There’s a lot wrong with Max Brooks’ novel World War Z both in terms of the book’s writing and politics, but it basically achieved what it set out to do- expand the zombie genre from a story of a small band of survivors to an account of a global undead war, presented as though the events described really took place. There are multiple inventive ways this could have been brought over to the big screen while preserving the style of the original- faux-documentary, found footage, even an anthology film telling several disconnected stories. Instead, largely due to a heavily tortured production, we have the story of a handsome white dude saving the world so he can be re-united with his beautiful white family.
Brad Pitt and his wife and daughters are driving through traffic one day when a plague that turns people into velociraptors sweeps through the globe, seemingly instantaneously. Brad Pitt used to work for the UN doing something in war zones and gets roped into escorting a virologist to a version of South Korea populated entirely by American soldiers to try and find patient zero. This doesn’t go according to plan and he ends up on a globe trotting adventure, talking to many exciting white people (and the UN deputy secretary general who looks and sounds like Kofi Annan but isn’t Kofi Annan) in between periods where a tsunami made of zombies tries to kill him. He eventually looks at enough people to unlock a zombie-camouflage strategy that would only work if the zombies were psychic and saves the world using Pepsi cans. Cue obvious sequel-bait ending.
The one thing the novel got right was the epic, global scale of the story. Apart from a few brief glimpses right before the end, this is almost entirely absent from the movie because the action is so heavily focused on Pitt and his family. Entire cities fall to the zombies on-screen but the other humans are just cannon fodder or obstacles to get in his way. Pitt’s character is almost entirely devoid of personality apart from his love for his family, none of whom are the least bit memorable or likable. His daughters are non-entities seemingly written by someone who vaguely remembers seeing a child on TV once (and the older one mysteriously stops talking a quarter of the way through the movie for no apparent reason) and his wife is given nothing to do but cry and gnash her teeth while waiting for phone calls.
In World War Z zombies are a universal panacea for all pacing issues. Whenever the action threatens to flag for longer than a few minutes the writers dump zombies all over the screen so the characters can run around and scream for a bit, lest the audience get bored and start pirating things on their smartphones. Taking its cues from the source material, World War Z is more interested in zombies in bulk, largely ignoring individuals in favor of a roiling tide of bodies and gnashing teeth. Unfortunately this looks incredibly stupid, particularly in several shots of the zombies surging down stairs like a liquid or climbing over each other to scale buildings. The CG used to portray these seemingly superhuman feats is not terribly convincing, although I’m not sure there’s any level of technical wizardry capable of making a ball of zombies rolling down a street Katamari Damaci-style not seem stupid.
For those who like to categorize these things, the movie’s zombies are an odd mix of 28 Days Later and Remero, fast and aggressive and created mere seconds after a bite but also referred to explicitly as undead and requiring a headshot to kill despite not actually doing the whole reanimating thing. I get the feeling parts of the movie may have been written or even filmed with the original “slow” zombies in mind before someone decided it would be more exciting if they could turn into a non-Newtonian fluid whenever the script calls for it. Much of the movie feels this way, as though you are watching a random collection of ideas stuck awkwardly together into something that seems vaguely coherent.
There was a lot of nerd rage over the film’s PG-13 rating, as a certain breed of movie fan apparently fears that they will leave the cinema after watching anything non-violent to find that their testicles have retreated into their body. Normally I don’t care about how gory a movie of any genre is, but it’s a noticeable detriment here as the script calls for a level of brutality that the film-makers are unable to actually show, leading to a lot of awkward framing and cuts to hide limb removals and crowbars getting stuck in skulls. This might also be why the zombies are strangely difficult to see for large parts of the movie, obscured by shadows or frenetic shaky-cam, only to be shown full-on in other scenes as if a certain percentage of the run time needed to be devoid of decaying flesh in order to avoid an R rating.
By the time World War Z got into its third act I was pretty much ready to write the whole movie off, but the film unexpectedly switches gears with a climactic sequence that’s legitimately pretty great. Scaling the action down to a handful of characters in an infested World Health Organization facility rather than going for some sort of massive action scene was probably a budget necessity, but it does wonders for the story. Suddenly I actually gave a shit about the characters, suddenly the zombies felt like an actual threat. I even got pretty pumped for Brad Pitt’s big Pepsi-facilitated escape scene (no, I wasn’t joking about that). This part of the movie is much better written, better paced and even better shot than the preceding hour and twenty minutes, which makes me kind of wish they had just scrapped all that other bullshit and started over as a smaller scale story. I’m definitely not going to say that the rest of the movie is worth sitting through just for the ending, but I did walk out of the cinema feeling rather more positive than I would have otherwise.
World War Z isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just another example of what the Hollywood blockbuster has become- a sterile, overblown, convoluted explosion-fest that is mildly more entertaining than doing nothing and which you will forget you ever saw five minutes after the end credits roll.