With a tumultuous production overrun with reshoots, rewrites, disorganization, and a skyrocketing budget, it’s a minor miracle World War Z isn’t the Waterworld-sized catastrophe many expected (or hoped) it would be. Yet despite the best efforts of producer-star Brad Pitt, Paramount Pictures and director Marc Forester to save the film, what we’re left with is a movie that settles on reveling in its mediocrity.
Unlike the best-selling novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel), which was a Contagion-style investigation of the worldwide zombie plague told via a mosaic of stories and interviews, years after the disease ravaged the Earth, this cinematic adaptation, which takes the film’s title and little else, is a War of the Worlds-like single-perspective, disaster movie where Brad Pitt saves the world.
Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former U.N. super-investigator (or we’re told) who quit his job, presumably to spend more time with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters. One morning, on their way to drop the kids off at school, the family’s commute (and game of 20-questions) is rudely interrupted by the world’s most terrifying “Thriller” flash mob. As cars, trucks and people pile one on top of each other, Gerry notices that people all around them are getting bitten, and then transforming, in 12 seconds or less, into rage-fueled beasts.
Before you can say “zombies,” Gerry receives a call from his former U.N. buddies to investigate the origin and find a cure to the plague before containment becomes impossible. Although reluctant at first, Gerry accepts the gig in exchange for the safety of his family. With more than half of the world already turned into the walking dead, Gerry’s begins his global hopscotch, travelling from the U.S. to South Korea to Israel to Russia to Wales.
Using Gerry’s travelogue as a template, Forster and team illustrate the scale and scope of the disease and, by association, the film, by constructing a series of electrifying set-pieces in each country, one more complex than the one preceding it. The previously mentioned opening set-piece on the streets of Philadelphia, where we get our first glimpse of the Olympian-speed zombies, cleverly sets up the way the disease works. The film’s centerpiece, in which Jerusalem devolves into pandemonium and all-out feeding frenzy after an act of utter stupidity, is a dazzling feat of spectacle and horror.
Forster, who is clearly enamored by these big scenes, and out to prove his prowess as a top-tier action filmmaker, even makes the smaller action scenes into tension traps. A claustrophobic sequence in which Gerry and family are trapped in a New Jersey building stairwell surrounded by zombies elicits some of the film’s best jump scares. Another, in which a team of trained marines get knocked off one-by-one by unseen zombies on a rain drenched airport runway in South Korea, is akin to a Riddick movie. The best of them takes place on a passenger flight where a rabid zombie runs lose on passengers. It’s a scene that rivals the Air Force One sequence in Iron Man 3 as the year’s most creative action set piece.
But for all of its razzle-dazzle, the big problem with World War Z is that there’s nothing to connect this series of beautifully-rendered scenes of chaos. On his globe-trotting journey to find the cure, Gerry comes in contact with a myriad of characters, but other than the fact that they’re played by recognizable character actors like David Morse and James Badge Dale, we learn next to nothing about them. They exist solely to spout exposition. Matthew Fox is one of the film’s top-credited stars but I couldn’t tell you who he plays or what he was doing in the movie because Forster and his revolving door of screenwriters make it clear that establishing character or building the stakes aren’t priorities. This is a movie that is in a continual rush to pummel you with its next big action scene. It’s especially disappointing considering Forster began his career making acclaimed character-minded films like Monsters Ball and The Kite Runner, before turning into a delivery boy for bland action movies like Quantum of Solace, Machine Gun Preacher, and now this.
Even Pitt, who by all accounts is the only character in the film, gets shafted. We never learn why he’s the one picked to Carmen Sandiego around the globe in the first place. There’s nary a moment where we’re given insight into what he did before the plague, or how he knows so much about medicine and ammunition. Perhaps his old job required him to treat terminal wounds in the field, or maybe he’s a trained assassin. Whatever it is, we never get to know. Forster seems to think that since he’s played by Brad Pitt, and looks like Jesus, that should be reason enough to believe he’s an all-knowing bad-ass.
As for the zombies, they’re a goofy-looking, bloodless bunch that had some members of our audience chuckling, especially when they start breaking out into their “Thriller” head shake routine. I’m not sure about you but I take that as a sign of how ineffective of a zombie film this is. Many will undoubtedly compare World War Z to Steven Spielberg’s underrated War of the Worlds remake. Both films are June releases starring A-listers (Brad Pitt here, Tom Cruise there) who have to save their families in the wake of a global disaster. But unlike Spielberg’s film which used the alien invasion as a thinly veiled allegory for our feeling of helplessness in a post-9/11 world, World War Z is a vapid, bloodless piece of work.