The internet is amazing. It’s given us piano playing cats and people pretending to be planks. And when it comes to film productions, it’s allowed us to peek behind the curtain like never before. The danger of this access is that when films run into serious production problems, like World War Z did with on-set conflicts, studio mandated changes, script rewrites, budget creep and star/producer Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster not talking to each other, it can give viewers a negative outlook on the film before ever seeing a single frame of footage.
Well, I’m happy to report that World War Z has somehow managed to extricate itself from its wreck of a production, and present a movie that is certainly better than its unsound foundations would have implied. It’s just not without some problems.
Let’s just tackle the undead elephant in the room straight away. World War Z the movie is based on ‘World War Z’ the book by Max Brooks in only the very loosest of sense: In essence, they’re both called World War Z and the “Z” part in both titles stands for zombies. That’s it. So if you’re a literary purist, gird thy prickly loins.
Instead of the extended global cast that Brooks used to tell his story, here we only have the solitary efforts of Brad Pitt’s ex-UN investigator Gerry Lane to save the day. And while I feel that a story in a particular medium needs to be reviewed independently of its source, you can’t help but feel the this approach rings hollow and unrealistic. Standalone heroes who always find themselves in the right place in the right time just feels a bit silly when you have a story with this kind of global scope.
That being said though, as the reluctant hero Gerry Lane – semi-blackmailed back into his old job to investigate this outbreak of a zombie-like plague with the wellbeing of his wife (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters held over his head – Pitt certainly carries the movie well. Yes, start to dig into his character and you’ll find yourself scraping bare bedrock almost immediately as besides for being a dedicated family man whose previous job once took him to “dangerous place”, there really aren’t any other personality handholds for audiences to latch onto. Not that you’ll have much time to connect with anybody really as the script bounces Lane around from one international landmark to the next to try and track down where this outbreak came from and figure out how to stop it.
While you may not truly get emotionally invested in the Lane zombie world tour, you will definitely be paying attention though as director Marc Forster deftly ratchets up tension to torturous levels in the film’s thrilling action scenes. Like thumbscrews applied to more delicate parts, he’ll have you writhing in your seat as Lane manages to just barely escape a veritable tsunami of zombie tooth and claw (brought to life through some rather spectacular visual effects, but no thanks to almost non-existent 3D) before being thrown right back into the next brown pants moment.
But herein lies one of the films’ biggest problems: World War Z isn’t so much a narrative as it is a sequence of action beats strung together. Damn well executed action beats, yes, but nothing more, nevertheless. Gerry Lane is essentially the equivalent of Jessica Fletcher (of Murder, She Wrote fame) after she’s pleasured a leprechaun with a rabbit’s foot. Everywhere he goes something suddenly goes wrong, people get killed, Lane luckily survives, he heads to the next location, rinse, repeat.
And while people do die around Lane in droves, as these super-fast, super-agile zombies parkour their way through crowds and over barricades (a point that’s sure to not go down too well with zombie aficionados), you’ll have to be pretty eagle-eyed to spot a drop of blood anywhere. I’ve never been a fan of gore for gore’s sake, but in this case the PG-13 rating of the film truly hampers it. I’m not asking to see the undead slurping down on entrails like spaghetti and tomato sauce, but I honestly can’t even tell you exactly what these zombies do to their victims once they pounce on them. It could be a quick nibble of the earlobe followed by whispered grunts of sweet nothings for all we know, as the camera refuses to pan down to show us what’s happening.
The script is also not devoid of that Promethean of problems though: smart people doing dumb things. And this time we can’t even blame scribe Damon Lindelof, who was one of four writers (the others being J. Michael Straczynski, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard) who contributed various components of the script as draft after draft was changed and melded together. These script reshuffles also result in more well known faces like James Badge Dale and Matthew Fox popping up in small roles that never get expanded on later, seemingly left on the cutting room floor, while Mireille Enos just has to look the concerned, loving wife, which she pulls off without concern, and local actor Fana Mokoena, as the UN Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni, is essentially nothing more than a glorified PA, phoning up people and arranging things for Lane.
More of an issue though, is that the tonal changes between writers sometimes become glaringly obvious, none more so than in the film’s rather anticlimactic ending. After having you pleading Forster and co to stop shortening your lifespan via zombie scares for the first 90 minutes, the film’s final “climax” will have you begging for more. But purely because “that can’t be it, right?”
If you step into this film expecting a faithful retelling of Max Brooks’ zombie tale – hell, if you even expect a “traditional” zombie tale – you’ll be gravely disappointed. What you have here is a globetrotting, action film with a decent performance from its lead, that will often have your buttcheeks perched precariously on the precipice of your seat, just don’t expect to engage any other part of your anatomy like your head or heart.
Last Updated: July 15, 2013