By Andrew Wells
World War Z / **½ (PG-13)
Gerry Lane: Brad Pitt
Karin Lane: Mireille Enos
Thierry Umutoni: Fana Mokoena
Segen: Daniella Kertesz
Captain Speke: James Badge Dale
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Marc Forster. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof, and J. Michael Straczynski. Based on the novel by Max Brooks. Running time: 116 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images).
I’m beginning to feel a little schizophrenic about the zombie subgenre of horror movies. On the one hand, I’ve seen so many zombie movies—especially over the last decade—that I’m beginning to feel zombied out. On the other, it’s the one horror subgenre that continually produces something original and intriguing to the genre no matter how overdone it is. So, along comes the film adaptation of a novel that has proven to be one of those zombie event stories that people are responding to in a way that suggests there are still avenues to pursue in the zombiverse.
“World War Z” suggests in its title alone the inevitability of any zombie story—the fact that any such event will not be isolated and must become a world epidemic. Max Brook’s book and the filmmakers of this movie seem to want some sort of reconciliation between the traditional zombies of old, which are often referred to as “undead”, and the new trend of quick moving zombies inspired by the notion of super-viruses that infest large groups of people and spread at a rapid rate. I don’t know about the book, as I haven’t read it, but the movie never quite succeeds in this exercise. It presents an exciting story in its effort, however.
There was a day when the notion of zombies had to be explained to audiences throughout the telling of the story, and all the rules of how they operate had to be laid down. Now, audiences are so familiar with the concept, few films bother to explain what is going on. I think “World War Z” was written with that particular concept in mind. For once, the people in a zombie movie are as familiar with the concept of zombies as the audience. That might let the characters off the hook a bit in the opening moments of “Z”.
We meet a family, the Lanes, after a barrage of news information during the opening titles. They are in the midst of their morning preparations for the day. The dad, Gerry, makes breakfast. The mom, Karin, makes sure their daughters are ready to go. The dad has quit a job of some political importance at the UN to be with his family. You’d think the adults would be a little more aware and concerned about the global events that have been depicted in the opening credits, but they go about their business as if it’s a normal day.
When they are stuck in a traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia, it becomes apparent that strange things are happening on a rather large scale. Explosions erupt down the avenue and police start converging. Then all hell breaks loose. Events develop too quickly for anyone to know what is going on, and soon Gerry is calling in a favor from a friend at the UN to have his family extracted from the city to an aircraft carrier off the East Coast. The epidemic has already gone global. The UN wants Gerry back in his old job as an investigator to track down the origin of this “zombie” virus, so they can develop a cure.
While the first act is filled with an overabundance of action and quick editing, the investigation Gerry leads into the virus’s origins is more interesting. There are some typical scares and shocks in the first act, while the second is more dramatically structured. The investigation leads Gerry from South Korea to Jerusalem to a World Health Organization research facility in Cardiff, Wales. Every location depicts the zombie action as becoming more advanced and devastating. The attacks are so intense it seems impossible that any outcome other than the complete annihilation of the human race is possible within mere weeks. I feel like the filmmakers might be mounting walls too high for their dramatic developments in an effort to create action sequences that can’t be topped.
I found the theories of the viral expert Gerry is escorting to be quite intriguing, however. He talks about how nature is like a serial killer. How it likes to leave clues about how to catch it, because it wants to be stopped. He says the virus’s strengths will reveal its weakness and the ultimate weakness they find makes more sense than most solutions to a zombie virus usually do. It also opens the thematic ideas of the film up to the original theme of zombies—mankind’s fear of death. I liked how in order to defeat the “zombie” death; we have to embrace another form of death.
Marc Forster’s direction isn’t as interested with these themes as it is in creating scene after scene of death defying action for Brad Pitt’s hero. There’s the ant-like scaling of the walls of Jerusalem and a claustrophobic attack on a commercial jetliner. These sequences are thrilling, but kind of run over potential story elements like the possible religious meaning behind the fact that the birthplace of western religion is one of the few cities in the world that seems to have a handle on the zombie problem.
Despite the plethora of thematic deficiencies found here, the intensity of the film never fails to keep the audience engaged. Pitt proves to be a mighty anchoring force as Gerry in a production that frequently threatens to spill over into the realms of ridiculousness. He never becomes the invincible warrior, but acts on the instinct that must’ve driven him to be one of the top UN investigators he’s claimed to be. In the end, I still find myself on the fence about zombie movies. “World War Z” embraces too much of the modern action before substance mentality for me to recommend it. I would’ve liked to see it explore its themes more coherently, but it is a wild ride for those who want that sort of thing.