World War Z (United States, 2013)

June 20, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
World War Z Poster

World War Z contains some impressive set pieces - sequences that, taken on their own, are either tense or visually arresting. As a whole, however, it's a letdown with a strange mixture of epic apocalyptic material and generic zombie stuff. The episodic storyline is scattershot, moving from location to location (sometimes without seeming rhyme or reason) just to keep the action mobile and the setting from becoming static. The special effects are certainly impressive but some of World War Z's biggest scenes (all of which are in the TV commercials and trailers) don't have the best payoffs. The screenplay feels like the culmination of all sorts of things being thrown against a wall to see what sticks. As it turns out, there's not enough.

The film opens in Philadelphia before moving to Newark, NJ then to an aircraft carrier 200 miles off the Eastern seaboard. From there, it's a long trip to South Korea, Israel, and finally Cardiff. Although the film is based on Max Brooks' book, the movie feels like it owes more to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. The structure is odd, arguing that this might work better as a mini-series than a movie where, at least until the mercifully tense final act, everything seems rushed and half-done. The backstory that defines the hero's motivation is undercooked and the ending is truncated. The movie doesn't end so much as it stops (with a few lines of voiceover narration to wrap things up so audiences won't feel they've seen only Episode One of several).

The film begins by establishing the home life of ex-military investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), who has a wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and two young daughters. He's driving through Center City, Philadelphia when the zombie invasion hits. Then, leaving the city to burn behind him, he heads up I-95 to Newark, NJ, where he and his family are rescued by helicopters and taken to an offshore aircraft carrier. There, he is offered a deal: if he agrees to accompany an epidemiologist and SEAL team in search of Patient Zero, his family can remain aboard the ship in safety. So, after saying goodbye to Karin and his kids, he climbs on a military plane bound for South Korea. That turns out to be only the first step in a three-country trek that goes to Israel and concludes in Wales at a World Health Organization installation full of zombified WHO doctors.

At its best, World War Z is capable of generating suspenseful stretches. Two sequences in particular - the military guys preparing to re-fuel the plane in South Korea and the mission into the zombie-infested wing of the WHO building - recall scenes from Aliens. The airplane segment is also high on the excitement scale. Unfortunately, these are exceptions. Much of World War Z comes across as generic zombie/apocalypse material that replicates beats from previous films. Maybe it's not possible to make a unique or surprising zombie movie considering how overexposed the category has become but I was expecting something a little more intelligent than a re-hash of other productions.

World War Z violates two of my rules. The first is never to neuter R-rated material so the final release gets a PG-13, and that's exactly what happens here. Based on content, this should have been an "R," but the needs of the studio outweigh the needs of the adult viewer, so odd shot angles have been incorporated (including an overabundance of shaky hand-held shots that obscure not only gore but pretty much everything else) and most of the hacking, slashing, and biting occurs just off-screen. Then there's the 3-D precept: use this tool only when it positively impacts the viewing experience - something routinely ignored by would-be blockbusters, and this is no exception. The 3-D serves no purpose here and should have been jettisoned. World War Z isn't 3-D neutral; it's 3-D negative.

As Gerry, Brad Pitt does a solid job providing an "everyman" hero who, despite his military background, isn't some kind of superman disguised as a mere mortal. Gerry knows how to use a gun but isn't a sharpshooter. He can hold his own in a fight but won't be sending Zod crashing through three-dozen skyscrapers. His powers of deduction are a little Sherlockian - he figures out important things with minimal information, but I'll forgive World War Z for that. It's easy to root for Gerry although it would have been easier if the secondary story with his family received more than perfunctory development. Along the way, he acquires a sidekick (Daniella Kertesz) but she's as forgettable as everyone else not played by Brad Pitt.

World War Z still leaves me looking for the first Great Blockbuster of 2013. It's passable big budget entertainment and works as a diversion but the movie frequently substitutes impressive CGI shots of zombie swarms for storytelling. The rushed ending also leaves a bad taste. And fans of Brooks' source material are going to wonder what happened. Zombie lovers will probably enjoy this but it doesn't offer much meat to anyone else. Add director Marc Forster to the list of directors who have missed the mark in developing something riveting to shake up this year's roster.

World War Z (United States, 2013)