World War Z isn’t the zombie film you wanted, nor is it the balls-to-the-wall zombie film you needed. Rather, it’s a big budget, sometimes visually stunning, mirror image of just about every undead film ever put to celluloid. But minus the gore. Minus the “money shot” zombie close-ups. And more importantly minus the human element. World War Z offers surface level emotional stakes, yet it fails to make us care about anyone at all. In lieu of this, we get an “okay” zombie film with the greatest sense of scope ever applied to this sub-genre.
I’m not familiar with the Max Brooks novel upon which this film is based, so I can’t draw any book-to-film comparisons here. I can only talk about the film alone and its merits and failures. I went in understanding that it deviated greatly from the source material, still, it’s my job to look at what director Marc Forster, actor/producer Brad Pitt and the film’s many screenwriters pulled off with the hundreds of millions of dollars they had to play with. The result of their collaboration isn’t as terrible as the stories of budget inflation and script rewrites that heralded World War Z‘s arrival would make you think.
The script simply isn’t fresh enough to give the film that much praise. Even if you’ve seen the staples of this sub-genre – like George Romero’s Dead series (say, Night of the Living Dead through Land of the Dead), 28 Days Later (not a zombie film, I get it, but a film that carries the traits of one) or even The Walking Dead – you might feel World War Z is a little stale. But if you’ve never seen a zombie film, you’ll get a charge out of this film’s Contagion meets Zero Dark Thirty meets Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead-like equation.
If you haven’t been reading every bit of information about the film, the story is seen through the eyes of Gerry Lane (Pitt) an ex-United Nations vet called back into duty to find a “patient zero” or some sort of cure in the midst of a fast-spreading, world-wide zombie epidemic. Gerry and his family are first-hand witnesses to the power of the virus as they get caught in Philadelphia during an intense outbreak in the city streets that cuts them off from their home and forces them to seek refuge until they’re retrieved by the military.
As director Forster is going more for a “force of Mother Nature” approach to the zombies, the undead are depicted as a rather faceless lot. We don’t get a whole lot of close-ups, they leap and gnash and run at their prey so quickly, the audience hardly gets a moment to assess what’s happening thus weakening the threat. It’s dizzying and works only on occasion, but the more potent moments of danger come when Gerry and his wife decide to visit a convenience store which is being looted in an effort to get their daughter some asthma spray (yes, they use the ol’ “asthma” plot device to garner empathy) and a non-zombie menace presents itself. Also effective is the predicament Gerry is presented with later on while onboard an aircraft carrier: Help the government, moreover, the world and find a cure or run the risk of having his family booted back out on the streets, losing their current safe haven – a solid set-up.
What follows is a globetrotting adventure in which Gerry is shepherded by a military team and, for the most part, it’s pretty standard stuff. One location yields some of the clues Gerry is looking for to complete his mission while another location thrusts the audience into a sweeping invasion sequence in Israel where Gerry discovers not even giant walls can hold back the undead. The momentum of the story works quite well through all of this in spite of its familiarity, but it all comes screeching to a halt when World War Z scales back its vision of bodies cascading over buildings and swarming zombies toppling buses and helicopters in favor of a smaller third act that adapts to a “contained” zombie tale more akin to what we’ve seen in the Resident Evil films or The Walking Dead. Here we see Gerry taking certain risks that are all too conveniently tied up for my taste.
For the most part, everyone fares just fine performance-wise. Pitt throws himself into the action, but there’s not a whole lot to Gerry. Sure, you feel for the guy when he goes out into the field because he’s – at times – disconnected from his wife and kids (Mireille Enos’ character is relegated to mostly hanging out by some bunk beds with a phone in hand waiting for Gerry to call), but he’s got no personality. And that’s because the film is going so big, it forgets the smaller moments – those lines of dialogue that define a character or shed some insight into who Gerry is. Writers seem to have forgotten that you can show “character” in non-obvious situations. Yes, Gerry talking his daughter through an asthma attack is all well and good, but who else is this guy? Not to draw more comparisons to the works of Romero, but even ol’ George knew how to show us an unexpected, sometimes amiable, side to a character in the face of an undead threat.
I should also probably mention that this is a bloodless zombie film. Well, mostly bloodless. I think I spotted some blood on Gerry’s shirt after a wound and there are some cuts and scratches depicted, yet when a character gets their hand cut-off – totally dry. Not even a dash of crimson on the bandage. The film is PG-13, however, we live in a “guts and gory” era of The Walking Dead and a bloodless undead epic is unacceptable.
Many will go in seeing World War Z with a grudge for not matching Max Brooks’ vision and those people will probably be disappointed. I, on the other hand, just wanted something unique and while I didn’t quite get that, I thought the experience was fine and totally harmless. Those not so savvy to the zombie sub-genre will likely have a blast by its scope and frantic style.