Movie Review: World War Z
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
The zombies in “World War Z” don’t lumber, arms outstretched, eyes glazed over, in search of fresh brains. They swarm like a pack of killer bees, moving with alarming speed and disposing of human bodies in a flash.
If the undead in the countless zombie films lobbed at moviegoers over the past couple of decades projected such visceral menace, maybe people wouldn’t roll their eyes at the mere mention of the genre.
Versatile director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Quantum of Solace”) has adapted Max Brooks’ popular and engaging 2006 fictitious oral history of the zombie wars into an uneven thriller that blends sociopolitical commentary with flashy set pieces, tense moments of scientific sleuthing and a touch of heart. Despite the propulsive early action and a tense third act, the middle of the movie sags with a narrative both clunky and full of holes.
In the early scenes of the high-concept zombie movie — part “Contagion,” part “28 Days Later,” part political thriller — the zombies rush in like a tidal wave overwhelming New York City in “The Day After Tomorrow.”
The city here is Philadelphia. Caught in the stampede of blood-thirsty zombies are Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a retired U.N. operative now living in mundane domestic bliss; his wife, Karin (Houston-raised Mireille Enos); and their two adorable daughters (Abigail Hargrove and Sterling Jerins).
The family is stuck in rush-hour traffic when a radio news report is followed almost immediately by the throttling throng of zombies, the chaos rendered in startling close-ups and intense sweeping helicopter shots.
Using his quick wits, a relatively calm and collected Lane rushes his family to temporary safety. The early glimpses of Lane’s methodical reaction to the zombie attack intimate that his former job at the U.N. has uniquely qualified him for handling out-of-control situations. That impression is reinforced when the deputy director of the U.N. (Fana Mokoena) calls Lane and asks his former charge to report to duty.
Lane points his family toward New York, making it as far as Newark, N.J., where they descend on a looted supermarket, all blinking fluorescent lights and pandemonium. After being rescued by military forces, Lane and family are whisked to an aircraft carrier being used as central command and a safe haven for “essential” persons in the war on the mysterious zombie threat.
Reluctant to leave his family, Lane opts to put the world’s needs before his own and flies to South Korea in search of patient zero in the zombie plague. There he encounters U.S. military men who seem like the less interesting cousins of Seal Team 6 from “Zero Dark Thirty,” and meets a paranoid CIA agent (David Morse), a storyline disposed of quickly, like several other subplots nodded at in the film. The president is dead? Yep. Moving right along. …
Interesting sociological ideas about people bonding together for the common good versus the anarchy of an every-man-for-himself mentality are breezed over, as are contemplations about the worth of certain individuals versus others. These themes may have been better explored in Brooks’ vignette-filled book of zombified anecdotes, but the film never lets such ideas linger. The human race needs saving! (Why that hugely important facet of the movie never feels more urgent or perilous is just one of the flaws.)
The middle of “World War Z” jaunts from South Korea to Israel, a country that has built walls (hammer-to-the-head undeveloped metaphor) to protect itself, making it and North Korea (more political commentary!) the two states seemingly immune from attack.
As Lane slowly starts putting the pieces together in Israel, things fall apart and he ends up retreating from the nightmare on a plane with a female Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz, the only supporting character with more than a few minutes of face time).
This leads to one of the film’s most spectacular set pieces. Suffice it to say that snakes on a plane have nothing in the excitement department compared with one zombie on a plane. The scene makes the airplane crash in “Flight” look like a student film.
But as with most of the violent scenes in the movie, this one passed with little bloodshed and limited gore. The restraint is admirable, but one imagines the intimations of ghastly violence were more a matter of keeping a PG-13 rating than a storytelling-based decision. And wouldn’t more people be cussing in such a situation? The rating should help increase box office receipts, as will the higher prices for 3D, which is completely useless and almost insulting in a movie with a bland color palette and limited 3D-enhanced effects.
When Lane and his new sidekick recover from the spectacular wreckage, they make their way to a medical facility in Wales. There the brilliant and preternaturally cool Pitt, excuse me, Lane, tries to piece together the scientific underpinnings of the threat and a potential solution.
The sequences in the medical facility use surveillance footage and some taut editing to heighten audience anxiety. The cat-and-mouse scenes in a contained area are more suspenseful than the global narrative. But the rabid CGI zombies are replaced by more human-like creatures, an effect that comes across as unintentionally comical. Part of this abrupt change of tones could be ascribed to the multitude of writers (at least four) who worked on the script of this summer behemoth that faced countless production difficulties.
With so many cooks in the cinematic kitchen, the movie has trouble holding together, and the rapid race toward denouement, while commendable in avoiding a typical summer blockbuster ending, feels intended only as a set-up for a sequel. Whether fans will be clamoring for one after seeing the initial installment will determine the would-be franchise’s future.