director’s cut pleased no one, so Damon Lindelof was brought in to revamp the conclusion; he and Drew Goddard wrote 60 new pages that changed not only the ending, but also most of the film’s second half – basically, everything after Gerry leaves Jerusalem, including the in-flight zombie attack.
WORLD WAR Z (Paramount Pictures: July 21, 2013). Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. Directed by Marc Forster. Screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski; screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof; based on the novel by Max Brooks. Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga.