Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Producer: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Ian Bryce
Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, David Andrews
A former U.N. investigator must find the source of a deadly outbreak that has turned much of the global population into infectious zombies.
Mainstream Hollywood boards the zombie entertainment bandwagon and gravy train with a big studio release of a big budget epic based on a big best-selling novel with a big box office draw. That is a lot of bigs, and “World War Z” is exactly that: a big, globe-spanning adventure chock full of all the spectacle one would expect from a film with a $200 million price tag.
Cut from a structure typical for a mass appeal summertime blockbuster, “World War Z” opens on former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife (Mireille Enos), and his two daughters. Theirs is the type of happy family that exists only in the movies. They play games together when stuck in traffic and liberally dole out hugs while waiting to share breakfast. Meanwhile, choppers begin to fly overhead while news reports start squawking buzzwords like “outbreak” and “martial law.”
When the zombie epidemic explodes, it takes the entire world with it in only a matter of minutes. Every city and every continent is overrun simultaneously, and the populace immediately resorts to looting, violence, and panic. The breakdown of society happens so conveniently fast and to such an extreme that looking the other way is required to move past the disbelief. At least the story does not waste any time in establishing the world that zombie fiction fans know would likely exist at some point anyway.
If the world has any hope for long-term survival, Patient Zero must be located so that the virus’ origin can be traced and a vaccine created. Just as Patient Zero is the singular person that started this ordeal in the first place, there also happens to be a Hero Zero. He is the only man out of six billion on the planet capable of saving the human race. That man: Brad Pitt.
Technically, that one man was supposed to be Harvard virologist Dr. Fassbach, who the U.N. identified as their best hope for solving the crisis. Pitt is called out of retirement to accompany a SEAL team escort for the good doctor to South Korea, where the virus may have originated. With literally the entire world at stake, the United Nations is really putting all of its eggs in one basket by sending a team of people that can be counted on one hand to carry the fate of humanity. Is there really only one doctor and one U.N. investigator on Earth capable of combating the zombie plague?
Things do not go according to plan, and soon, Pitt is left to trot the planet in a journey that takes him through Korea, Israel, Wales, Nova Scotia, and New Jersey. “World War Z’ nabs two birds with one stone by delivering varied locations for an ambitious story as well as a multicultural cast of characters that should be attractive in foreign markets.
Pitt at times flashes a personality while most other times his character is clinically matter-of-fact. He has a precise manner of speaking that is presumably deliberate, although it is robotically monotone. His style of digging out exposition is to speak a noun and then to ask a question.
“The noise. Are they drawn to it?”
“This colonel. Is he around?
“The guy who’s shackled. Do you know … what bit him?”
“The soldier. Do you know where he came from?”
In between zombie attacks, Pitt takes brief moments to reconnect with his wife via satellite phone in a subplot that loses its flavor quicker than a stick of Fruit Stripe chewing gum. After spending the first half hour with them, the U.N. investigator is separated from his wife and children with 75% of the runtime remaining in the movie. As the story unfolds, everything else going on is far more interesting and the script knows it, struggling for moments to remind the audience that Pitt’s character is a husband and a father. Media reports have made “World War Z” notorious for its rewrites and reshoots. You might think that someone would have attempted to rectify the disconnect with the family man storyline. Instead, the filmmakers chucked it and chose to concentrate on the more action-oriented aspects of the plot.
Which was perhaps for the better. For all the by-the-book Hollywood conventions that “World War Z” sleepwalks through, such as character archetypes and narrative formula, noteworthy ideas are presented as well. “World War Z” is not all derivative.
Particularly fascinating is the Harvard virologist’s labeling of Mother Nature as a serial killer. As deadly as she is creative, she is similar to other sociopaths in that she cannot help the urge to get caught so that she can be admired for her crimes. That is why the doctor is so sure that a vaccine can be found. It is equally interesting that the zombies in “World War Z” are not motivated by the usual desire to consume flesh. More hive minded, these zombies are a virus that only wants to infect and consume any healthy living host. That is a different approach to how zombies are typically viewed as a horror film monster.
The zombies of “World War Z” also have their own unique look. Characterized by their distinct throat snarls and violent twitches, their chattering teeth and blind eyes set them apart from the undead of other films. Though these creatures deliberately do not have individual identities. These zombies are meant to be seen as a teeming mass that threatens infection rather than as singular threats, although they can be that too.
“World War Z” is rare in that it oddly calls attention to the fact that it is rated PG-13. Personally, I am not in favor of gore for gore’s sake, but some scenes are cut in a way where the lack of onscreen violence is jarringly noticeable. Amputating an infected arm, a scene from numerous other zombie films, is conspicuously missing shots of the blade slice, bloodletting, and exposed limb stump. I applaud the aim for a lower MPAA rating to make the film more accessible. Yet I cannot help feeling as though parts of the film and some of its emotion were left on the cutting room floor in an effort to keep blood off the screen. Perhaps an unrated home video release will change how these types of sequences play.
“World War Z” still makes the most of its setpieces. Action scenes that include an undead horde bringing down a helicopter and causing a plane to crash supply the fireworks that audiences expect from a mid-year theatrical release. And as seen in some of the posters and trailers, the reanimated corpses improbably, if not impossibly, climbing over each to breach a massive wall make for an iconic visual from the film.
The story can drag while Pitt’s family is handled on an aircraft carrier, and there are contrived moments that will elicit either a sigh or a yawn. However, “World War Z” is entertaining as more than a loud and fiery “watered-down for the masses” horror film. Indeed, there are moments in “World War Z” that are memorable, and they ultimately prevent the film from becoming a big studio and big budget disappointment.
Review Score: 75