The Zombies Themselves
It’s strange that as much reinvention and unique takes the zombie genre has received as a whole over the past few years, the actual undead themselves have remained relatively untouched. For the most part, they still attack humans (fortunately going after "brains" seems like a dropped trope), getting bitten by one is an (un)death sentence and in many contemporary versions, they move really, really fast. And so it is with “World War Z,” which presents the zombies as more plague carrying threats who move at a seemingly unhuman like speed and like flocks of terrorizing birds or schools of insane fish. And to the filmmakers’ credit, they do get some potent and frightening imagery from the sheer mass of moving zombies, sometimes being unleashed like a tsunami threatening to end humanity as a whole. But unfortunately they are also a rather indistinct, familiar enemy that even as the characters in the movie try and figure out what they are, the audience is already well versed with. Being truly scared means becoming confronted with something unexpected, and perhaps beyond your imagination, but “World War Z” is content with relying on the zombies audiences know, rather than pushing things one step forward, and making up their own unique rulebook.
It’s commonly been said that a movie is made three times: once in the script, another time while it’s filming and then finally when it’s being edited. And by all accounts, “World War Z” was made six times, given the extensive overhauling the script and finale had during its very public restructuring, and thus it’s hardly a surprise that the movie isn’t always sure of what it wants to be. For the most part, the picture does hew to its “Zombie Dark Thirty” aspirations, going for a procedural thriller motif, shot almost like a documentary with Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane traversing the globe looking for an impossible cure. But every now and then it seems like producers reminded the filmmakers they needed some action beats too, leading to sequences like the nighttime/rainsoaked zombie attack as a plane is reloaded with fuel in South Korea. And even in the otherwise solid Israel sequence, the zombie takeover becomes an excuse for massive gunfire and swarms of crowds running in all directions. This imbalance isn’t a dealbreaker per se, but it’s the first of a handful of seams that show quite clearly in a movie that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be from the outset.
Again, perhaps there were more shades of grey to Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane in the original drafts of the script, but in the finished product, he’s nearly indestructible. While the screenwriters take pains to establish that he’s left his previous U.N. duties after being emotionally and psychically scarred by what he’s seen in civil conflicts around the world, opting instead to be a stay-at-home Dad, it seems nothing that’s happening with zombie plague poses a problem. While Gerry has his arm twisted to get back on duty, the horrors of what he sees not only out in the world, but on the streets of Philadelphia, have almost no effect on his ability to take the lead and kick some ass (when he's wandering around, looking at stuff and taking phone calls). But it’s not just spiritual wounds that Gerry survives, it's physical ones too -- a big chunk of airplane shrapnel through his torso barely hinders his ability to walk to the World Health Organization and get patched up (that he even survives the plane crash when almost everyone else dies is a bit ridiculous). And not long after that, he’s playing Russian roulette with the world’s deadliest diseases and manages to survive with barely a sniffle. Gerry’s journey is one that’s certainly fraught, but his seeming ability to continually survive each escalating disaster diminishes the triumph that should be felt when he finally returns to his family, with the future of world on the path to recovery. However, you gotta hand it to Pitt and his skill as an actor that despite of all this, Gerry still remains a compelling character to follow, if only because he sells his dedication to the cause with natural ease and relatable emotion.
Director Marc Forster's last action outing, the Bond romp "Quantum of Solace," was largely defined by an incoherent, blurry muddle of action set pieces in which spatial geography and narrative clarity were thrown out the window, in an attempt to create a kinetic, "Bourne"-type immediacy. The results were often confusing, nauseatingly so, and besides a couple of well-choreographed fight sequences, the movie was a disorienting muddle. The action in "World War Z" is cleaner and more precise, but often times things become a jumble – especially in a sequence when Pitt and his family are trying to escape an infested apartment building in Newark. The way Forster chooses to shoot the stairwell is to just throw the camera around a bunch and hope that something (anything) catches the light. The Israel sequence, as mentioned above, is masterful, but too often you can feel when Forster pulled his punches and while his frantic camerawork does much to emphasize the intensity of the situation, there are still moments where we'd love to actually see what's going on. This is made worse by a truly atrocious 3D post-conversion job that was worse than unnecessary - it actively takes away from the experience of watching the film, making dark scenes even dimmer and more unfocused.