Review: 'World War Z' Starring Brad Pitt

Reviews
by Oliver Lyttelton
June 7, 2013 8:56 AM
23 Comments
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"World War Z" was always going to be a difficult nut to crack. The book of the same name, by son-of-Mel Max Brooks, was a bestseller a few years back, and a somewhat atypical one; a brainy, grim faux oral history of a zombie apocalypse that wiped out most of the world's population. It made enough of a dent in pop culture to warrant a movie adaptation, but it wasn't going to be an easy translation with no main character and a documentary-like format. So it's no surprise that the film was several years in development, and that even once filming got underway, it had one of the more publicly troubled shoots in memory, with reports flying of budget overages, script triage and extensive pick ups.

None of these should necessarily preclude the finished film turning out to be an effective blockbuster. And indeed, anyone going into "World War Z" expecting a trainwreck for the ages is going to be left wanting; the film can be engaging, well-made, and even a touch more interesting than it has much right to be. But it's also far from a satisfying work as a whole, with a number of crippling script issues that no third-act rewrite could have saved and an uneven tone that prevents it from becoming the definitive zombie picture it hopes to become.

The plot -- mostly new, with a few scenes or set pieces borrowed from the source material -- sees star Brad Pitt play Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator now retired, a seemingly happy stay-at-home dad with wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and daughters Rachel and Constance (Abigail Hargrove and Sterling Jerins). But a happy family day out is brutally interrupted when there's an outbreak of...something. Something that turns out to be zombies (the film doesn't pussy-foot around the word, gratifyingly), which are soon busy tearing civilization apart. The Lanes are evacuated to a UN aircraft carrier, but their places are dependent on Gerry assisting with the investigation into the cause -- and with any luck, the cure -- to the undead plague, a job that will take him everywhere from Korea to Israel.

And as it might sound, "World War Z" is not hanging around when it comes to its narrative; we get one brief introductory scene with the Lanes and then it's straight into the thick of the action. There's a degree to which this breathlessness works to the film's favor. It's a rough analogy of the kind of panic, and the kind of no-nonsense survival instincts that would likely take over were Z-Day to actually happen. And there's occasionally an admirable storytelling shorthand from director Marc Forster -- glimpses of priceless works of art being loaded onto boats and nuclear mushroom clouds out of plane windows give a rich and rounded sense of a wider world (ending) outside the edges of the frame. It's hard to get bored when the film's moving at such a relentless pace.

That said, it's hard to really care about events either. Because the plot is constantly and relentlessly driving forward, the movie never quite takes stock and considers what's been lost. Everyone's all business, and it somehow means that the stakes are never that high. There's all kinds of destruction, but the human cost isn't dwelled on, and more specifically, we never have time to care about our central character.

Pitt's Gerry is virtually at the center of a one-man show; few supporting characters beyond Enos, Fana Mokoena's UN higher-up and Daniella Kertesz's Israeli soldier get more than a couple of scenes, and it's rare that the picture cuts away from Pitt at all. But, in a rarity for a star who's always been a character actor as much a leading man, there simply isn't anything to Gerry. It's not that Pitt is bad, it's that because we have so little time with him before the shit hits the fan and because he's given so little shading throughout, Gerry comes across as a cypher. Even when things take a breather in the third act -- which becomes an enclosed, clearly budget-cut chamber piece that's closer to an episode of "The Walking Dead" than the giant scope we've seen before -- we're not any clearer to understanding who he actually is as a person.

In fact, it's worse than just him being a cypher. He's perfect: a great dad, a great husband, a great investigator, and a great zombie-killer, a blend of Ash, Sherlock Holmes and the subject of a Cosmo photo shoot. In a summer with Iron Man, Superman and Wolverine, Gerry Lane is the most superheroic of them all, not just because he can survive zombie swarms and plane crashes relatively unscathed, but because he doesn't have any flaws. And that's simply not a very compelling subject to follow throughout a movie.

That's carried through to the rest of the supporting cast too, few of whom are properly sketched out. Be it Enos reprising her thankless wife role from "Gangster Squad," to Ludi Boeken as an exposition-dumping Mossad agent, to Peter Capaldi and Ruth Negga as scientists so thankless they're literally credited as Scientists despite being central to the third act, most of the players that crop up on Pitt's travels are perfunctory at best (to say nothing of Matthew Fox, inexplicably fifth-billed in a part that's not so much a cameo as a day-player gig -- presumably he has more left on the cutting room floor). The lone memorable turn, beyond David Morse virtually chewing his way through prison bars as a Kurtz-like CIA crackpot, comes from James Badge Dale, successfully stealing the show in his second successive summer showpiece after his standout turn in "Iron Man 3."

Despite all of this, "World War Z" does work in fits and starts. It looks great, courtesy of Michael Bay regular Ben Seresin as DoP. The action is mostly well-executed, Forster having come on leaps and bounds since the poorly-put-together sequences in "Quantum Of Solace" (the cutting does occasionally lapse into incoherence, but one suspects it's more out of a need to get its compromised PG-13 rating than anything else). There are a number of smart moments and reversals that hint at the defining zombie flick it could have been. And it even has something going on upstairs too; some of the book's geopolitics have made it across, from the glancing references to how North Korea and Israel are surviving the crisis, to subtexts about overpopulation and famine.

But it can't quite balance these more thoughtful aspects with the flash-bang of a blockbuster. On one hand, it wants to be "Zombie Dark Thirty" -- a no-nonsense procedural showing the zombie apocalypse as it would happen in the real world. On the other, it's a for-the-cheap-seats would-be-blockbuster with CGI swarms of the undead, and a plane crash sequence that features the three stupidest things we've seen in a movie in at least a year. (You'll know them when you see them...)

And the two things make a decidedly uneasy partnership on screen. As has been with the trend with tentpoles this summer, "World War Z" isn't truly bad; it's competently made and has enough memorable moments or scenes to make you walk out feeling like you weren't cheated out of the ticket price. For all the hand-wringing over the production and its delays, it'll likely do pretty well, box-office-wise. But it also isn't good enough to linger long in the imagination either, and given the way the ending leaves the door not so much wide open as off the hinges for a sequel, that probably wasn't the ideal result either. [C+]


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23 Comments

  • slobyskya rotchikokov | October 18, 2013 7:57 AMReply

    Had some exciting moments but agreed, Pitt played his role with the excitement of Ben Affleck on sedatives, the hairstyle was reminiscent of a Gevalia ad and frankly, the idea that the Israelis would build a wall without observation towers, razor or concertina wire and flamethrowers to repel the 'human wave' attacks was quite incredible.

  • Joe | June 22, 2013 12:38 PMReply

    Good review. Nailed the flaws of Pitt's totally blase character. There was a strange numbness to this movie- how was nobody freaking out? Crying? A complete mess? Considering that billions of people were dying, I expected a little more remorse and appreciation of the stakes.

    Also, agree that the plane scene was pretty ridiculous, but can anyone tell me what the "three stupidest things" are?

  • chris | June 22, 2013 10:15 AMReply

    I AM MAD AS HELL!
    I have just seen the worst adaptation of a book to a movie ever!
    World War Z (the book) is a fantastic "this could be the bible of the zombie genre period" story of which the film adaptation only shares the name...NOTHING ELSE.
    First sign that this movie was going to be abysmally bad, it's PG13 now let's think about this for a moment. a movie based on a book about a WORLDWIDE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE that doesn't have a single drop of blood in it! not one!
    the animated children's movie Paranorman had more gore!
    Now i was willing to go into WWZ expecting changes to the book because the scope of the book is huge!
    the book takes on geopolitical politics, classism, the ignorance of armchair generals and politicians who refuse to believe the threat they are facing till its too late mixed with stories of genuine heroism around the world. The movie has none of this. I just don't get how Hollywood can take a property and totally ignore what made that property fantastic!
    the sad part is this movie will probably make a shitload of money thanks to its multimillion dollar marketing blitzkrieg and since most of the audience won't actually read the book no one will feel the pain I felt while watching this movie. And even sadder is that there was an opportunity to elevate the zombie genre to a whole new plateau.
    to MAX BROOKS i hope they cut you a huge enough check to deal with the loyal fans of your work who are heartbroken at Hollywood's bastardization of your masterpiece.
    side note: anytime a big time directors (not of the movie in question) comments are used to help market the film know that its gonna be shit (in this case Darren Aronofsky's tweets about WWZ scaring the living heck outta him.) watching this movie I was too angry otherwise i would have went to sleep on WORLD WAR Z zzzzzzzzz.
    Oh well i guess ill have to wait for the next season of The Walking Dead to get my proper zombie fix.
    FIN.

  • Duracell Bunny | June 24, 2013 7:28 AM

    World War Z is not a fantastic book, it's popular. And also, it's incredibly irritating - borderline offensive in it's politics. It endlessly celebrates american individualism and military industrial might. Israel is heroic, the Palestinians learn to love them, Iran gets nuked, the Germans reveal Nazi traits, the Russians are barbarians, Cuba becomes capitalist, and China gets democracy!!! The US president even gets to give a speech that unites everyone! Hooray.
    This is adolescent US wish fulfillment stuff. The writing is poor too, with every voice sounding the same, obviously a problem in a "oral history".
    A useless book, the film works much better as a film than the book works as a book.

  • LeeGriffo | June 22, 2013 10:07 AMReply

    Excellent review. My first time here. I have been looking for my new favorite reviewer and it might be you. Great attention to detail and you seem to share my sensibilities about a film committing to a level of suspension of disbelief and sticking to it. The plane crash tipped into incredulity and took my head out of the story, which made me angry because I was immersed up to that point. Great read on Pitt's banal character. Will Smith would have made this a different move. Then again, he did--"I am Legend."

  • Nellie Blosser | June 10, 2013 10:12 AMReply

    like

  • Tedd | June 8, 2013 1:59 AMReply

    Just so you know, RottenTomatoes has decided this was a "fresh" review from you. I'd imagine you disagree.

  • Eric | June 8, 2013 4:06 PM

    I disagree with what you imagine. It sounded like a good film to me. C+ is a passing grade in my book.

  • Matt | June 7, 2013 12:09 PMReply

    Haven't read the article yet, but I just wanted to say thanks for the change-over to titling reviews in this generic way, rather than titling them with a little summation of the content of the review.

  • Arch | June 7, 2013 2:06 PM

    Agreed.

  • Alex | June 7, 2013 11:20 AMReply

    Imagine if Kathryn Bigelow actually directed this instead of Marc Forster. Would be incredible.

  • a guy named joe | June 7, 2013 10:57 AMReply

    Really good review. Great analysis on what works and what doesn't, without become a sociology paper. Doesn't give anything away in terms of plot and surprises. Final film grade (C+) seems to match the content and tone of the review. Would love to read more reviews of this calibre.

  • Alex | June 7, 2013 10:49 AMReply

    Wasn't Robert Richardson doing cinematography for this? Did they shoot that much new footage without him that he didn't even get credit or did he read the signs better than everybody else and drop out before they started filming?

  • Kevin | June 7, 2013 3:24 PM

    Richardson was in fact the original DoP. He was replaced by Newton Thomas Sigel, at some point, when he had to shoot "Django ...". My understanding is that Seresin came on-board to do the re-shoots. I seem to recall an article from some time back where Richardson was unhappy with the difficulties of production and asked (on more than one occasion) to be let go. It's entirely possible he requested his name be removed from it. He has three Oscars already, so such a move isn't likely to affect his career one way or another, y'know ...?

  • CB | June 7, 2013 9:43 AMReply

    Why have you moved away from your distinctive headlines?

  • RP | June 7, 2013 10:48 AM

    We wanna try something different.

  • PRESIDENT MAO | June 7, 2013 9:43 AMReply

    So Damon Lindelof has managed to fuck another summer blockbuster his messy rewrite for the script of Prometheus...

  • JEFTCG | June 7, 2013 3:16 PM

    Whoa whoa whoa hold on a second here-- LINDELOF is involved with this pic??

    AVOID.

  • kitcon | June 7, 2013 9:13 AMReply

    "it wants to be "Zombie Dark Thirty"' -- you nailed it.

  • Donella | June 16, 2013 1:02 AM

    Love it!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 7, 2013 11:14 AM

    I laughed.

  • Mr Anonymous | June 7, 2013 9:07 AMReply

    Oh, forgot to mention nice to see praise for the very under-rated James Badge Dale. He was fantastic in Iron Man 3, glad to see he's just as good in this. Deserves any and all acclaim he gets, amazing actor.

  • Mr Anonymous | June 7, 2013 9:06 AMReply

    First! :D Only joking!

    So not bad, but not great either. Worth a watch either way. Can't be worse than After Earth!

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