Considering the incredibly difficult production, I’m relieved to see that World War Z is much better than we expected. It doesn’t break the mold, and its connection to Max Brooks’ source novel is tenuous at best. But it’s still smarter than the average bear, and its top-down look at the zombie apocalypse scenario constitutes a new wrinkle on what has become an all-too familiar formula.
Indeed the stories surrounding the production almost eclipse the film itself, which may actually be a good thing since it draws attention to the film in ways that Paramount’s feckless ad campaign can’t. Rewrites, reshoots and a general toning down of Brooks’ grand epic suggest that things could have gone very, very wrong. Thankfully, director Marc Forster holds it all together – sometimes as tenuously as his heroic UN worker’s escapes, but with impressive regularity. And as fast and loose as he plays with the source material, he succeeds in re-creating its best trick: the combination of a broad scale and the various personal stories that comprise it.
In this case, we only get one personal story: Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane, who used to conduct investigations in the scariest corners of the globe. He retired to spend more time with his family, but a worldwide pandemic sends him back into action again. The zombies are loose, and no one seems to have the first idea how to handle them. Somewhere out there lies a cure, and Gerry needs to find it. The journey takes him from South Korea to Jerusalem to the wilds of England, giving us a glimpse of how well (or poorly) each part of the world is faring.
That preserves the worldwide vision of the story, as well as some of the quieter details therein. Brooks delighted in seeing how every aspect of human existence was affected by his scenario. How did surviving countries secure resources to continue the fight? What tactics proved most effective in dealing with an enemy that feels no fear? Could solutions lie in the darkest corners of human thinking, where survival at all costs meant losing our collective soul? World War Z touches briefly on those issues without getting too deep, losing some of the flavor but gaining a certain nimbleness in exchange.
Mostly, it’s all about the spectacle. In this case, it draws upon the speedy zombies from 28 Days Later, applied on a wide scale via CGI. The undead hordes surge like locusts over walls and cars, spilling over each other in an effort to get at the surviving humans. The image holds a hypnotic fascination, tinged with the fear of the mob to which all great zombie pictures aspire. Pitt’s movie star charisma helps hold our sympathies, as he often has little dialogue and his seemingly endless series of last-minute escapes start to wear us down after a while.
Despite that, it still commands our attention, aided both by Foster’s sure-fire pacing and a script that actually thinks its scenarios through before putting them to screen. At some points, its troubled history makes itself known, as the overall tone shifts and the larger-than-life aspects clash with a last-minute finale that feels part of a much quieter movie. But World War Z holds onto a strong central narrative thread that contains its shifting tones, with a lot of help from Pitt who doesn’t need to do much beyond exuding oodles of charm and some pained looks. (David Morse helps out by stealing the single scene he’s in, while newcomer Daniella Kertesz does wonders as Lane’s impromptu sidekick.)
Zombie movies are rapidly eclipsing vampires as the go-to staple for horror. World War Z adopts a blockbuster approach to what had previously been something much more intimate. That scope helps grant its sense of identity, while the PG-13 rating will hopefully make a few new fans of the genre. Above all, it stays sleek and fast-moving, with a white-knuckle intensity we expect from summer tentpoles surrounded by a story that makes more sense than normal. It will never challenge Romero for dominance of the genre, nor does it depart enough from formula to feel truly original. All that matters is the final impact, which I’m pleased to say left me breathless. The zombies aren’t going anywhere, and thanks to films like World War Z, we shouldn’t worry about that prospect at all.