After a number of script rewrites, re-shoots, and general retooling over the film’s six year journey to theaters, World War Z is upon us. With so many pre-production problems, it was widely speculated that the finished product would not only fail to realize the intricate work of author Max Brooks original novel, but that Paramount and a slew of other co-financiers would be stuck with a $200 million bill that only a zombie apocalypse could get them out of.
So the question remains, is World War Z the steaming pile of feces most expected or did director Marc Forster pull off a miracle and deliver the summer blockbuster friendly film they had promised? Read the full review after the break.
Forgoing any sense of traditional build up, World War Z starts off with a bang…literally. Within only a few scant minutes of being introduced to Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and their two little girls, we find ourselves stuck in a traffic nightmare in downtown Philadelphia as the family hits the road to God knows where. Police motorcycles go whizzing by over and over again, people can be seen leaving their vehicles to get a better view of the roadblock ahead.
Then there is an explosion, a trash truck comes barrelling through the jammed pack lot of cars, Gerry takes advantage of this opening and speeds out behind it. As they get closer to the chaos ahead, Gerry soon realizes they are heading the wrong direction and before he can react, he has just planted his family deep into the heart of one of many thousands of zombie outbreaks that are concurrently sweeping the entire globe, sending every country into a worldwide panic.
That’s it, that is all we are given to go off of during those tense and adrenaline fueled opening moments. Cold openings have their benefit, thrusting the audience into a narrative whirlwind that seems completely out of control to help set a certain tone, but here it feels a little troublesome at first. Once Gerry and his family are whisked away to the safety of a Naval fleet however ,the film settles into a nice rhythm as Gerry, a former UN special investigator who is the best at what he does, is given a small team with the task of determining where this virus (the film calls it a form of rabies) originated so that their scientists can find a vaccine. As soon as he is given assurances for his family’s safety, Gerry sets out on a globe trotting adventure to save the human race.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first, how does the film compare (if at all) to the Max Brooks book of the same name? Well, the zombies ooze a black liquid for blood, the zombie plague is worldwide and we get to see what is happening in at least a few countries, but that’s about it. Gone are all the political tie-ins, all the multiple perspectives from different cultures, age groups and social backgrounds. The complexities of the novel have essentially been stripped away leaving only a shell of its former self. If this were a car, only the frame would remain.
What this means to anyone who has read the book is that there isn’t much comparison at all. The book and the film are completely different beasts and should be treated accordingly. Was it silly to buy the rights to the book just for the name? Yeah, a little, especially when one considers how little world there actually is in this war. It’s especially saddening when you realize the overly simplistic ambitions of the film and its inability to even craft a real personality for its one singular character, whose only real personality trait is that he wants to save his family. As long as you can separate the two and view the film on its own merits, there really isn’t a whole lot to complain about…unless you are a zombie fan that is.
You see, there are two things you need to know about this film before plunking down your hard earned cash for it. First of all is that these aren’t your traditional zombies. They die, they re-animate, they bite someone else, that person dies, they then re-animate, rinse and repeat. But other staples from the eternally hungry critters are sadly missing. They for some reason seem hellbent on spreading their disease, but that’s it. They don’t bite people because they are hungry for living flesh, they do it to infect you and move on to their next victim. It’s almost like they are breeding instead of just outright killing.
Probably the biggest and most significant change from book to film, that will have most all zombie purists up in arms, is that these zombies are fast! They leap and bound all over the place, never tiring, never stopping and always alert. Watching them pounce on their prey makes them feel more like a feral beast than an undead corpse looking for a bite to eat. One might even be reminded of the Danny Boyle not-really-a-zombie movie 28 Days Later, where the ghouls there were fast paced and nearly unstoppable in a very similar fashion. At least this a not a generic retread of the countless other zombie movies out there.
While they start out as this uncontrollable and nearly invincible force that sweeps through cities and wipes out entire civilizations like a swarm of locusts, as the film moves on and we begin to discover more about them along with Gerry, these armies of the undead slowly begin to forge a sort of personality. For any naysayers who scoffed at the idea of these zombies, let it be known that there are some clever and even smart directions the film goes in that helps separate these zombies into a class of their own, which isn’t only interesting, but refreshing as well.
The second thing to keep in mind is that this film is a strictly PG-13 affair. Yep, that’s right, these zombies only nibble, they don’t actually bite. The debate over whether or not a horror film needs to be R rated in order to reach its full potential is one an on going argument that will never be resolved, but World War Z commits the nearly unforgivable sin of cutting out the gory bits just to make an extra buck at the box office. On more than one occasion the lack of an R rating makes certain “action” scenes nearly incomprehensible and draws a bit too much attention to the fact for its own good.
In one scene in particular, we see Gerry struggling to take his crowbar out of the head of a zombie he just nailed as another races towards him, but unless you have hypothesized that he stabbed the zombie in the head with its tip, you will be hard pressed to know what is happening since the rating won’t allow us to see what we need to just below the frame. This happens more than once and grows more irritating each time it happens. One last thing about the rating, there is no blood anywhere in the film. While that may sound a bit petty to complain about, when you are dealing with a world filled with zombies, the lack of the red stuff begins to standout after a while.
Now, with all that out of the way it is time to get to the heart of the matter. Despite having no real connection to the superior novel, despite having absolutely zero story to speak of other than that of a guy who must find a cure, despite these being zombies of the PG-13 variety, despite all that…World War Z the movie is still a lot of fun. For a film that struggled as hard as this one did during a turbulent, and public, production cycle, it certainly doesn’t show on screen and that alone is impressive. But taken as a straight up action movie that just so happens to feature zombies for its protagonists, it works surprisingly and effectively well.
The action set pieces (most of which have been ruined by the trailer unfortunately) are truly awe inspiring and keep the film moving at a fast clip. Between such standout moments like the horde raid on Israel, subsequent race to the airport, the airplane ride itself and a number of other smaller scenes, the film really pacts a helluva visceral punch most of the time. Then when the film isn’t busy throwing zombie crowds of thousands at our hero, it takes some surprisingly slower and more intimate turns with our characters having to navigate through zombie infested narrow corridors, a nighttime landing at an airport with no power during a rainstorm and an ending sequence that injects some much needed tension into the proceedings.
The script is smart, most characters display a relatively high IQ which is rare for this genre (although there are a few hiccups that range from eye rolling to unintentionally funny) and it all leads up to a satisfactory conclusion that may play it a little too safe for its own good, but still delivers a solid final act. Add to that a confident and strong lead performance by Brad Pitt who easily makes you forget that Gerry seemingly has no real personality, a relentless pace that throws one amazing action set piece after another at you and what you have is a zombie-fied summer blockbuster thrill ride that aims to please and mostly succeeds.