MOVIE REVIEW: World War Z
WORLD WAR Z-- 4 STARS
Back in February, while reviewing the enjoyable zombie romance Warm Bodies, I started to outline the pop culture fad that zombies have become over the last decade or so, thanks to the horror sub-genre's unprecedented success in film, television, and print media. It's been a slow build-up from multiple George Romero remakes to blockbusters like I Am Legend over the years, but zombies have hit their mark. The steadiest brainy meal for the zombie-lovers diet has been AMC's The Walking Dead on cable television. The show has gained a greater-than-cult popularity with every season.
In that Warm Bodies review, I stated that the biggest litmus test for this zombie fad would come with the blockbuster action drama World War Z. Well, that test time has now come. Zombies has never been on a bigger stage than this. This is the mainstream, a week after Man of Steel, up against Pixar's Monsters University, and a week before the big Fourth of July weekend.
The success or failure of this blockbuster will determine the next course for this fad. World War Z will either be the saturated peak of excess before the trend's inevitable downfall or the newest tipping point and springboard to bigger and better things for the zombie craze. Time will tell, but I see the latter of those two scenarios happening. World War Z gives this cultural epidemic of lifelessness a big boost of life-giving excitement.
World War Z, in all its big summer action splendor, brings the zombie fad to a bigger stage than anything Romero envisioned 45 years ago with Night of the Living Dead. By raising the cinematic stakes to a global level, though extremely far short of the original novel's worldly depth, World War Z is a spectacular success to push the potential of this genre and fad forward with a flashy and exciting summer blockbuster.
Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball, The Kite Runner, Quantum of Solace) introduces us to Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt (who's also sticking his financial neck out as a producer on the flick), a doting father of two lovely daughters and husband to Karin (Mireille Enos of HBO's Big Love). Behind the paternal exterior, Gerry is a retired United Nations investigator who has put the days of chasing war crimes in the world's worst hotbeds behind him. That all changes when a wild epidemic of infected and maddening murderous humans overpowers the civilians and military in major cities around the world.
Gerry and his family thrillingly escape Philadelphia, and later Newark, by the skin of their teeth thanks to the assistance of his old U.N. boss Thierry (Fana Mokoena of Hotel Rwanda). The remaining military and governmental brain trust has gathered on a flotilla of naval vessels off the Atlantic coast. In return for ensuring his family's safety, Gerry is enlisted by Thierry to take to the field to investigate the few leads they have to finding this plague/virus's source. It is then that the "zombie" buzz word becomes the label for what they are up against. This sends Gerry into harm's way globetrotting and connecting the dots between South Korea, Israel, and Wales.
As with any new entry into a horror sub-genre, one must learn the rules by which the horror subject in use operates. Like the kinetic undead of 28 Days Later, the World War Z zombies can really move and, worse, they swarm like fire ants with reckless abandonment. These aren't the lumbering moaners you're used to. Loud sounds are their biggest trigger and biting is what turns people, with World War Z's PG-13 rating cutting out any brain-eating. As per common pop culture lore, a headshot is the only way of taking them out and burning them tends to seal the deal after that. The new twist here is that a bitten victim turns in a mere 10-12 seconds, not minutes or hours, multiplying the volume and threat exponentially and quickly once it gets rolling.
World War Z plays far more like a Roland Emmerich summer blockbuster of the Independence Day and 2012 variety than some cut-rate zombie horror flick. The scale matches that kind of movie, but the serious and horrific tone of World War Z replaces any trace of comedy or puff-chested patriotism from an Emmerich blockbuster. The visual effects, primarily developed by the Moving Picture Company, to create fluid and thick mobs of zombies is incredibly impressive, far exceeding the Weta Digital's "MASSIVE" computer software program that was invented to make the intuitive independently-moving armies seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago. The action and suspense is always moving forward and there is no time to get to know anyone, other than a handful of supporting characters, not named Brad Pitt. It's all about him and his perspective, which, thanks to his usual manly appeal, works just fine. Sure, he's cashing a paycheck compared to Oscar-nominated work like Moneyball, but it's a zombie action movie for Pete's sake. What did you expect? Would you rather have him or Shia LaBeouf saving the world with big robots? I thought so.
As you may read in other reviews and articles, World War Z wasn't a pretty picture in the creation phase. Veering grossly over-budget (north of $200 million before marketing) and suffering numerous set disagreements and months of re-shoots, the delays added up as quickly as the bad buzz. After comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (The A-Team, Smokin' Aces) had the first crack at Max Brook's highly regarded 2006 novel, it took three script doctors (two of which are film directors themselves) to patch this movie together. Shooting started without an ending until, separately, Drew Goddard (the Joss Whedon protege of The Cabin in the Woods), Damon Lindelof (J.J. Abrams's Lost secret weapon and Prometheus re-writer), and Christopher McQuarrie (the Bryan Singer partner who just finished Jack Reacher) changed the final third of the movie. For more detail (with spoilers), here's a great article on those rewrites.
After all of that tinkering and course correction, much of the multifaceted global aspect of Brooks's epic novel, which covers a decade-long era of zombie conflict through several different international perspectives, was stripped nearly bare. Go ahead and start the usual "the book is better than the movie" rant. You won't be wrong at all. Those who enjoyed the novel's revisionist post-apocalyptic worldview, biting social commentary, and deep environmental, religious, and political overtones will be grossly disappointed. Much like last summer's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which had its own rich depth of clever historical connections whittled away and watered down to a string of action scenes, World War Z becomes a fellow victim of the movie-making-and-novel-destroying industry machine.
If you want the book, go find a library and be smarter than the rest of us. You'll win that intellectual pissing contest. In the meantime, just go enjoy a summer movie because there's plenty to like here. That's the redemption of all of the mess surrounding World War Z. Even in its broken, near-trainwreck form, limping to the box office against Superman and Pixar, the movie still thrills nearly every minute and grabs enough global scale to make you scratch that itch on your head.
Supposedly, if this picture does well, the intentions were to make a trilogy to cover the long passage of time and global events from the novel. The ending teases sequel possibilities. It's going to take a lot of money if Brad Pitt isn't on speaking terms with director Marc Forster, as rumored. World War Z isn't perfect, far from it, but the movie is very enjoyable escapism. It does enough to put butts in seats and, for two hours, probably makes you as mindlessly entertained as the movie's zombies are mindlessly wired for human consumption.
LESSON #1: MOTHER NATURE IS THE SOURCE OF THE WHOLE "S - - T HAPPENS" PHENOMENON-- As you can see from this first lesson, all of the lofty political, ethical, and moral impact from the novel is gone, leaving us with an action movie to dissect. One "redshirt" researcher tagging along with Gerry states that Mother Nature is the biggest cause of chaos, coincidence, and random chance. He jibberishly phrased this lesson better than I am now, but pretty much said that Mother Nature fuels as many destructive things in this world as creative things. I can agree with that. Now go fall on your own gun instead of getting bitten by a zombie.
LESSON #2: ADD A FEW NEW CHAPTERS TO YOUR ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE-- Before Max Brooks (coincidentally, the son of movie funny man Mel Brooks) wrote World War Z, his first hit was 2003's best-seller, The Zombie Survival Guide, outlining a Worst Case Scenario-style guide to surviving the undead apocalypse. Just as vampire movies have been adding to the "general acceptable public knowledge" and lore of vampires for years after Bram Stoker, World War Z extends the rules and fictional understandings of zombies, as illustrated earlier in the review. Someday, when real zombies come, we'll all be wrapping our bite-able extremities in duct tape and magazines and counting to ten to await an undead turn thanks to this movie.
LESSON #3: SOMETIMES, THE GREATEST OR MOST DAUNTING QUALITY OF SOMETHING CAN BE ITS GREATEST WEAKNESS-- This movie speaks a cleaner quote than this lesson title, but, essentially, we're talking about taking an opponent's great strength and turning it into a weakness. For as formidable and unstoppable as this voluminous zombie scourge appears to be in World War Z, smart people like Gerry have to find a way to take their greatest power, namely their voracious hunger, and turn it into a weakness to exploit. The challenge to turn defense into offense, while still searching for the virus source in order to find a potential cure, is paramount to human survival in this movie.