June 2024

World War Z (2013)

world-war-z-poster-bannerDIRECTOR: Marc Forster

CAST: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, David Andrews, Fana Mokoena, Ludi Boeken, Pierfrancesco Favino, Peter Capaldi, David Morse


Fans of Max Brooks’ book of the same name, a pseudo-documentary collecting accounts of survivors from a worldwide zombie apocalypse, are not likely to be impressed with Marc Forster’s screen adaptation, which owes little more to the written source than the title, basic premise, and some plot ideas. Taken as a standalone film, World War Z is still flawed but fares better. Its scattershot focus gives it a fragmented, episodic feel, but it’s entertaining and boasts some impressive set pieces and tense sequences. It’s not as good as, say, 28 Days Later (which it seems to emulate more than its own nominal source material), but it serves up enough zombie apocalypse action on a grand, international scale to be worth a look for any fan of the genre (the less knowledgeable or passionate you are about Brooks’ book, the more you’re likely to enjoy yourself).



At least World War Z doesn’t keep us waiting for the apocalypse to begin. We get one quick wholesome family scene of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) with his wife (Mireille Enos) and young daughters before chaos erupts during gridlock in Philadelphia. Making a narrow escape to Newark, New Jersey, then to an aircraft carrier at sea, thanks to Gerry’s former boss, UN official Thierry (Fana Mokoena), Gerry is offered a deal: accompany a team setting out in search of the origins of the zombie virus, and his family can stay onboard. Otherwise, they’ll be relocated to a refugee camp with other unessential personnel. Gerry’s globe-trotting trek leads him first to South Korea, then to a besieged, walled-off Jerusalem, and finally to a World Health Organization clinic in Wales, where he must navigate halls filled with zombified doctors to test a hunch about the virus and its possible weakness.



World-War-ZWorld War Z‘s structure is odd. For about two-thirds of its running time, it feels like a loosely-connected series of vignettes, whisking Gerry from a tense plane refueling in a South Korean military base, then to the movie’s most visually striking set piece in Jerusalem, where teeming swarms of infected form a living ladder of bodies, like ants, to scale the towering walls the city has erected around itself, then to chaos erupting on an airborne plane, and climaxing at the WHO clinic in Wales. The pace moves briskly, zipping around from place to place, sometimes to the point of feeling rushed and half-developed. Most of the individual sequences are engaging in and of themselves. The opening chaos of the infection hitting gridlocked Philadelphia is effective, with aerial shots of thousands of extras running through the streets, and it impossible to tell who is human and who is a zombie. This leads to a suspenseful sequence with Gerry and his family hiding in dark apartment corridors waiting for a rescuing helicopter. The plane refueling scene is reminiscent of scenes from 28 Days Later and somewhat Aliens. Jerusalem is the movie’s major set piece—the highlight of which, the zombie tower, is featured prominently in the trailers. The airplane scene is also exciting. But, while things never get boring, they feel a little fragmented and scattershot until the lengthy climax with Gerry infiltrating the zombie-infested clinic, that builds the highest levels of suspense the movie has to offer. This is also the scene that makes the most use of actual extras in makeup, who are more effective than the overly obvious CGI used in the bigger scenes to convey the swarms of zombies (animating something easily physically created, like a crowd of running people, strikes me as lazy). World War Z never reaches the nerve-wracking tension of the scariest scenes of 28 Days Later, but this is where it comes closest. Speaking of 28 Days Later, while Max Brooks’ book featured traditional slow zombies, the movie’s are amped-up runners and jumpers, favoring the “new” speedy zombies that 28 Days Later popularized.  The movie’s fairly no-nonsense tone is also sometimes appreciated. It delves right into the action in short order, dispensing with a slow set-up, and doesn’t linger on Gerry’s family awaiting his return long enough for these cutaways to bog down the pace. A clichéd plot device—an asthmatic child trapped in an emergency situation without her inhaler—is brought up, but thankfully not dragged out as much as might be expected.  The PG-13 rating–something no zombie movie should be limited by, in my opinion–means Marc Forster falls back on shaky cameras and quick cuts to mean most of the graphic violence takes place offscreen, but while World War Z is mostly bloodless, it avoids feeling like it’s pussyfooting around.  The biggest weakness, narratively, is the ending, which feels like a truncated, “to be continued” stopping point setting up a sequel. Whether that materializes or not remains to be seen, but World War Z feels like we’ve only seen part one of a series.



With the prominent exception of Brad Pitt (who produced and reportedly had a major hand in getting the film made), the cast is low-profile (perhaps to offset its ballooning $250 million budget, which at one point had the studio scrambling for co-financiers and raised doubts about it being completed). Apart from Pitt, the only people with significant screentime are Mireille Enos (one of the stars of the television detective series The Killing)  as his wife, who spends most of the movie on a ship awaiting his return, and Daniella Kertesz as a young Israeli soldier who essentially becomes Gerry’s sidekick. Late in the movie, Pierfrancesco Favino and Peter Capaldi show up, and David Morse has basically a cameo. Sharp-eyed viewers may spot a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Matthew Fox, who was originally set to have a larger role, virtually all of which ended up on the cutting room floor. Pitt is fine, if not spectacular, as Gerry, who has a UN past and knows how to shoot a gun but is an everyman who doesn’t magically turn into an invincible action hero when the apocalypse hits. Everyone else is fine, but this isn’t an actors’ movie, and everyone not named Brad Pitt has limited screentime. This is Gerry’s journey, with others popping up for parts of the ride.



Considering its notoriously tumultuous production, with script rewrites, production delays, the film running far overbudget, and seven weeks of unplanned additional shooting (the entire climax was supposedly a rewrite; considering it’s the best part of the movie, this may have been for the best), World War Z arrived with dubious word of mouth. All things considered, it might be a noteworthy accomplishment that it’s less of a mess than many feared. It’s uneven and fragmented, but never boring and always entertaining, and serves up enough excitement and tension to be worth a look for zombie lovers. World War Z won’t go down as a classic of the genre, but it’s a respectable entry.



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