Here’s the shocker: World War Z doesn’t suck. It’s been impossible to miss all the bad press about the movie across its production period, most notoriously when it entered a reported seven weeks of reshoots in a bid to salvage the picture. Yet, the finished product is surprisingly good, an enjoyable though not perfect big-budget zombie epic based on Max Brooks’ 2006 novel of the same name. In an age full of small-scale zombie stories like Dawn of the Dead and TV’s The Walking Dead, it’s refreshing to watch World War Z, which is more of a global action-thriller than a simple survival story. Nevertheless, the movie is flawed in several departments. It’s serviceable as a blockbuster, but that’s pretty much all it is: a well-paced, conventional action film in need of a stronger script.
A former UN researcher, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is now a devoted family man, looking out for his adoring wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove). But a zombie outbreak begins unfolding right in front of them, prompting Gerry’s former employers to airlift the family to safety. With a team investigating the outbreak to find a cure, Gerry is forced to offer his services, sent on a globe-trotting mission to find the source of the disease. Leaving his family on-board a military aircraft carrier, Gerry heads off with a small team to start an investigation before it’s too late for humanity.
Reports on the budget for World War Z vary wildly, with some publications claiming the flick cost up to $400 million, a staggering sum for a motion picture that looks as if it was produced for about a quarter of that amount. Of course, one has to take into account that about 40 minutes of the film were outright abandoned in post-production, prompting Paramount and Pitt’s production company Plan B to splash out more money to have an entirely new third act written and filmed. The script is still marred by problematic aspects despite all the reshuffling, though. For starters, it’s never clear why Gerry’s former boss wants him, as he only has a vaguely-defined background and the script lacks meaty character development. More than that, World War Z fails to explore the interesting philosophical questions of what happens when society breaks down. To its credit, the script does not turn Gerry into a superhuman, though credulity is stretched when he and one of his comrades are the sole survivors of a plane crash.
Brooks’ novel was more or less a satire of today’s post-9/11 anxiety and America’s foreign policy, and it was told from multiple perspectives without a central protagonist, making it suitable fodder for a television miniseries as opposed to a feature film. The adapted screenplay for World War Z (which was famously written and re-written by at least half a dozen people) disposes of the satiric slant as well as the multiple perspectives, turning the source material into a simple blockbuster about Gerry and his wife and kids. Following brisk introductory time with the Lane family, the outbreak begins, and the rest of World War Z becomes a succession of set-pieces. Hence, while the book resembled Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, director Marc Forster’s film is more like Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. With that said, though, World War Z really soars in its final act, when we get into reshoot territory. The seams of the reshoots are visible if you look for them, yet the movie actually gels, with the rewriting (courtesy of Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard) resulting not in an idiotic action climax but an intelligent, taut and tense finale more focused on character dynamics and stealth than endless zombie killing.
The biggest issue with World War Z is director Forster. In the hands of a superior craftsman, the film could’ve soared to unimaginable heights, but Forster is not cut out for helming blockbusters. Although a handful of action beats do work, multiple sequences are marred by hideous shaky-cam and frenetic editing, turning potentially exhilarating set-pieces into incoherent jumbles. At times, it’s difficult to discern the geography of various scenes. However, the camera movement fortunately settles down in the final act, exhibiting evidence that Forster may have indeed been fired (though I can only speculate on the matter) and replaced with a more patient filmmaker. The rest of the picture’s technical specs are impressive, with a particularly propulsive score, and the performances across the board are strong. Pitt is the heart of the movie. Having produced the film as well, it’s clear that Pitt actually cares here, resulting in one of his most focused performances in a blockbuster to date. He works well as an Everyman, and it’s a nicely grounded turn that gives the picture a welcome degree of humanity.
Unfortunately, no matter which way you cut it, you simply cannot win with a PG-13 zombie flick, and the docile rating takes its toll on World War Z. The camera awkwardly shies away from capturing the attacks, while several wounds are bewilderingly downplayed. A severed hand produces about as much blood as a paper cut, and Gerry forgets to bleed when he’s pierced by a piece of shrapnel. Since these are not “classical” zombies, excessive gore was not necessary, but it is idiotic for R-rated content like major wounds to be watered down. Do it properly, or not at all. Worse, the walking dead are digital here, denying a tangible quality to make them believable. At times the CGI does its job well enough, but at other times it’s distractingly obvious, in need of the practical make-up effects that have served the genre well for so long. Also missing is a sense of awe and loss. We see people getting killed, but we don’t feel affected by it, and there aren’t any moments to give you goosebumps. It’s all a bit middle-of-the-road.
Fortunately, the makers took no chances with sequel prospects, leaving room for a possible sequel but not foolishly hedging their bets by closing on a cliffhanger. Hence, the story is wrapped up in a satisfying enough fashion, but more can be done in the potential franchise if this hugely expensive investment pays off for the studio. At the end of the day, World War Z is okay; not great, but by no means horrible. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better before – the science stuff was much more substantive in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the fast zombies were more terrifying in 28 Days Later – yet it remains solid on its own terms. World War Z is not exactly cohesive since it begins as a frenetic actioner before transitioning into a patient thriller, but it comes together in an entertaining enough fashion, which may seem like a hollow victory but it’s more than most of us expected.