Based on the zombocalyptic horror novel by author Max Brooks, director Marc Forster’s World War Z trades the book’s segmented interview structure for a linear jet-setting thriller story – one that takes protagonist Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) from one zombie-infested locale to another. Prior to the outbreak, Lane (a retired UN investigator) is living a quiet life as a stay-at-home dad – happily tending to chores and making breakfast for his wife, Karen (Mireille Enos) and two daughters. That is until a new strain of rabies devastates Philadelphia – as waves of ordinary people turn to vicious killing machines seconds after infection.
When major cities fall and the U.S. military begins to lose control of the situation, UN officials offer to extract Lane and provide his family safe harbor. The offer comes with a price: the UN will house Lane’s family if he escorts a high-level scientist on a mission through zombie-infested locales, to track down the source of the virus in the hopes of finding a cure.
Despite the eye-popping images of zombies clambering over one another in the World War Z trailers, Marc Forster is best known for intimate character stories (Stranger than Fiction) – not blockbuster CGI spectacle. As a result, while there is plenty of action in the film, moviegoers hoping for enormous scenes of zombie killing could be underwhelmed by the overall World War Z experience. The enormous zombie crowd shots are attention-grabbing (though most of them were already outed in the pre-release marketing) but Forster’s primary focus is Lane’s search for a solution to the outbreak. The result is an awkward disconnect: the first half of the film is exposition-heavy setup (not the blown-out zombie action depicted in the advertising) and the latter half is the complete opposite (dropping story in favor of lengthy zombie encounters).
Lane’s post-apocalyptic journey ultimately provides interesting ideas and tense zombie moments, but as a full movie experience, it’s a fractured and disconnected set of sequences held together by a paper thin MacGuffin chase. Despite the rich novel source material, the story is extremely familiar, with a number of stale side plots paired with teases that go nowhere. The film spends a lot of time educating viewers on the aspects that make the World War Z outbreak different from previously seen zombie tales, but some of the more interesting concepts are never explored onscreen.
It’s common knowledge that the movie underwent significant eleventh hour reshoots – and the divisions are noticeable. Even though the final product is exhilarating, since the movie benefits from a fresh set of action sequences in the third act, any new material comes at the expense of established story lines that are all but abandoned. It’s a disjointed narrative experience that presents absorbing information up front and then slides into thoughtless blockbuster fare with only a tacked-on explanation to bring everything full-circle (in a surprisingly modest climax).
Fortunately, performances in World War Z are strong – even if certain moments border on melodrama. Unsurprisingly, Pitt is a solid lead with a likable balance between no-nonsense survival skills and sympathetic reactions to the horror surrounding him. It’s hardly one of Pitt’s most captivating roles, but the star helps ground a number of key scenes that, with a less nuanced actor in the role, could have easily been eye-rolling instead of engrossing.
Enos (The Killing) is equally effective as Lane’s wife, Karen – successfully selling his reason for agreeing to the mission. The movie doesn’t bother to develop her character beyond the relationship with Lane, but Enos makes the most of her scenes and even gets to flaunt some impressive (albeit brief) zombie-fighting capability. While Enos is downgraded midway through the movie, Daniella Kertesz adds a highly-adept heroine for the latter half – as an Israeli solider, Segen, that accompanies Lane in his investigation. While Segen’s actions don’t always make complete sense (given her knowledge of the situation), they help drive several of the movie’s best scenes of tension and provide Kertesz with several memorable moments to justify her screen time.
Other supporting players including Fana Mokoena, James Badge Dale, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ludi Boeken, and even Matthew Fox, get opportunities to shine, but are little more than window dressing (to provide Pitt with receptive listeners for exposition).
Of course, the real stars of the film are the zombies and, for the most part, they deliver a number of cool variations to the genre staples. As mentioned, the best zombie tsunami shots are spoiled in the film trailers, but the efficiency and brutality of the World War Z zombies (who can even spring their bodies into the air to tackle fleeing victims) definitely create plenty of exciting set pieces. Additionally, in service of helping Lane learn more about the outbreak, the film gives the character room to experiment and uncover the various intricacies of this zombie breed. Any of the subsequent revelations aren’t particularly profound, but there is a limited sense of discovery that helps keep things moving even when the story falters.
That said, (zombie horde scenes especially) are often too frantic or CGI-heavy to fully appreciate the scale and scope of the larger sequences – especially in 3D. World War Z is playing in both 3D as well as 2D, and while certain scenes are definitely more immersive and intense with the added 3D effect, viewing the movie in 2D should help mitigate the frenzied action shots for moviegoers who are put-off by shaky-cam-style cinematography. Viewers who don’t mind springing for a 3D ticket will gain some benefit from the upgrade, but cautious audience members who expect a lot of noticeable third-dimension effect when the pay for a premium screening, will likely be underwhelmed by the film’s subtle use of the format.
World War Z is a strange mix of intriguing character drama and story ideas that ultimately caves under the pressure of delivering a summer blockbuster movie experience (with zombies). For many film fans, the journey from point A to B to C will be enough, but World War Z does little to reinvent or expand upon similar zombie genre offerings – relying heavily on the notion that more zombies makes for a better zombie movie. Unfortunately, certain viewers will be underwhelmed by that approach, since (as the story progresses) World War Z transforms from an engaging glimpse at post-apocalyptic human endurance into a brainless shell that is as absentminded as its undead subject matter, running thoughtlessly toward one over-the-top story bite to the next, while its tethers to humanity rapidly fade away.
If you’re still on the fence about World War Z, check out the trailer below:
World War Z runs 116 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
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