WORLD WAR Z Review: It’s a Dead Man’s Party, Who Could Ask For More
If there is anything you can accuse Hollywood of doing TOO well, it’s exploiting something popular to the point that it becomes a scourge. When the public gets a taste for a certain flavor, Tinseltown senses it, whets the public’s appetite with more offerings, then force-feeds the market until the masses not only have had their fill, but have had enough to regurgitate a little bit of it. Superheroes, vampires, found footage, horny teens, goofy buddies, horror porn, tween novel adaptations, and more are in the middle of, or have gone completely through, the cold-then-hot-then-cold-then-enough-already lifecycle on screens large and small for years.
One flavor running through that cycle right now is Zombie. (What exactly does that taste like, I wonder?) I can’t say for sure when the uptick in interest started, but the zombie flavor feels like it’s reached the point where, if it isn’t already on the decline, it’s at that moment where it’s just past its pinnacle and ready to crash. (I actually think it began its descent in February of this year, when Warm Bodies was released. It was a cute story with a clever conceit, but if you’re a zombie, and you are now affiliated with the term “ZomRomCom,” you’ve kind of jumped the shark.)
So for as much as I’ve liked zombies prior to the latest rebirth of their great popularity, I have to admit to a little zombie fatigue. Apart from the split mini-seasons of American TV’s The Walking Dead and the occasional revisit to British TV’s Dead Set (for my money the best zombie property made), I shy away from the undead because I don’t want to get sick of it. But how can one resist a big-budget summer blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt, even when it’s about a subject that is growing tiresome? The answer isn’t “you can’t resist it,” the answer is “you shouldn’t resist it.” World War Z is a great movie that injects exciting life into a genre that was headed for the morgue.
Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator who is living in happy retirement performing his new job, making pancakes for his wife and kids. On his way to take the kids to school, a news radio station reports on a global rabies epidemic. Before Pitt can find a Top 40 station, explosions and chaos erupt in the Center City Philadelphia traffic he’s snarled in. Moments after that, the streets are crowded with scrambling masses – some running for their lives, others running to attack and devour those running for their lives.
Gerry, who has fled with his family to Newark, NJ, is contacted by his old boss, Thierry (Fana Mokoena), who is able to extract Gerry and his family out of hostile territory and get them aboard an aircraft carrier 200 miles out to sea. With cities around the country and the world falling victim to the same fate as Philly, the carrier has become a makeshift military command post. Thiery wants a team of Navy SEALs to escort Gerry and a young virologist, Dr. Fassbach (Elyes Gabel) to South Korea, where the word “zombie” was first uttered in relation to the outbreak, with hopes of finding the plague’s genesis. Gerry has no interest in leaving his family, but the military makes matters grimly clear: help solve the problem or you and your family will be deemed non-essential personnel and flown back to New Jersey to survive on your own.
Gerry makes the wise choice and embarks on an investigation – and ultimately a survival mission – that takes him from South Korea to Israel, and from Israel to Wales, where a World Health Organization outpost may hold the key to saving what is left of the planet.
With World War Z, director Marc Forster could have easily had JUST another summer blockbuster and JUST another action movie and JUST another zombie movie, so he needed to work hard … and smart … to make this film stand out from the rest of the generic dreck in the dog days of moviegoing. He not only delivers, he delivers big.
The opening alone lets you know the movie means business. After a brief establishing scene with Pitt making those pancakes for his family, it’s BOOM stuck in traffic and BOOM chaos in the streets and BOOM fleeing to Newark, which offers some respite but ultimately isn’t much better. Those scenes you may have seen in the trailers – the city scenes that look they might be the culmination of half a film’s progress – occur in the first 20 minutes of the film and they are invigorating. You are immediately thrust into the chaos with Gerry and family, and you feel like you are surviving along with them. Making them even better is the use of many long shots, which prevent the viewer from really understanding which bodies are chasing and which are fleeing. You are as disoriented as the characters are.
This instant action suggests an absence of melodrama, which is completely true and also very important to the success of the film. In an effort to clock-in at its efficient running time of 1:56 (a length I thought for sure wasn’t possible for this story, yet it was), Forster and the screenwriters (there were five in total) shrewdly avoid heavy backstory and maudlin establishing scenes, which prevents the potential for falling into clichéd territory. Even when someone is bitten by a zombie, the conversion to becoming a zombie is quick enough that it avoids any long, drawn-out “is he or isn’t he?” manufactured tension.
There are several other areas of the film where typical pitfalls are deftly avoided, even when you think they are setting something up for later. I don’t want to give anything away, but there were several moments in the opening minutes of the film where I thought to myself, “Plot point!” Those plot points never happened, and that is perfectly fine.
The downside to this is that when there are softer moments in the film, particularly those scenes between Gerry and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos), or between Gerry and his kids, that ring hollow. Yes, it’s clear that it’s his family, but they seem to be there in an attempt (at best) to add some sense of normalcy to the character, or (at worst) to give him a believable motive to both decline and accept the responsibility because without them, he can’t reasonably do either.
As for Gerry, he is a believable hero thanks to the writers and the director and Pitt. Again, because it’s summer and action and zombies, it would have been easy to create the character of Gerry from the ’80s action mold and make him ex-Special Forces or ex-Black Ops or some other such nonsense, but they don’t. They also could have required Gerry to execute fantastical stunts of shooting or jumping or fighting 15 zombies at once with some suddenly convenient martial arts skill, but they don’t. Yes he carries and uses a weapon, and yes he fights, but it is always believable.
The other standout character in the film is Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz), who, with her unit, is assigned to escort Gerry out of Jerusalem. When things get chaotic there, Gerry and Segen find themselves very much dependent on each other. While her dialogue might be limited, she commands your attention when she’s onscreen.
And there, by way of not mentioning it, is another benefit of the film: it isn’t a star-studded spectacle. Julia Roberts isn’t Pitt’s wife, Morgan Freeman isn’t the president of the United States, The Rock isn’t the SEAL commander. It’s Pitt and everyone else, and while normally that might make it feel like some type of vanity project for Pitt, it is far from that. It is a film starring actors, not stars appearing in a film.
All of this is what is so great about World War Z: at every opportunity to go down a cheap, easy, familiar path, the filmmakers simply don’t, and every time they don’t it’s to the benefit of the film. That’s not to say they are without sin – the film has its moments that strain credulity – but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
And then there are the zombies. They are relentless in their pursuit of flesh to the point of hurling themselves through glass and off rooftops and into the paths of vehicles without hesitation. They have one direction – forward – and one speed – full tilt. They are far from being walking dead, and while they can be physically contained, it takes more than a chain link fence or locked car doors to hold them off.
With very little gore (yet another genre crutch the film knows it simply doesn’t need), World War Z finds the right little things to improve upon to make the zombie genre fresh again (at least for now), and does so without clinging to clichés, fawning all over its cast, or presenting any sense of self-importance whatsoever.
Sit down, strap in, hold on, and enjoy the thrill.