Review: 'World War Z' Saps Excitement from the Zombie Apocalypse
by Jeremy Kirk
June 21, 2013
It's been a bumpy ride getting Max Brooks' World War Z to the big screen. Even with Brad Pitt on as lead/producer/champion and Marc Forster directing, various drafts on the screenplay and a last-minute reshoot on pretty much the whole ending has given us something neither train wreck nor grand blockbuster of a zombie apocalypse. World War Z has a difficult time impressing on any level. The intensity and even excitement that should be built into the very premise is squandered for something subtler that simply doesn't work. Not even Pitt's gleaming charisma can break through the dreary, and sometimes dull tones.
That doesn't stop him from trying. When the film begins, the rioting in the streets is seen on the TV. Gerry Lane (Pitt), former problem solver for the United Nations, is making breakfast for his family, who watch on casually. It's world news. Nothing insane ever happens like that here at home. That's what they think until only minutes later when they come face to face with the insane swarm. It's the zombie apocalypse, humans being taken over by some unseen pandemic that spreads through their vicious bites. The zed word only comes into it, because that's how the military - or what's left of it - classifies it.
What begins very quickly also shows the poor hand it's dealing us right at the same time. As soon as Lane and family begin racing through the chaos of city streets, director Forster - the man who took similar duties on Quantum of Solace, which is important here - goes directly into shaky-cam mode. It's difficult to tell what's going on, who's zombie and who's human. The idea that such a film making technique instantly causes tension for the audience was proven otherwise long ago. World War Z has consistent shaky camera action, and even though the pace of the action never seems to subside for long, it's unable to ever grasp you.
The waves of zombies stampeding over each other to get their human prey is an interesting concept, one that's never been able to be depicted as it is here in this Summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, most of the zombie action here comes in waves of a dozen or less attackers, those waves and piles left for only the few instances we saw in the trailers. When they're not menacing swarms of CG zombies, they're individual CG zombies. The special effects on the undead here isn't horrible, but it's noticeable. Each time they attack, run, even move an arm a bit, the jerky computer effects takes you right out of it.
Which leaves the real interest in World War Z to Lane's search for a cure. We follow the man around the globe, constantly checking in with his family via satellite phone, and watch him go from country to country in hot pursuit of "patient zero," the first of the zombies. This may have been an interesting plot line, but the screenplay as it is loses interest in that fast for a completely different idea altogether. It also has a hard time holding interest on more than one character The screenwriting cooks in this kitchen include Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), J. Michael Straczynski ("The Twilight Zone"), Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), and Damon Lindelof ("Lost" and Prometheus), and the film's intention was never to bring Max Brooks' novel to film as it was written, an oral history of the zombie apocalypse from many, different perspectives long after the war was over.
World War Z, the film, was always going to just be about Pitt's character, Lane. This instantly draws tension away from the film's horror. The "anyone can die at any moment" that usually comes from the sub-genre can only work if you're invested in a large group of character. See "The Walking Dead", the comic or the TV show. It doesn't matter which. But World War Z, Brad Pitt's show and, by that rationale, the story of Gerry Lane during this apocalyptic time only lets us into his character. This might not be a bad thing, all in all. Brad Pitt looking concerned about rampaging zombies is still worth watching. It just doesn't make for a very suspenseful Summer movie.
Even a supporting female soldier aiding Lane (Daniella Kertesz) has a difficult time making us remember her name. World War Z boasts a few names you might recognize: Mireille Enos as Lane's worried wife-at-home; James Badge Dale as captain of an overrun, American outpost; David Morse as an ex-CIA agent who saw this apocalypse coming; and Matthew Fox as…Parajumper. That's his credit, and you would need a keen eye to even notice him. Each of these characters may have had a much larger part here, more development to make them actual characters worth caring about, before the script revisions and reshoots. As it stands, they may as well have vague titles instead, like Matthew Fox's Parajumper.
World War Z is too much world procedural, not enough war action, and the Zs on hand are just silly. A more toned-down version of the zombie apocalypse has always been suspenseful, a small group trapped in a secluded environment quickly becoming overrun by the undead. The zombie movies have gotten larger and larger, and though a blockbuster version of a war against them sounds awesome on paper, the end results of World War Z leaves us craving more. Maybe in the sequel, they'll actually get to the "War" part of the title.
Jeremy's Rating: 5 out of 10