The people have spoken, and they have said braaaaaaains. Brad Pitt’s would-be runaway monster of a zombie movie “World War Z” is a hit and coming in at #2 this past weekend with the highest opening of Pitt’s career. Bad buzz be damned, ‘WWZ’ overcame the odds, the drama, the negative media attention to come out a solid winner (though as history shows, not every troubled production gets a happy ending). Sure, with global costs that could reach $400 million, it might be impossible for ‘Z’ to break even, but at this point, let’s face it, the movie wasn’t a colossal bomb and Paramount is breathing a deep sigh of relief. In fact, if the movie keeps going and has legs then its mooted sequel may not be in doubt, even if the movie can’t break even (studios always throw good money after bad and once they’ve started an investment, they don’t like to just chop it off at the wrist because it bled a little).
And so, the final verdict on the Marc Forster-directed “World War Z” after everything that went down? Well, it’s pretty terrific in spots, ok in others, a little clunky at times and pretty problematic if you’re looking at it discerningly (you can read our original review here). But put it this way: it’s nowhere near the disaster we were lead to believe it might be. If you’re looking at it from a pure thrill ride perspective, “World War Z” is likely going to win, but as usual, we thought we’d drill down a little deeper and deconstruct the elements that are great, the ones that are so-so and the ones that weren’t so great. Or the “Best & Worst Of World War Z” for the sake of clean communication. Our thoughts below.
It’s Intense & Thrilling
From the opening moments of “World War Z,” there’s a certain nervous energy that translates into a genuine excitement that carries through the rest of the movie. It begins during the first suspense set piece, when Gerry and his family are trying to escape an infected Philadelphia. The tension never ceases, but instead builds exponentially from one moment to the next. Traffic is at a standstill; odd but not out of the ordinary. A cop warns the family to stay in the car; somewhat stranger. Then an explosion erupts and a giant truck starts to barrel through traffic; this is something to be concerned about. By the time the zombies show up, the tension has been ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level. Most of the sequences domino like this, and it’s a testament to Marc Forster, arguably the unsung hero of most of “World War Z” (or at least for the first half of the film) for being able to capture thrilling, shocking images and turn them into exciting sequences, all within a genre so well worn its positively skeletal.
The Israel Sequence
When Gerry flies to Israel to investigate how they’ve dealt with the problem (according to a toothless CIA operative, they’ve “handled” the zombies well over there), we’re treated to the movie’s suspense centerpiece: a giant swarm of zombies, attracted by the noise created by singing citizens as well as loudspeaker system, scale a huge wall that had been erected to keep the monsters out. (The zombie wall is one of the more barbed political flourishes in a movie that should have had more.) The sequence is less like a big summer movie set piece and more like a nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch painting; the level of detail is staggering and utterly terrifying. Unlike previous movie zombies, whether shuffling slowly on running at full speed, the “World War Z” zombies overwhelm completely, like piranhas taking down an injured gazelle or some of those scary jungle ants. The fevered pitch of this sequence is so high that the movie can never possibly hope to match it, which is why the third act (the one heavily rewritten and reshot) is so smart: instead of trying to up the ante, the movie now allows the Israel stuff to be the very peak of zombie terror. And instead of being a letdown, it ends up being just right.
Crazy Forward Momentum
If there’s one thing “World War Z” does, it’s move. The movie, at least in its first half, is breathlessly on the run with a pace that barely lets up. The original novel by Max Brooks took the form of an “oral history,” so it was constantly jumping, all around the globe, to get every perspective of the zombie apocalypse. That is maintained, at least in spirit, in the final movie. There’s also the fact that there were so many cooks in the kitchen trying to fix this thing that any extraneous plot threads were shaved away, leaving only the bare essence of the movie, a raw engine that a narrative is loosely draped upon. Sometimes those connective moments are lost (there seems to have been a lot more with that family in the building in Newark at some earlier point), but most of the time the “all killer, no filler” approach works brilliantly. It adds to the tension and suspense since structurally and pacing wise, the movie flies along like it’s being chased by an army of the undead. Even the final act, which seems slightly more luxuriously staged (by comparison, at least) bolts forth.
Its Truly Terrifying In Parts
“World War Z” goes to great length to note that it’s not just the zombies that are terrifying – you’ve got to worry about people, too. This is exemplified in a sequence where Gerry and his family go into a pharmacy for supplies. The windows have been smashed out and everyone is looting (obviously). When Pitt goes behind the counter to grab some asthma medicine for his young daughter, he’s confronted with a young man with a shotgun… Who then identifies himself as a pharmacist and tends to Gerry’s needs. It’s a nice reversal and adds to the intensity of the following scene, wherein Gerry’s wife (Mireille Enos) is nearly raped by some dudes in the same pharmacy. When a policeman comes in, it’s to seemingly restore some kind of order (or penalize the near-rapists) but instead he runs by desperately clutching onto bottles of baby foods he also drops on the ground as he rushes to get back to his child. This scenario is chilling, with a rather pessimistic view of a humanity faced with dire cicrumstances. The zombie scenes were pretty intense, too, obviously, both in terms of the overwhelming carnage of the Israel sequence and the quieter, more moody scares of the final act. It’s rare for a big studio horror movie to be scary, even less so when it’s hampered by a restrictive PG-13 rating (more on that in a minute), but despite all of its limitations, “World War Z” still managed to occasionally and genuinely thrill and scare.
The Zombies Themselves
It’s strange that as much reinvention and unique takes the zombie genre has received as a whole over the past few years, the actual undead themselves have remained relatively untouched. For the most part, they still attack humans (fortunately going after “brains” seems like a dropped trope), getting bitten by one is an (un)death sentence and in many contemporary versions, they move really, really fast. And so it is with “World War Z,” which presents the zombies as more plague carrying threats who move at a seemingly unhuman like speed and like flocks of terrorizing birds or schools of insane fish. And to the filmmakers’ credit, they do get some potent and frightening imagery from the sheer mass of moving zombies, sometimes being unleashed like a tsunami threatening to end humanity as a whole. But unfortunately they are also a rather indistinct, familiar enemy that even as the characters in the movie try and figure out what they are, the audience is already well versed with. Being truly scared means becoming confronted with something unexpected, and perhaps beyond your imagination, but “World War Z” is content with relying on the zombies audiences know, rather than pushing things one step forward, and making up their own unique rulebook.
Tonal Confusion: Is it a procedural or an action tentpole?
It’s commonly been said that a movie is made three times: once in the script, another time while it’s filming and then finally when it’s being edited. And by all accounts, “World War Z” was made six times, given the extensive overhauling the script and finale had during its very public restructuring, and thus it’s hardly a surprise that the movie isn’t always sure of what it wants to be. For the most part, the picture does hew to its “Zombie Dark Thirty” aspirations, going for a procedural thriller motif, shot almost like a documentary with Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane traversing the globe looking for an impossible cure. But every now and then it seems like producers reminded the filmmakers they needed some action beats too, leading to sequences like the nighttime/rainsoaked zombie attack as a plane is reloaded with fuel in South Korea. And even in the otherwise solid Israel sequence, the zombie takeover becomes an excuse for massive gunfire and swarms of crowds running in all directions. This imbalance isn’t a dealbreaker per se, but it’s the first of a handful of seams that show quite clearly in a movie that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be from the outset.
Gerry Lane Is An Invincible Cypher With Little Dimension
Again, perhaps there were more shades of grey to Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane in the original drafts of the script, but in the finished product, he’s nearly indestructible. While the screenwriters take pains to establish that he’s left his previous U.N. duties after being emotionally and psychically scarred by what he’s seen in civil conflicts around the world, opting instead to be a stay-at-home Dad, it seems nothing that’s happening with zombie plague poses a problem. While Gerry has his arm twisted to get back on duty, the horrors of what he sees not only out in the world, but on the streets of Philadelphia, have almost no effect on his ability to take the lead and kick some ass (when he’s wandering around, looking at stuff and taking phone calls). But it’s not just spiritual wounds that Gerry survives, it’s physical ones too — a big chunk of airplane shrapnel through his torso barely hinders his ability to walk to the World Health Organization and get patched up (that he even survives the plane crash when almost everyone else dies is a bit ridiculous). And not long after that, he’s playing Russian roulette with the world’s deadliest diseases and manages to survive with barely a sniffle. Gerry’s journey is one that’s certainly fraught, but his seeming ability to continually survive each escalating disaster diminishes the triumph that should be felt when he finally returns to his family, with the future of world on the path to recovery. However, you gotta hand it to Pitt and his skill as an actor that despite of all this, Gerry still remains a compelling character to follow, if only because he sells his dedication to the cause with natural ease and relatable emotion.
Director Marc Forster’s last action outing, the Bond romp “Quantum of Solace,” was largely defined by an incoherent, blurry muddle of action set pieces in which spatial geography and narrative clarity were thrown out the window, in an attempt to create a kinetic, “Bourne“-type immediacy. The results were often confusing, nauseatingly so, and besides a couple of well-choreographed fight sequences, the movie was a disorienting muddle. The action in “World War Z” is cleaner and more precise, but often times things become a jumble – especially in a sequence when Pitt and his family are trying to escape an infested apartment building in Newark. The way Forster chooses to shoot the stairwell is to just throw the camera around a bunch and hope that something (anything) catches the light. The Israel sequence, as mentioned above, is masterful, but too often you can feel when Forster pulled his punches and while his frantic camerawork does much to emphasize the intensity of the situation, there are still moments where we’d love to actually see what’s going on. This is made worse by a truly atrocious 3D post-conversion job that was worse than unnecessary – it actively takes away from the experience of watching the film, making dark scenes even dimmer and more unfocused.
Old Writing vs. New Writing: The Seams Show Through
“World War Z” was ripped apart and pieced back together, and while the superstar screenwriters that were brought in (J.J. Abrams confederates Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard) clearly had a vision for what they wanted to do with “World War Z,” the problem was that it had very little to do with the rest of “World War Z.” The scale and scope of the globe-trotting movie is shrunk to almost microscopic proportions and Pitt’s Gerry, who up until this point had been observant, rather a participant, suddenly becomes proactive, suggesting a way to camouflage our humanness while around the flesh-eaters. (It makes slightly more sense in the movie.) It’s kind of cool, seeing a movie balloon like it did in the previous act and then shrink exponentially, but that approach doesn’t always work. At times, “World War Z” zigs when it should have zagged, which is its biggest asset and also hugest liability. The original “World War Z” ending, where Pitt led an army of resistance fighters against the shuffling undead in the streets of Moscow, can be glimpsed briefly in “news footage” they run at the very end of the movie. It certainly looks bigger than the ending we’re saddled with.
The “Sherlock Holmes”-y Detective Flashbacks
During the divisive plane sequence (more on that in a minute), Pitt has a number of flashbacks to his previous encounters with the zombie hordes. These are super clumsily handled and the moments Pitt flashes back to have no inherent significance other than “Oh wait this thing happened.” It’s like something out of a bad supernatural procedural (i.e. an entirely different film) when the twist is revealed and feels even more awkward considering how little motivation or agency the Pitt character has had up until this point. He might as well have stood up, pointed his finger to the sky and said, “Eureka! Ye gads I’ve got it!” To give him this revelation during a super intense (if nonsensical) moment also rings false – maybe it was the only instance where they could wedge in this kind of revelation? Although couldn’t he have come to the conclusion while he was in dreamland following his shrapnel-wound?
Almost Everything About The Plane Sequence
So there are a number of really fucking stupid things that happen during the plane sequence in “World War Z” (and this isn’t even counting the already-covered flashbacks). Among them: a zombie stowaway that happened to be in the little elevator that brings up the food. Wouldn’t this area have been checked before the plane took off, with people looking for, oh, maybe, zombies? And wasn’t there a reference earlier in the movie about how airplanes were the perfect delivery system for the disease? So stay the fuck off airplanes. Then there’s the fact that Pitt’s answer for the invading zombie menace is to build a barricade out of suitcases. We had just seen zombies scale a huge wall in Israel, we’re pretty sure they can make it past a couple of Louie Vuitton handbags. And then there’s the grenade. The plane is being filled up with zombies. People are dying. Do you try and contain or kill the outbreak or, if you’re Brad Pitt, do you chuck a grenade into the tangle of human and zombie bodies that insures a) that the zombies will probably be killed but more importantly that b) the plane will definitely crash? The grenade is, clearly, the answer. “Grenading the plane” is as insanely nonsensical as jumping the shark or nuking the fridge, and should enter the pop culture lexicon alongside these phrases. Like much of “World War Z,” everything happens so quickly that you’re not given time to process how silly it actually is. But thinking back on it, whew, Pitt should have kept that grenade locked away.
Cutting Off Segen’s Hand & The Problem With The PG-13 Rating
So during the extended, truly exciting Israel sequence, Pitt’s Israel attaché Segen (Daniella Kertesz) is attacked by a zombie and bitten on the hand. Pitt, using his considerable zombie knowledge, slices it off, which seemingly prevents the infection from spreading. (Science, even zombie-science is played pretty fast and loose in “World War Z.”) The scene doesn’t really work because the movie has failed to give us enough time to establish an emotional connection with Segen, and the brutality rings false especially for a guy who has witnessed and been shaken by all kinds of horrors around the world. What makes it even more hollow is the fact that we don’t get to see the hand come off. There’s no pain or catharsis because everything happens just below frame. This points to a bigger issue with the movie – it’s PG-13 rating, which makes things somewhat boring and antiseptic. There’s never going to be anything shocking or gruesome or too scary because of the damn PG-13. We never really get to see the zombies do anything (are they eating people? Crushing their skulls and eating their brains? What?) and in turn we never get to see people’s responses (dismemberment, decapitation, bullets to the brain). What makes this even more baffling is the fact that “The Walking Dead” gets away with hardcore zombie violence every week, while “Hannibal” is arguably even more shockingly bloody and that’s on network TV.
Dumb, Unsubtle Title Sequence
Can we please call for a moratorium on stock footage of animals ripping apart their kill on screen as type of oooh, ominous foreshadowing. We thought this technique was played somewhere between 1989 and 1993. While it didn’t stop Park Chan Wook in the opposite-of-subtle “Stoker” it also didn’t stop Marc Forster. This fairly dumb and on the nose title sequence is a mix of “Zero Dark Thirty” and well, any contemporary B-movie still unwise enough to show hyenas ripping apart day-old kill because it “sets a mood.” C’mon people, let’s move forward. It also suggests a touch of satire (with images of world catastrophes next to inane platitudes from morning talk shows) that actually isn’t delivered in the movie.
Hollywood Ending Leading On A Road To Nowhere
Obviously, “World War Z” is a compromised effort with new writers brought into rewrite the ending. And while it has tonal issues because of this — a visceral action-y opening vs. a contained chamber piece ending — the movie’s “happy ending” is one of its most glaring seams showing through. Clearly rewritten so Gerry Lane could be reunited with his family, the ending is anti-climatic and tacked on; a cynical move stitched on the very end to make way for a sequels. The problem there is it doesn’t leave a lot of sequel room either. The movie ends quietly, or at least with a reprieve; the world has figured out a camouflage technique from the zombies who are now rather dormant with nothing left to chase. What would the sequel be other than clean-up, wiping out those hordes left in whatever city is that they listlessly roam. Or do you make it about clean-up, but something goes terribly wrong? Or do the zombies adapt and no longer respond to the camouflage? (which would be incredibly dumb). “World War Z” trades a safe ending for a conclusion that doesn’t really merit a sequel. The world is essentially “contained.” Do we really need to see the clean-up crew wipe out cities or some stupid human error trigger the whole damn same movie all over again?
Thoughts? While we might skew negative here, we’re all a little bit mixed and in the middle on “World War Z.” There’s lots to admire — mostly that intense and thrilling first half — but the movie tends to unravel midway through and some of the choices therein feel pretty dubious making for a uneven experience overall. How did you feel about “World War Z”? – Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth