“World War Z” was always going to be a difficult nut to crack. The book of the same name, by son-of-Mel Max Brooks, was a bestseller a few years back, and a somewhat atypical one; a brainy, grim faux oral history of a zombie apocalypse that wiped out most of the world’s population. It made enough of a dent in pop culture to warrant a movie adaptation, but it wasn’t going to be an easy translation with no main character and a documentary-like format. So it’s no surprise that the film was several years in development, and that even once filming got underway, it had one of the more publicly troubled shoots in memory, with reports flying of budget overages, script triage and extensive pick ups.
None of these should necessarily preclude the finished film turning out to be an effective blockbuster. And indeed, anyone going into “World War Z” expecting a trainwreck for the ages is going to be left wanting; the film can be engaging, well-made, and even a touch more interesting than it has much right to be. But it’s also far from a satisfying work as a whole, with a number of crippling script issues that no third-act rewrite could have saved and an uneven tone that prevents it from becoming the definitive zombie picture it hopes to become.
The plot — mostly new, with a few scenes or set pieces borrowed from the source material — sees star Brad Pitt play Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator now retired, a seemingly happy stay-at-home dad with wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and daughters Rachel and Constance (Abigail Hargrove and Sterling Jerins). But a happy family day out is brutally interrupted when there’s an outbreak of…something. Something that turns out to be zombies (the film doesn’t pussy-foot around the word, gratifyingly), which are soon busy tearing civilization apart. The Lanes are evacuated to a UN aircraft carrier, but their places are dependent on Gerry assisting with the investigation into the cause — and with any luck, the cure — to the undead plague, a job that will take him everywhere from Korea to Israel.
And as it might sound, “World War Z” is not hanging around when it comes to its narrative; we get one brief introductory scene with the Lanes and then it’s straight into the thick of the action. There’s a degree to which this breathlessness works to the film’s favor. It’s a rough analogy of the kind of panic, and the kind of no-nonsense survival instincts that would likely take over were Z-Day to actually happen. And there’s occasionally an admirable storytelling shorthand from director Marc Forster — glimpses of priceless works of art being loaded onto boats and nuclear mushroom clouds out of plane windows give a rich and rounded sense of a wider world (ending) outside the edges of the frame. It’s hard to get bored when the film’s moving at such a relentless pace.
That said, it’s hard to really care about events either. Because the plot is constantly and relentlessly driving forward, the movie never quite takes stock and considers what’s been lost. Everyone’s all business, and it somehow means that the stakes are never that high. There’s all kinds of destruction, but the human cost isn’t dwelled on, and more specifically, we never have time to care about our central character.
Pitt’s Gerry is virtually at the center of a one-man show; few supporting characters beyond Enos, Fana Mokoena‘s UN higher-up and Daniella Kertesz‘s Israeli soldier get more than a couple of scenes, and it’s rare that the picture cuts away from Pitt at all. But, in a rarity for a star who’s always been a character actor as much a leading man, there simply isn’t anything to Gerry. It’s not that Pitt is bad, it’s that because we have so little time with him before the shit hits the fan and because he’s given so little shading throughout, Gerry comes across as a cypher. Even when things take a breather in the third act — which becomes an enclosed, clearly budget-cut chamber piece that’s closer to an episode of “The Walking Dead” than the giant scope we’ve seen before — we’re not any clearer to understanding who he actually is as a person.
In fact, it’s worse than just him being a cypher. He’s perfect: a great dad, a great husband, a great investigator, and a great zombie-killer, a blend of Ash, Sherlock Holmes and the subject of a Cosmo photo shoot. In a summer with Iron Man, Superman and Wolverine, Gerry Lane is the most superheroic of them all, not just because he can survive zombie swarms and plane crashes relatively unscathed, but because he doesn’t have any flaws. And that’s simply not a very compelling subject to follow throughout a movie.
That’s carried through to the rest of the supporting cast too, few of whom are properly sketched out. Be it Enos reprising her thankless wife role from “Gangster Squad,” to Ludi Boeken as an exposition-dumping Mossad agent, to Peter Capaldi and Ruth Negga as scientists so thankless they’re literally credited as Scientists despite being central to the third act, most of the players that crop up on Pitt’s travels are perfunctory at best (to say nothing of Matthew Fox, inexplicably fifth-billed in a part that’s not so much a cameo as a day-player gig — presumably he has more left on the cutting room floor). The lone memorable turn, beyond David Morse virtually chewing his way through prison bars as a Kurtz-like CIA crackpot, comes from James Badge Dale, successfully stealing the show in his second successive summer showpiece after his standout turn in “Iron Man 3.”
Despite all of this, “World War Z” does work in fits and starts. It looks great, courtesy of Michael Bay regular Ben Seresin as DoP. The action is mostly well-executed, Forster having come on leaps and bounds since the poorly-put-together sequences in “Quantum Of Solace” (the cutting does occasionally lapse into incoherence, but one suspects it’s more out of a need to get its compromised PG-13 rating than anything else). There are a number of smart moments and reversals that hint at the defining zombie flick it could have been. And it even has something going on upstairs too; some of the book’s geopolitics have made it across, from the glancing references to how North Korea and Israel are surviving the crisis, to subtexts about overpopulation and famine.
But it can’t quite balance these more thoughtful aspects with the flash-bang of a blockbuster. On one hand, it wants to be “Zombie Dark Thirty” — a no-nonsense procedural showing the zombie apocalypse as it would happen in the real world. On the other, it’s a for-the-cheap-seats would-be-blockbuster with CGI swarms of the undead, and a plane crash sequence that features the three stupidest things we’ve seen in a movie in at least a year. (You’ll know them when you see them…)
And the two things make a decidedly uneasy partnership on screen. As has been with the trend with tentpoles this summer, “World War Z” isn’t truly bad; it’s competently made and has enough memorable moments or scenes to make you walk out feeling like you weren’t cheated out of the ticket price. For all the hand-wringing over the production and its delays, it’ll likely do pretty well, box-office-wise. But it also isn’t good enough to linger long in the imagination either, and given the way the ending leaves the door not so much wide open as off the hinges for a sequel, that probably wasn’t the ideal result either. [C+]