It begins the way global epidemics have begun once or twice before in the movies: with a nice American family around the kitchen table, television droning in the background, delivering news reports of a mutating virus. OK, pass the OJ! Let’s get on with the rest of our undead-plagued lives, shall we?
We shall. And we shall overcome. World War Z, the messy, fairly entertaining Brad Pitt zombie picture directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace), barely hangs together in story terms, and Forster’s direction is more about nervous traffic management than tonal certainty or action finesse. But in the key sequences, pitting our man Pitt (playing a vaguely defined United Nations investigator/world saver) against some superfast and rabidly hungry swarms of unhumanity, the stakes are high and the excitement’s there and the results, as previously stated, are messy but fairly entertaining.
Sequels are desired, clearly. The massively budgeted World War Z (production costs, not including the selling part, soared north of $200 million by most reports) would have to be really, really popular to warrant another chapter in the zombie-wompin’ days and nights of Gerry Lane, played by Pitt, whose panic meter never exceeds 30 percent. Amazingly terrible things are happening all around him, and to him, all the time. Yet he soldiers on, glamorously, killing the already killed, saving the save-able, guided by his love for a good woman (Mireille Enos), their two gold-plated young daughters and an adopted-on-the-fly Newark, N.J., survivor of the outbreak.
The first big blowout in World War Z finds the Lanes in traffic in downtown Philadelphia (the scenes were shot in Glasgow, Scotland). Suddenly: zombie attack! In a matter of minutes, many of the world’s cities are in flames. The conceit of World War Z, based very loosely on Max Brooks’ novel, is that it takes only 10 or 12 seconds for a chomped human to join the undead hordes. 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later got there first, and did it better, but in general it’s clear: Fleet-footed zombies are better than slow ones.
Driving a stolen camper into a trashed-out, looter-friendly Newark, the Lanes are rescued by U.N. forces and relocated to an aircraft carrier, where Gerry’s old boss (Fana Mokoena) monitors a rapidly disintegrating crisis. From there World War Z sends Gerry off on a series of ad hoc missions, first to South Korea, then to Israel, then to Cardiff, Wales, to find the elusive origin of the zombie problem, and/or concoct a cure.
Forster’s visual strategy is similar to that of Man of Steel director Zack Synder’s: Keep the camera too close to everyone and everything, handheld style, for maximum fake realism and jiggliness. Both Forster and Snyder might benefit from being sent to directorial re-education camp to learn the value of an extended take not designed to induce nausea. As in Quantum of Solace, half the time in World War Z you don’t know who’s hacking whom.
The simplest set-ups and payoffs save the movie from utter confusion. In Jerusalem (these scenes were shot in Malta, with lots of extras and thousands more digital extras), the immensely tall concrete barriers prove no match for the scrambling zombie enemy. Later, on a flight to Wales, Gerry and an Israeli commando (Daniella Kertesz, in the film’s fiercest and best performance) find themselves sitting in what appears to be first class, when a zombie comes out of nowhere (well, the toilet, actually) to attack a flight attendant in the rear of the cabin. A better, more subversive director than Forster might’ve done something with this condescending set-up—my God, what is happening back there, in coach? But even in his better films (Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction) Forster has betrayed not even a trace element of humor. Like it, don’t like it or like parts of it, World War Z has no interest in splattery high spirits. It got by, barely, with a PG-13 rating, though you sense an R-rated version just dying to bust out.
The movie’s travails have been extensively chronicled. World War Z went into production without an ending, and the rewrites and reshoots threw out much of the final third (a zombie battle in Moscow, alluded to briefly in an epilogue) in favor of a new climax, set in a remote World Health Organization office in Cardiff. There Gerry and his fellow survivors match wits with their undead adversaries, in dark hallways and a warren of biohazardous lab facilities. It’s a strangely modest climax to a globe-trotting movie. In its way, it satisfies; at least World War Z’s laborious reshoots steered the thing away from generic scenes of mass destruction, toward old-fashioned human-scale zombie vanquishing problem solving. The epilogue and attendant voiceover narration that caps it? Pure desperation. But that’s the movie all over: inept one minute, enticingly dire the next.
World War Z (PG-13) ★★☆☆☆