World War Z
2013 - 116 minutes
Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Brad Pitt, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Fana Mokoena,
Peter Capaldi, David Morse, Mireille Enos
The zombie invasion of popular culture has been underway for quite some time; from the multiplex to TV and game consoles we’re being overrun with the undead. To stand out, zombie fare has to attempt something “big” or unique. “World War Z” ties both and mostly succeeds despite the difficulties of adapting the novel by Max Brooks.
In addition to source material that contained first-hand accounts of the zombie apocalypse and a challenging narrative structure, the film faced a bloated budget, shifting release dates and several re-writes from numerous scribes, including a completely re-done final act. Typically huge red flags, it is surprising and a testament to the collaborators that “World War Z” is such an effective and entertaining film. We can’t judge it based on what it could’ve been from the novel, we can only consider the final product.
In typical day-that-began-like-another-day fashion, former UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family awaken in their suburban Philadelphia home, gather for breakfast and then sit in traffic. The radio speaks of a massive rabies outbreak when cops scream by on motorcycles, an explosion booms ahead and a runaway garbage truck plows through cars. During his family’s escape, Gerry sees swarms of infected people attacking and biting others, who then turn into the creatures after several seconds. These “zombies” are different. They don’t crave brains or see humans as food; they seem most concerned with just biting and spreading the virus to as many hosts as possible.
Early scenes of the family’s travels from Philadelphia to Newark, NJ capture the societal breakdown in a believable way, touching on the best and worst of humanity. Shortly after the outbreak Gerry is contacted by a former UN colleague (Fana Mokoena) who arranges for his family to be picked up and taken to safety aboard a floating military command post – which has helpful red numbers and bar graphs showing the number of projected casualties. Just one caveat: Gerry must hit the ground with a small military team and a young virologist and attempt to track the origin of the outbreak. Find Patient 0 and a cure could be possible.
We follow Gerry on a globe-hopping trail from South Korea to Jerusalem and Wales, where he picks up clues to the origins of the outbreak and also picks up and loses various assistants. It isn’t completely believable how Gerry receives timely advice/clues at each stop, but there is enough forward momentum with the plot to accept the coincidences. Some of the best moments are borne from the realization that we (or Gerry) don’t always know what is going on – the idea of flying over an atom bomb explosion and not knowing who dropped it, or the outcome, is chilling.
Tension is effectively built in several scenes, but the film is restrained in spots, probably to attain the PG-13 rating. There are serious horrors implied and eluded to but happen just out of view, and several jump scares feel like a force to ramp up the anxiety. The fact that the zombies react to sound is also a convenient way to instigate several attacks.
Characters aren’t always engaging and mostly seem to exist to move the plot forward, even Brad Pitt as Gerry isn’t particularly endearing. The players he meets on his various stops serve their purpose as needed but don’t add much in the personality department, with the exception of Segen (Daniella Kertesz), an Israeli soldier who shares more than a few stressful situations with Gerry and is able to hold her own more than well enough. After the film’s opening act, the family is there more as a necessity and it’s difficult to connect with any desperation Gerry has to get back to them.
Despite these shortcomings, the film manages to combine the investigative nature of Gerry’s trek with action scenes that showcase the horror of the situation and provide clues to a potential weapon against infection. The re-written and shot third act feels like it’s come to naturally and not just a tacked-on or muddled finale.
The end may feel a little abrupt, but really, how could a film about a completely devastating global pandemic come to a tidy conclusion? There’s no miracle fix for what has happened, only small victories that will hopefully lead to larger and larger ones. What we see in “World War Z” is just a first step, but it’s a worthwhile and entertaining journey that raises interesting ideas and questions.
© 2013 by Blake Crane