World War Z


Republibot reviewed the 2006 novel from which this movie derives. That novel was told in oral history format, with a number of different personal and political vignettes about what happened to people in a war against zombies. It was obviously patterned after the kind of stuff Studs Terkel did with real events. That made it unique and structurally interesting.

Now comes the movie, which I finally saw just before its theatrical run ends. It is neither unique nor structurally interesting. World War Z the film is not a bad movie. It’s just a generic big budget zombie flick done as action adventure that unfurls in the obligated manner for approximately two hours.

Let me start by saying I sympathize. You really can’t do justice to Max Brooks’ concept outside of a miniseries or some other sort of limited run TV presentation. And when you’ve sunk some $200 million into making the thing, you can’t risk that on some avant-garde art experiment. This movie had to make serious money just to break even. And on the positive side, when they decided to generify it, at least they didn’t go with Johnny Depp playing a deranged Indian.

They went with Brad Pitt playing a superhero instead. He’s an adoring dad and a legendary ubermensch troubleshooter for the United Nations. That’s right—the U.N. has super cool agents who routinely save the world. And stop snickering. If we can have a zombie apocalypse in fiction, I suppose we can have a competent U.N., too. Brad Pitt globetrotting works for the international box office even if his hair does seem off.

Brad is downtown in Philadelphia traffic with his family when everything goes to hell. Before you know it, there are oddly non-gory zombies leaping and hurtling about like the monkeys in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I get the whole non-gory part. When you’ve sunk some $200 million into a zombie movie, the last thing you need is an R rating. But the whole sequence is strangely uninvolving. I think its trying too hard for sweep and spectacle while simultaneously not offending. The result leaches out dramatic impact. It’s a feeling I had again and again in the big set pieces.

Brad and his family get to Newark, where the U.N. extracts him atop some tenement building. There’s a chase before hand. It’s strangely uninvolving, too. You’ve seen the same thing done before, and the sheer attempt at scope robs it of the creepy intimacy for which zombie films generally strive. Again, it’s entertaining enough, I suppose, in a paint-by-the-numbers way, but it was starting to feel a little hollow to me. Note again, however, that I have sympathy for the attempt to make a summer blockbuster out of this book.

So Brad’s family holes up on an amphibious assault ship, part of a fleet in the Atlantic, while Brad goes globetrotting for a cure. Why him? Because—he’s the legendary U.N. ubermensch. At this point, the movie becomes three distinct set pieces. Brad barnstorms from the Atlantic to South Korea, then from South Korea to Israel, then from Israel to Scotland. That’s some serious frequent flyer points.

Brad first goes to a besieged U.S. military base in South Korea because the U.N. found an obscure e-mail that mentioned South Korea. Seriously, As you would expect, it’s a complete waste of time. All the action occurs in the rain and dark as well. Brad meets a crazy ex-CIA gunrunner who tells him Israel will have the answers. Why? They built a big wall, man. That’s why. So Brad dutifully turns around and heads back to Israel. He gets the VIP treatment there because everyone knows Israel is totally in awe of the U.N. all the time. Anyway, Israel is also a big waste of time. They don’t know anything.

The whole point of going to Israel is to have a big CGI moment where zombies rush together like ants into one mad mosh pit that builds up to scale the wall. It’s actually an impressive visual. Too bad they led with that in all the trailers so we’ve seen it dozens of times already.

Israel is done for. But it’s destruction wasn’t in vain; Brad has noticed the zombies don’t attack sick people. He reasons that’s because sick people aren’t good hosts for viral reproduction. That seems quite a reach. I mean, all they have to do to be a zombie success story is jump on someone and bite them. The other weird thing is that Brad also flashes back to a soldier in South Korea who told a story about being surrounded by zombies who didn’t bite him. And that must be because… he limped.

I don’t know why he limped. But he was healthy enough to enlist in the U.S. Army and seemed to get around well enough while shooting zombies.

What about hangnails? Would they bite you if you had a hangnail? Cuz’ those can be rough.

Anyway, I shouldn’t be too hard on that because the last act is the most engaging part of the movie. Brad locates a World Health Organization site in Scotland. He has the passenger plane he escaped from Israel in diverted there. The plan is to infect himself with something and see if the zombies ignore him, too. Of course, a zombie stowed away in the cargo hold and gets loose. Brad ultimately has no choice but to throw a hand grenade to depressurize the cabin and suck everyone out. He’s injured in the crash landing, but gets to the WHO site with the help of an Israeli soldier who escaped with him.

Bad news at the WHO. The lab wing with the infectious disease samples has been overrun by zombies. So Brad, the Israeli soldier and a scientist have to sneak in and make their way to Vault 139. This is familiar zombie story territory. It’s executed pretty well. Apparently it was all shot later after they didn’t like their initial ending. Without having seen the initial ending, this strikes me as a good idea. Setting aside the whole “zombies don’t bite sick people” silliness, we didn’t need another disconnected sweeping panorama of zombies in Russia. This ending finally gets us to root for specific people in a specific predicament whose parameters we understand. It works.

Oh, by the way, Brad Pitt was correct. Diseases do successfully provide camouflage against zombies. And did you ever for an instant believe that Brad Pitt, playing a U.N. ubermensch in a summer action flick, would be wrong?

Paint-by-the-numbers, people.

Will Conservatives Like This?

Well, the U.S. military is providing all the actual infrastructure that allows our U.N. superhero to strut the global stage. I kind of suspect, however, that the U.N. is going to tax us up the wazoo to support rebuilding. So call it a mixed bag. It’s acceptable enough action fair, if not inspired for the majority of the run time.