116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
Even before it hit theaters Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” was making headlines for its behind-the-scenes drama: a mid-production change in direction, major rewrites, more than $20 million in reshoots, a nine-month delay in releasing the picture and, finally, the disowning of the finished film by Max Brooks (son of funnyman Mel), on whose novel it is based.
True, fans of the book will scarcely recognize it in the final version of director Marc Forster’s film. But as a pure movie experience “World War Z” is generally satisfying: breathlessly-paced, competently acted and audacious in its efforts to give us zombies of the sort we’ve never seen before. (Face it…the whole zombie thing was running on creative fumes.)
What makes “World War Z” really interesting is its “macro zombie” approach to the genre. The zombies in this film aren’t treated as individuals but as a part of a huge voracious hive which moves and attacks like a swarm of insects.
Rather than giving us the usual close ups of zombies chowing down on the necks and limbs of screaming victims, the film offers a tsunami of the undead pouring over walls and flowing down streets like unstoppable floodwaters. This makes for a very different zombie flick, one that got a relatively tame PG-13 from the MPAA ratings board yet still packs a big visceral punch.
Our hero is Gerry Lane (Pitt), former U.N. inspector now living in NYC with his wife (“The Killing’s” Mireille Enos) and two young daughters. They’re caught in a typical Manhattan traffic jam when suddenly all hell breaks loose. An infection is spreading through the city at the velocity of an Olympic sprinter. Once bitten by an infected person, a victim has only 10 seconds before turning into a snarling, biting fiend.
The Lanes commandeer an RV (there’s a rifle inside; they’ll need it) and end up besieged in a high-rise apartment in Newark. (Interesting note: Newark during a zombie apocalypse doesn’t look appreciably worse than Newark on any other day.) Gerry’s former boss at the UN sends a helicopter to rescue the family…because he needs Gerry to head to Korea to try to find the origins of this plague.
It’s a seemingly hopeless quest, and before it’s over Gerry will have been to Asia, Israel, and a World Health Organization facility in Wales. (Given that the world is melting down around him, he gets around pretty good.) He’ll befriend an Israeli soldier (Danielle Ketesz), become a human shish kabob in a plane crash and have as many close calls as can be crammed into a two-hour movie.
Because these zombies are presented as massive spectacle, “World War Z” is able to ignore many of the usual clichés (bullets to the head, lurching). There’s not much one-on-one zombie/human conflict … a good thing, considering that Forster has never shown much affinity for conventional action (he bungled big chunks of the Bond movie “Quantum of Solace”).
The acting from a large cast (James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Peter Capaldi) is adequate enough, though several of these performances seem to have been severely truncated in the editing.
The zombies move so fast we hardly get a good look at them – at least until late in the film when an unknown actor named Michael Jenn gives a wonderful teeth-clacking performance as a zombie who corners Gerry in a high-tech laboratory.
Technically the film has been shot in jerky, underlit handheld fashion, which makes the 3D version of “World War Z” singularly murky and unpleasant.
| Robert W. Butler