As an action/suspense thriller built for the summertime popcorn-flick season, World War Z works. It’s intense, epic in scale, frightening in the right moments, and it will keep your attention riveted to the screen from start to finish.
As an adaptation of Max Brooks’ best-selling novel of the same name, however, the film is a colossal cop-out. It settles for thrills and chills driven by action set pieces and CGI-enhanced zombie hordes chasing the film’s megastar, Brad Pitt, across the globe rather than trying to present the social and political commentary and criticism that makes the novel stand apart from the glut of media currently feeding this generation’s fascination with the living dead. It will scare and it will most likely satisfy, but it won’t stick with you and make you think the way the novel does, and that’s a terrible shame, considering how compelling Brooks’ whole story really is.
Retired U.N. investigator Gerry Lane (Pitt) and his family are going about their everyday morning routine when suddenly and quite horrifically their commute through downtown Philadelphia turns into the “Zombie Apocalypse.” They join the terrified masses fleeing the rapidly-growing horde of undead literally charging, leaping, and snapping their decaying virus-carrying teeth at them from all directions, staying a half-step ahead until they’re rescued and brought to Gerry’s old U.N. boss (Fana Mokoena), who has in mind to put Gerry to work again. The task is, of course: figure out exactly what’s happening and how to stop it. Reluctant to leave his family behind, he only accepts the assignment after the Powers That Be make it clear that his family is considered “non-essential personnel” aboard the ship at sea that has become the U.N.’s command center, and there really is no room for them unless he goes.
The investigation takes Gerry on a tour of crumbling nations and war-torn locales, each fighting the same losing battle against the end of civilization via zombie plague with different strategies and degrees of success. Safety never lasts very long regardless of the place, and time and again our Everyman hero finds himself running just a few paces ahead of the infected, until finally he observes firsthand a possible route to the human race’s salvation, a way for the living to possibly fight back. That route could be just as lethal as the zombies themselves, and he’ll have to test it by getting even closer to the zombies, but with the whole world on the brink … well, you know it goes in these kinds of movies.
Don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you. World War Z is scary as all get out when it comes to presenting not just the hungry zombie hordes, but also the potential horror of the breakdown of civilization due to mass viral outbreak and resulting panic. These aren’t new ideas to the genre, but the film goes further in exploring and presenting them than previous films in the genre, which at times hint at worldwide collapse through background visuals such as media reports and newspaper headlines, through Gerry’s globetrotting and witnessing the collapse with his own eyes. At the same time, the crisis, while enormous, never becomes remote or incomprehensible, because the face of it — the zombies themselves — are never far outside of the camera’s view. As Gerry learns more about what exactly humanity’s remnants are facing through his travels, the tension only mounts. It’s plot-driven storytelling, no doubt — the characters here, even Pitt’s, are all one-note — but in this case it’s well-executed and thrilling to watch unfold. Don’t be embarrassed if you gasp or jump in your seat during particular moments, especially during the film’s particularly suspenseful final act. You won’t be the only one.
But again, as ambitious a zombie film as this is, it must be said that a film more true to the execution of the novel would have been even more ambitious. It also would not have been an action film at all, but rather a fictional documentary presenting a mystery being investigated. Brooks’ written work, subtitled “An Oral History of the Zombie War”, is a collection of hundreds of “survivor interviews” detailing encounters with the plague and the zombies before and during the global crisis. Its depiction of how people and governments respond to the crisis over the period of a decade, and all the social and political commentary that lies therein, is what makes the novel such a captivating piece of fiction.
Arguably, it’s what also makes the novel, with its global scope and hundreds of perspectives, as a whole more or less unfilmmable. Or at least that’s what many critics said both before and after the news that Brooks’ work was being made into a film came out of Hollywood, and maybe they’re right.
Still, it might have been incredible to see Brad Pitt and his people try to tell this story on film the way that Brooks did in print. This version is fun — it will get your adrenaline going — but it’s the print version that will stick with you, and really get your imagination going.
Score: 3 out of 5
World War Z
Starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, and Matthew Fox. Directed by Marc Forster.
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.