At a nascent stage in the development of World War Z, someone must have said, “I want a zombie action movie,” and somehow no one else decided to build upon that. The checklist was “Zombies” and “Action”, and everything else that makes a movie was chucked in as an afterthought. “Family” became the “humanizing” element of a paper-thing protagonist, and zombies became nothing but a generic threat with well-established rules and an entrenched fan-base who don’t seem to mind the horror sub-genre growing weaker and more thoughtless with almost each new property. Despite its valuable resources like strong source material, an international setting, and a talented lead actor, World War Z is content to deliver some thrilling action scenes, and then leave the audience with nothing but a rotting carcass.
After a zombie rampage destroys his home city of Philadelphia, former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is called back into action to find out the source of the outbreak and discover a cure. Lane reluctantly agrees so that his family can remain safe on an aircraft carrier where a command center has been set up to combat the epidemic. The film proceeds to take Lane on a repetitive journey where he shows up in a country, learns a little bit of information, and then has to flee from hordes of CGI zombies.
There hasn’t been a zombie movie with the blockbuster budget of World War Z, and that’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows director Marc Forster to create some exciting set pieces with a sense of scale we’ve never seen in the genre before. Despite whiffing on the action in his previous blockbuster flick, Quantum of Solace, Forster has delivered the best aspect of World War Z by expertly balancing the overwhelming horde of the undead with the tight-quarters, claustrophobic chases that are a staple of the fast-moving zombies made popular in 28 Days Later. However, unlike Danny Boyle‘s hit film, Forster has to make the concession almost every blockbuster has to make: a PG-13 rating. Forster’s zombies are visually tame, and there’s admittedly no guessing the twisted logic of the MPAA ratings board. Nevertheless, it’s still somewhat odd that a basic cable show like The Walking Dead can take their gore so much further than anything seen in Forster’s movie.
Forster also plays by a far more lenient set of rules for his zombies such as only needing 12 seconds to tell if someone is infected or not, amputation being a way to stop zombification from occurring, and biting as the only way to spread infection (as opposed to zombie fluids getting into someone’s mouth). Again, this is an action film, and any attempts at horror are secondary. It can occasionally manage a jump scare, but World War Z never gets to the true terror of a worldwide epidemic. Even when the zombie attacks are in full force, no one seems particularly scared aside from one of Gerry’s daughters. Everyone else is going through the motions of flee, collect supplies, and generally behaving as if this is a run-of-the-mill natural disaster.
It’s particularly disappointing when you consider that Paramount bought the rights to Max Brooks‘ novel of the same name, and then used almost none of it. As I’ve said before, directors are under no obligation to stay faithful to the source material, but it’s odd to almost completely ignore that material, especially when it has so many fresh ideas to offer. Brooks approaches the situation from different perspectives and how each country would respond—usually with harsh choices to ensure the survival of our species. It goes into aspects you wouldn’t naturally think of like armies refusing to fire on their own possibly infected citizens, and the ineffectiveness of particular weapons against the undead. It’s a long, drawn-out conflict with huge casualties and ugly decisions, i.e. a world war. Instead, it feels like the problem in the movie is solved in about a week. As my friend and fellow critic Curt Holman pointed out after the screening, a more fitting title would be “Brad Pitt Zombie Project”.
Just as confusing as why the film would disregard the novel is why Pitt signed on at all. He also produced the movie, and, aside from the chance to possibly launch an action franchise with him as the hero, I can’t understand why he decided to play such a poorly-written role. Using Gerry’s family as shorthand for “stakes”, the movie gives him no personality or anyone to play off. For a film about saving humanity, there are almost no authentic human emotions. The extent of Pitt’s character is that Gerry has a keen sense of observation such as noticing the 12 seconds it takes for someone to turn. That’s a skill, not a personality.
World War Z isn’t about characters. It’s a visual effects reel, and a showcase for Forster to say, “Look! I can do action movies!” The behind-the-scenes production problems and the attempts to fix them haven’t yielded a mess, but instead the exact opposite: a clean, empty space. It’s a movie that may take place on a global stage, but the world lacks definition. With no world and no war, all that’s left is the “Z”, which can stand for zombies or what you catch when you’re sleeping.