World War Z, the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ hit novel, was fighting an uphill battle from the start. The fractured structure of the book doesn’t particularly lend itself well to a film version, and once filming finally did get underway, it was plagued with very public production troubles, massive reshoots, and third act rewrites. Most who were following the production’s issues were expecting a disaster on the scale of the events in the movie itself, but World War Z somehow managed to stumble through that hellish gauntlet and emerge as a solid piece of summer entertainment.
Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who lives a comfortable life with his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters in Philadelphia. Signs of unrest around the world are broadcast on the news during the family’s morning routine, but when they hit a traffic jam downtown, things quickly get out of control. There’s a zombie outbreak (as much as the marketing hasn’t played up the “z” word, the movie doesn’t shy away from it), and Pitt must get his family to safety. The film barely sets up the world before it hurls us into the action, transitioning into a series of intense escapes before the family is finally rescued and transferred to a ship 200 miles off the coast.
As we momentarily catch our breath, an exposition dump sets the stage for the rest of the movie: the President is dead, the outbreak is happening all over the world, and Pitt is called back into action to help track down Patient Zero in order to create a vaccine and save humanity. After a tearful goodbye to the family, the film is off and running again as Pitt travels the globe learning tiny fragments of information at each locale before the zombie hordes become too powerful and spark another pulse-pounding escape sequence. This formula works from an action standpoint, highlighting plenty of large-scale and expensive-looking setpieces that should please moviegoers looking to be visually wowed, but the setpieces come at the expense of character moments. We don’t ever get to know Pitt’s character – he wants to save his family and he previously worked in some tough environments, yes, but there’s nothing really to him. He’s a relatively normal guy, which could have been part of the statement of the book but doesn’t really translate when you have one of the world’s biggest movie stars playing the lead role. Pitt does a fine job, I just wish we were able to get a better sense of the man he’s embodying so we could have a real reason to root for him aside from being told he’s the protagonist.
I’ve seen other critics call the movie “smart,” and while I wouldn’t quite go that far, it does at least touch on a couple of compelling points in the downtime between chaotic chases. A wall has been built around the city of Jerusalem to protect itself from the hordes outside, and in an obvious religious allegory, one of the characters tells Pitt, “every human we save is one less zombie to fight.” Excellent character actor David Morse has one quick scene in a Korean prison in which he details the grisly way North Korean leaders utilized their political power over their citizens to survive the outbreak. The film’s ultimate discovery of how to best deal with the zombies is also a fresh take on zombie tropes, playing with our expectations of what we know about the genre through a tension-filled, claustrophobic climax.
There are some great moments in this movie, from an outbreak on a plane (which I really liked until I saw how they decided to handle the next scene) to all of the tense getaways and narrow misses from the undead. Unfortunately, the inventive climax also happens to end with a shameful sequence that ranks among the worst instances of blatant product placement I’ve ever seen. If you were one of the people who were up in arms about IHOP and Sears being so obviously on display in Man of Steel, you’re likely to blow a gasket when you see what happens in World War Z.
The screening I saw was in 3D, and while my general outlook on that format is that it’s an unnecessary gimmick (with a few notable exceptions like Avatar, Hugo, How to Train Your Dragon, etc), this experience was actively terrible. Director Marc Forster’s camera shakes and bounces through the opening chase in a frenetic and unruly way, and combined with his quick-cut editing style, it results in a nauseating experience. Things settle down as the movie progresses, but I’m not someone who is normally bothered by 3D and I had to look away from the screen multiple times in the first 30 minutes because I was getting such a huge headache. Forster seems to have improved his action acumen since his days directing Bond in the subpar Quantum of Solace, but this film still doesn’t “wow” on a purely technical level in the way a J.J. Abrams or Michael Bay action movie does.
The voiceover-heavy ending will likely be chalked up to a late-stage rewrite by Prometheus and “LOST” writer Damon Lindelof, but I didn’t mind the way things wrapped up. It’s a zombie movie, after all – there are only so many ways to bring a story like to this to a close, and for someone who didn’t read the book and isn’t a zombie film connoisseur, this blend of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend works just fine to tie off the story. It’s not the most elegant ending of a summer movie this year, but that sort of aligns with what’s been this project’s whole vibe from the start: it ain’t always pretty, but the filmmakers made it through the fire and came out with something watchable. Until next time…
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