Fans of the book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks can either rejoice or fume at the fact that the new film adaptation is almost entirely its own unique entity. An opening credit claims it is “based” on the book. Sure, it does share the same title, and I can confirm that there are some borrowed story elements. However, the action-packed narrative of the World War Z movie is extremely different from the book, in which a collection of post-pandemic interviews conducted by an agent of the U.N. Postwar Commission (Max Brooks, as a fictionalized version of himself) reads like a non-fiction history book. In my opinion, a faithful adaptation of the book would work best in the form of a ten part HBO mini-series. But, since the Brad Pitt action spectacle is what we must see to satisfy our WWZ cravings, then we will just have to make do. Luckily, it really is not that bad. In fact, it is quite entertaining. WWZ lacks the heart and layered character portrayals we hoped for due to its connection to the phenomenal source material, but it remains a worthwhile blockbuster that contains a lot of thrills, impressive visuals, and a fun frenetic pace courtesy of numerous rewrites, reshoots, and a healthy dose of unpredictable plot turns.
Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former U.N. agent who, it seems, left his dangerous former career to be a stay-at-home dad. As Gerry and his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), are taking the girls to school in/through downtown Philadelphia, the city begins to collapse as a deadly epidemic spreads at a lightning fast rate. The presence of the virus was already hinted at via a stylish and unnerving opening credit sequence featuring real footage. First, to ensure his family’s escape from the toppling city and later, at the official behest of military commanders, Lane must channel his survival and military skills to search for the origin of the virus and, hopefully, a cure. As in the book, the action in WWZ spans multiple countries and environments, each with its own set of obstacles and methods for handling (and escaping) the infected hordes.
Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace) brings a sure hand to the constant story movement. WWZ doesn’t slow down. It is a heart-racing global thriller that caters to the common summer blockbuster audience member rather than the niche zombie aficionado. I was pleasantly surprised how many times the story through me for a loop. WWZ has an uncanny ability to keep you in suspense — you never quite know who will live to see the next scene and who won’t. This could easily be attributed to the many rewrites and re-toolings the story went through in pre and post production. Each subsequent writer may have ended a previous writer’s storyline in favor of another. Ultimately, Forster and the film editor do a commendable job keeping the film naturally tied together. But despite its unpredictable nature, it doesn’t redefine the zombie genre. Most of the zombie elements have been seen before, except not on this scale. The wide camera shots of the undead masses are a disturbing wonder to behold. At a few (brief) points the zombies within the masses become noticeably flimsy CG beings, but who cares. It’s not like swarms of running and tumbling zombies can be efficiently filmed using real people. At least, not without harming scores of extras (although some producers may argue that extras are expendable anyway).
One frustrating aspect of the film is the lack of emotional reactions in the face of global devastation and human loss. All of the characters, save the confused Lane daughters, seem to treat the global epidemic as business as usual. They are shocked and worried, but don’t seem too sad. There isn’t time to be sad!…I suppose. Just when you think Pitt is going to break through his serviceable performance and deliver some intensely dramatic emotions (like a tear, or a scream, or anything!), the action takes over and locks him back into “soldier” mode. The best acting job comes from a young Israeli actress, Daniella Kertesz, who plays an Israeli soldier named Segen who aids Lane in his mission. Segen is tender-hearted yet extremely tough, and Kertesz brings her own natural beauty and commanding presence to the forefront of her character’s rough-edged personality, all of which help mold her into the most interesting character in the film. All the other actors play into their designated trope without a fuss. Some fuss would have been welcome.
Perhaps because the constant supply of zombie cinema and television over the past few years has spoiled us, but, it is easy to compare WWZ to other apocalyptic nightmares that feature (or don’t feature) the undead. The PG-13 rating will repel die-hard zombie fans that expect to see gallons of blood and guts, as they do each week during The Walking Dead seasons and in George A. Romero films and remakes. I was actually impressed by how well the violence was shot; it is disturbing and gruesome without lingering on the gory details. There isn’t an explosive finale either, which was somewhat disappointing, especially considering the epic feel of earlier action sequences and the overarching story of a global meltdown, something of which we are being constantly reminded. I’ll chalk up the abrupt anti-climactic ending to producer quarrels, a rewrite, and expensive reshoots.
World War Z opens in Bay Area theaters today.