\Sometimes a movie’s reputation precedes it. In the case of World War Z, people were ready to rip into it long before its release. The film was plagued with production woes as the studio clashed with the director. The release date was pushed back from December 2012 to June 2013 to allow extensive reshoots after a climactic battle in Moscow was thrown out. It seemed less and less likely that Paramount would receive any substantial profit for their Herculean labors as the budget ballooned to over $200 million. World War Z is hardly dead on arrival, but it won’t set the world on fire.
World War Z is loosely based on the best-selling novel by Max Brooks, the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. The original book is one of those works of fiction described by many as unfilmable. World War Z was written as an oral history recounting the global pandemic of the undead and influenced as much by Studs Terkel as George Romero. Told from multiple perspectives, it was steeped in geo-politics and revealed how various governments and cultures dealt with the zombie outbreak. Although J. Michael Straczynski’s first draft stayed faithful to the novel, nearly all of the source material was thrown out in favor of building a slam-bang action franchise for Brad Pitt.
Most of the source material is tossed out as Pitt assumes the role of Gerry Lane, a United Nations investigator whose job duties are only vaguely defined. He’s been in war zones before and has happily left that life behind for domesticated bliss with his wife (Mireille Enos) and daughters (Abigail Hargrove & Sterling Jerins). A seemingly normal morning of traffic in downtown Philadelphia erupts in chaos as ravenous hordes of infected people swarm the streets. They quickly bite and infect others as the Lane family barely escapes. They are airlifted to sanctuary aboard a U.S. Naval vessel at sea. In order for his brood to stay, Gerry must venture out into the world with a team of specialists to track down patient zero and find a means to save the hopelessly overwhelmed human race. Gerry’s journey takes him to a military base in South Korea and Jerusalem where the Israelites have built a wall around the city to protect themselves.
World War Z unfolds just like a video game with the protagonist embarking on a series of mini-missions, accomplishing a minor goal, before moving on to the next level. The climax certainly feels as if it were created after a marathon session of Resident Evil. It doesn’t help that we don’t care a lick about the majority of characters. The role of Gerry Lane is essentially a blank slate. Gerry’s desire to reunite with his family is his only perfunctory trait. Brad Pitt is unable to put his own stamp on the character and one could easily envision another Hollywood leading man (Tom Cruise or Will Smith) substituted with little discernible difference. The choppy nature of the story can be blamed on the screenplay being passed through the hands of Matthew Michael Carnahan, Damon Lindelof, and Drew Goddard with uncredited on-set rewrites by Christopher McQuarrie. With plot elements constantly in flux, many supporting players saw their legs cut off in the editing room. Gerry’s wife, Karin, is one of the more glaring examples. Instead of a fiercely determined mother, we get a whimpering woman waiting for her man to return home. Matthew Fox is apparently in the film, but I couldn’t tell you who he played or when he appeared. Great character actors like Mortiz Bleibtreu, Pierfrancesco Favino, and Peter Capaldi (the hot-tempered Malcolm Tucker from In the Loop) show up in the revamped third act, yet are simply credited as Doctors to show you how much thought was put into their parts.
One of the few folks to make an impression is the relatively unknown Daniella Kertesz as a tough Israeli soldier. Another is James Badge Dale, who was exceptionally impressive as a cancer patient in Flight and a menacing henchman in Iron Man 3, as a cocksure Army Ranger.
Director Marc Forster’s resume is buoyed by acclaimed indie flicks such as Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner, and Finding Neverland. However, he hasn’t displayed an ability to handle big-budget action movies. Critics lambasted his direction on Quantum of Solace and there are moments in World War Z that harkens to that lesser entry in the Bond franchise. A sequence where the Lanes escape up a flight of stairs is incomprehensively constructed in the manner of the opening chase scene from Quantum. The larger scale set pieces come off better as Forster knows well enough to step aside and allow the digital effects teams to do their work. World War Z does get off to a rousing start thanks to the chaos in Philly and a pulse pounding score by Marco Beltrami. The way in which Gerry counts down how long it takes for a victim to become infected is cleverly done. The pace slows a bit until the zombies overrun Jerusalem in a thrilling middle section that is followed by the film’s best scene when a rabid stowaway infects a plane full of passengers.
While most zombie movies deal with a small group of survivors, World War Z is all about how the entire world handles a zombie outbreak. And that’s where it shines. It’s just a shame the film doesn’t have a tight grip on capturing smaller, intimate moments. The best zombie movies have always been allegorical in nature. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was a metaphor for rampant consumerism. Don’t expect any pointed jabs about modern culture with World War Z; it’s only concerned with being a slam-bang summer blockbuster.