It’s the zombie apocalypse. Again. Based on the apocalyptic horror novel of the same name by Max Brooks, World War Z follows retired UN investigator Gary Lane (Brad Pitt) who is forced to leave his family when he is pulled back into service after a new pandemic quickly begins turning the majority of human beings on the planet into a never-ending wave of zombies.
Brooks’ novel has been praised for using the subject of a zombie apocalypse to delve into serious themes such as the problems of American isolationism, corporate corruption, government bureaucracy, and the uncertainty of the modern world. Given a PG-13 rating and an under two-hour running time, the movie isn’t quite so ambitious.
The film introduces us to Lane, his wife (Mireille Enos), and two daughters (Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) the morning before the worldwide outbreak which traps them in the middle of Philadelphia. Given his experience and skill set uniquely suited to the type of nightmare scenario the world finds itself in, and old friend (Fana Mokoena) agrees to airlift Lane and his family out of danger, but only if he returns to work.
World War Z is very much an action thriller, but I’ll give credit the cast and to director Marc Forster and its various screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof) for giving the movie the kind of dramatic weight you don’t usually find in zombie flicks. The film also builds up the tension of Lane’s nearly always precarious position and offers usually effective (and even, once or twice, surprising) payoffs.
Although they are presented as nothing more than your typical mindless brutes, the film does have fun with its zombies by providing humorous examples of their behavior (such as one zombie continually walking into a wall, oblivious of what it is doing wrong) as well as massive CGI action shots where wave after wave of the infected undead literally crawl over themselves looking for new hosts to infect with their disease. It’s not really scary, but the scale of it is certainly impressive.
Pitt (along with the various zombies) carries the film pretty much on his own. There are, however, a couple of supporting roles worth mentioning. Everything about Elyes Gabel‘s brilliant young scientist sent along with Lane’s team to find the source of the disease is entertaining, up to, and including, the character’s all too early departure from the main story. Daniella Kertesz gives a strong performance as an Israeli soldier who Lane saves from the zombie hordes, and I also quite enjoyed Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, and Ruth Negga as scientists who show up late in the film to help Lane with his unorthodox plan of survival.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have some issues. The number of obstacles Lane and his compatriots have to overcome (and the number who throw away their own lives to help them) is pretty ridiculous. I’m not sure I buy the Navy sending its extremely limited resources to save Lane and his family, no matter how much of a bad ass his friend thinks he is (especially, as we learn later, how limited the man’s pull actually is). Lane’s big discovery also feels rushed, given the condensed time period.
World War Z isn’t a great film and fans of the original novel may feel cheated that most of the author’s more political statements didn’t make it into the film’s final draft. (Hollywood has been trying to adapt the movie since 2008.) For a contagion-style zombie story, however, it is engaging and entertaining. In a year that’s already given us a fun zombie love story, World War Z also offers a big budget adventure that is certainly made with more care than most of its genre.